The Island President (2011)

Posted: May 2, 2012 in Jennifer Epps
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“The Island President” and the Maldives Coup: Ground Zero for Climate Change & Human Rights

by Jennifer Epps 

Watching The Island President, an environmentalist documentary that is also an inspiring biography of a unique national leader — the Maldives’ first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Nasheed — it is painful to be reminded that the Copenhagen climate change conference at the film’s climax was not only inconclusive, but happened more than 2 years ago. Since then, the UN Climate Conferences in Cancun and Durban have inched us closer to international co-operation on global warming, yet still have not produced a binding agreement to make cuts to carbon emissions. But The Island President, winner of the 2011 People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Toronto Film Festival, makes a vital contribution to the struggle for hearts and minds on the most serious dilemma of our time.

Director Jon Shenk (co-director of the award-winning doc The Lost Boys of Sudan) shot 200 hours of film of President Nasheed’s first year in office as Nasheed campaigned to secure a future for the Maldives, a virtually sea-level nation of atolls in the Indian Ocean which will be completely wiped out by global warming. It obviously took some time to construct a narrative out of the intimate and engaging  footage. But Shenk and his editor have succeeded in assembling a fascinating portrait of a pioneering administration and a historic mission to rescue the lowest country on earth — and although The Island President  depicts events from 2009, the film couldn’t be more

The documentary is urgently needed because, first of all, the story of how the remarkable figure at the center of this film came to power in the Maldives is an inspiring tale of a courageous people’s non-violent resistance against oppression. As an activist, Nasheed and a massive pro-democracy movement used Mahatma Gandhi’s tactics to topple the brutal dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, resulting in 2008 in the country’s first multi-party elections, a peaceful revolution that the American environmental leader Bill McKibben calls a “precursor of the Arab Spring”. Secondly, the next U.N. climate change conference starts in  about two weeks in Bonn, Germany, and the deadline to achieve concrete progress is now.  Though climate change is not expected to hit with full-force for decades, we are almost upon the “Tipping Point’ — a point of carbon saturation that will, if nothing is done before then, create its own self-generating momentum and override cuts in CO2 emissions going forward. The climate “tipping point’ is now estimated to be the year 2017.

Thirdly, we’re in an election year in the U.S., and the well-funded climate change deniers have gained ground — thank you very much, corporate media. (Part of this is due to how the Republican primary season has dominated coverage. For example, an 8-month Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study of the four TV network Sunday morning talk shows, released April 12th, found that Republicans accounted for 62% of partisan roundtable guests and 70% of partisan one-on-one interviews.)

And fourthly, the documentary is desperately needed because on February 7th, just a few weeks before its release, a military and police  coup in the Maldives abruptly yanked Nasheed from his elected post and replaced him with the former dictator’s allies.

Nasheed, his country, and his work are in serious jeopardy. Nasheed’s enemies are trying to throw him in prison, or worse. (Nashed has
expressed fear for his safety and has claimed that the new president tried to kill him.) Repression has returned to the islands. And Nasheed’s successor isn’t much interested in the climate change issue, even though global  warming will certainly submerge the 1200-island Maldives. Though it could take half a century for the sea to inundate the nation, along the way there will be  destructive hurricanes (the 2004 tsunami itself washed away about 30 of the islands); fresh drinking water will become contaminated and require expensive desalination efforts; and more and more of the country’s resources will have to be diverted away from health care, education, and other necessities — quite possibly creating a vicious cycle that will fuel anti-democratic factions.

Now, it’s important to know that Nasheed is often called “the Mandela of the Maldives.” He was such a force for human rights and democracy that as a journalist and activist he was repeatedly arrested and tortured, and was imprisoned for years, by the previous Gayoom regime. By contrast, his own presidency was notable for its transparency and respect for civil liberties. His 2008 election and various subsequent elections have been judged by American and other international monitors as fair and legitimate. So naturally, when he was overthrown this year, Washington came out on the side that deposed him.

Within a day, the U.S. State Department declared that “coup” wasn’t the right word, and that the transfer of power had been “handled constitutionally” — while politely demurring that it was a bit early to say. When the State Dept. did go on a fact-finding mission, they met with only the new coup regime. Consequently, they brought back the comforting news that the nice usurpers intended to work with all parties, and there’s nothing to worry about, folks. Nasheed, who as the movie shows often has a fresh and down-to-earth way of putting things, complained that the U.S. “could have held onto their horses for a few minutes and just asked me.”

Instead, the Obama Administration ignored Nasheed’s claims that he had been removed at gunpoint and under threat of political violence, that he had signed the resignation letter under duress — and to protect his people from armed attack. Instead,
the State Dept emissaries to the Maldives managed to miss thousands of citizens demonstrating in the streets for the reinstatement of their elected leader, as well as the recurring large protests in the following weeks — even though mass demonstrations are especially impressive in a total population of only 328,000. (The day after the coup, according to the documentary’s producer Richard Berge, 10,000 hit the streets in protest — in a city of 90,000.) But the U.S even discouraged the scheduling of any elections anytime soon.

