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"The Island President" and the Maldives Coup: Ground Zero for Climate Change & Human Rights

By       Message Jennifer Epps     Permalink
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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.)

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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...


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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.

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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