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.