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 topical.
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 350.org, 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 350.org) 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.
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