Washington’s attitude will not be a surprise to those who know the history of American foreign policy, or to those aware of the Obama  Administration’s support for the coup in Honduras, for the coup attempt in Ecuador, and for the suppression of democratic movements in the Arab Spring by certain Middle Eastern despots. Nasheed himself sounded surprised, though, in a Democracy Now interview after the coup, that the U.S. had “acted so swiftly in recognizing the new regime” — given the fact that for three years his government had “worked very closely with American ideals, with democracy.” He exclaimed that “it’s deeply, deeply disturbing that your government has not been able to understand what was happening in the Maldives.” But the U.S. government probably understood quite well what was happening in the Maldives; the quality of human rights there probably not being their priority. (After all, they had tolerated the existence of Gayoom’s cruel regime just fine for 30 years.)

Bill McKibben, the founder of the green international coalition, sampled both Gayoom’s “thugocracy” 20 years ago and the country under Nasheed more recently, and he asserts that the capital “during the Nasheed years was a very different place: open, vibrant, alive, democratic, humming with people trying to make a difference in the world.” However, what seems to have mattered more to major carbon polluters India and the U.S., both of which immediately stated their support for the coup regime in Feb., was that Nasheed was “the most outspoken head of state around the issue of climate change on our planet.” Nasheed’s morally compelling campaign to save his nation (and thus the world) from environmental catastrophe was “a thorn in their side”, as McKibben phrased it. In other words, the U.S. and India are not just dragging their feet on action over climate change, but deliberately thwarting it when they can.

The Island President was completed before the coup took place, and does not cover it. But if there were any doubt that documentaries can effect change, the film is proof in the affirmative, as it has already pulled off its own kind of coup. When The Island President  opened in N.Y.C., ousted president Nasheed came to town and appeared on The Daily Show  and on Late Night with David Letterman. The
national exposure (and 30,000 names on a petition organized by led U.S. State Department officials to meet with the deposed leader, two months after the coup. Since then the U.S. has, according to film producer Berge, committed $500,000 toward “capacity building’ for new elections in the Maldives. Given that the populace there seems solidly behind Nasheed (demonstrations against him couldn’t muster more than a few hundred participants while his supporters have persistently poured into the streets in the face of state violence), elections could conceivably restore Nasheed to office. Yet Nasheed has told the media that “It doesn’t matter who wins”; that the point isn’t necessarily to bring back his government, but to make sure that whoever is in charge of the Maldives is “an elected government, not a government formed by brute force.”

Jon Shenk’s documentary makes the case that Nasheed is an extraordinary leader, and even without coverage of the coup, anyone who sees the film is likely to conclude that the Maldives desperately needs Nasheed back  in charge. Though it is not unusual for films about political campaigns to make the figures they document look noble — for example, Bill Clinton in The War Room, Cory Booker in Street Fight — this movie goes much further because its protagonist had already completed a heroic and self-sacrificing journey before the period at hand. Interviews and archival footage cover his previous trajectory from outspoken journalist to exiled opposition party leader to head of a state newly-freed from oppression. Once elected president, Nasheed, who holds a B.A. in Maritime Studies, quickly moved into climate crusader mode, and the filmmakers capture fly-on-the-wall footage of his rookie government campaigning full-force for a climate pact among world leaders. Despite Nasheed’s Mandela-like history of opposition to an unjust regime, it is here that his true heroism shines the brightest, since the odds that he is up against are so monumental — and the matter at stake so universal.

The Island President is a well-made documentary with unprecedented behind-the-scenes footage of a national leader and his cabinet — including back-alley strategy discussions at the Copenhagen conference. (Like Obama, Nasheed has been a smoker.) It is also a thought-provoking film which ripples outward far beyond its running time. Crucially, it is likely to make one think about the fact that climate change will especially devastate regions of the world that have already suffered for centuries from conquest, colonialism, exploitation of their resources, war, oppressive political systems, and other calamities. Under global warming, nature will rampage most ferociously against the already vulnerable and further entrench the prosperity divide of the world — a divide that is not entirely hemispheric but does to a very great extent follow racial lines.

This is a key concept for those of us in America, where we see that racist hate groups have multiplied; Obama’s presidency has received an unprecedented number of death threats; it is the 20-year anniversary of the acquittal of Rodney King’s assailants; there continue to be patterns of killings by those with authority of unarmed Black men like Trayvon Martin (17), Oscar Grant (22), Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. (68), Darrin Hanna (45), and Kendrec McDade (19); and this summer will mark the seven-year anniversary of 1800 deaths that befell a 67% Black city in Louisiana when government abandoned its residents to a hurricane. When there is still such overt racism within the U.S. itself, it’s surely not a coincidence that U.S. policy can show such disregard for the future — and current — plight of those in the Global South devastated by global warming. (There are already 350,000 deaths worldwide each year due to the effects of climate change, and that number will have doubled by the end of the decade.)

One can observe a similarity in the logic and tone of online comments by those who deny that the earth is heating up from human activity, and those who deny that it’s perfectly legal for a Black teenage boy to walk home from the store in a gated neighborhood. This may coincide with the widespread paranoia on the Libertarian-leaning right over proposals to curb climate change — fears that such measures will destroy American sovereignty and create a One-World Government run by the U.N. (it would have to be the U.N. on  Opposite Day, not the current U.S.-dominated United Nations, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to them). The paranoia can be incomprehensible until one realizes that what may bother them the most is the notion of people of brown, black, and other hues having just as much say in the planet’s patterns of consumption as their northern white brethren.

But The Island President  is a potent antidote to this kind of myopia. It gets up close and personal with those who will be deep fried by a hot Earth. The film makes tangible, without getting into technical exposition, the direct impact of a rising sea on the bucolic fishing and tourist-based Maldives. It gives us people to care about, people whose island homes we can see being washed away  bit by bit throughout the movie — and this creates an inherent “ticking clock’ far more suspenseful than any Hollywood plot contrivance.

The film also gives these islanders a defender who speaks up for them — a Muslim who was educated in Britain and whose government was trying to achieve a moderate Islamic society before the coup gave power to a fundamentalist faction; a visionary who comes from that rare thing, a Muslim country without a history of direct Western imperialist subjugation. (That is, if you put aside the Obama Administration’s siding with the coup plotters. Fortunately, Europe broke with the imperialist paradigm, and refused to recognize Nasheed’s replacement as the Maldives president.) If only one could find a way to get anti-green  right-wingers to watch this movie, not least of which for the scene in which Nasheed tries to talk the Indian emissary into agreeing to carbon emission  cuts: both of them aver, remarkably calmly considering what’s at stake, that the Americans really don’t get that this is about the end of the world.

Shenk’s documentary unspools in a traditional way and makes no radical pronouncements, but its content is so strong and its linking of  basic democratic struggles with environmental concerns so striking that it becomes a powerful argument to get out into the streets to save the planet; to get vocal and creative. A high point of the movie is the wonderful agit-prop that Nasheed’s government pulled off to draw the world’s attention to the Maldives’ precarious position: the brilliant photo op of an underwater cabinet meeting held in Oct. 2009 by his actual ministers seated at real tables on the floor of a lagoon 5m below the surface.  This cabinet, the world’s first to be held underwater, instantly conveyed the message of what could happen to the Maldives — and during the meeting they passed around and signed a waterproofed document to restrict carbon emissions. The scuba-diving stunt illustrates the kind of outside-the-box boldness a leader can deliver if his heart is with activism and street theater. (At an L.A. screening ,  editor Pedro Kos confided  that the filmmakers had no behind-the-scenes footage of how this event was planned and staged, only the newsreel footage he included in the film. This is perhaps the film’s one lamentable oversight.)

It is of course no wonder that Nasheed’s speech at a climate defenders’ rally in Copenhagen, captured in the film, was thunderously well-received. His diplomatic work was of apiece with his trial-by-fire civil disobedience a few years prior. And so he joins a chain of people throwing their bodies upon the gears of the machine on behalf of the planet, in instances of direct action like: the March blockade of a convoy of Keystone XL pipeline trucks by 75 members of the Lakota tribe; the arrests a few months ago of 1200+ in D.C. protesting the pipeline; the intervention at coal mining sites by adventurous young tree-sitters and their peers; and the international street protests waged at U.N. climate change conferences in the face of militaristic police onslaughts.

Nasheed seems squarely on the side of people like these, and even after three years as president, still doesn’t sound like a regular politician. On April 2nd, Nasheed told Jon Stewart that he considered the 2009 Copenhagen conference “a victory. For the first time the United States, China, India, Brazil, big emitting countries, agreed to limit their carbon emissions. They were not able to agree on the amounts of it, but they were able to agree on the principle of limiting it.” At the same time that this unique leader struck a note of hope, his call to action was clear: “I’m afraid politicians only do the things that their people tell them to do.”

There is no doubt that the situation on the planet has reached a point where issues of human rights and environmental protection have now merged. The Island President  is an incredibly valuable document because it fully illustrates that intersection. The film is a must-see not only to galvanize support for the restoration of democracy in Maldives, but to inspire further street activism about climate change here and abroad at this all-important moment. Tick tick tick tick tick tick…



An international petition for early elections in the Maldives is up on Avaaz. Updates on the situation can be found at the website of the British-based Friends of the Maldives. The non-profit organization is urging tourists headed to the islands to shun rich resort businesses it accuses of having funded the coup against Nasheed.

The Island President is currently playing in Detroit, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. It has screened in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; a schedule of upcoming showings can be found at

Jennifer Epps is an environmentalist and a peace, social justice, and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, film producer, actor, puppeteer, and film critic.

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