Spanning 115 square miles, the Maldives ranks as the tenth-smallest country in the world. As such, this conglomerate nation of some 2000 islands may seem inconsequential or even dismissible to some more calloused observers. Jon Shenk's documentary The Island President, however, makes an emotionally overwhelming case for the country's vitality, filtered through the eyes of one visionary Maldivian leader who mounted an incredible campaign against climate change.
The film profiles Democratic Party member Mohamed Nasheed during his headline-making tenure as the country's fourth president from November 2008 through January 2012. The documentary briefly touches on Nasheed's history as a tortured political dissident before chronicling major events from the first year of his term. Above all else, it shows how Nasheed brought the world's attention to an environmental horror: The Maldives is now on the verge of drowning thanks to global warming, which continues to raise sea levels every year. The events of the film ultimately lead up to the 2009 UN Conference on Global Climate Change, a gathering that produced the first transnational consensus on the reduction of carbon emissions. At this point, the Maldives -- and by extension, the world -- seemed to be on the cusp of environmental rescue, thanks in no small part to Nasheed's efforts. The agreement, however, didn't accomplish much: The original goal of the summit involved forcing various countries to cap their emissions, and several nations refused to comply with that approach, agreeing only to a limp, unenforceable promise that they would encourage their countries to cut back on carbon in the years ahead. (A title card at the end informs us that in the years immediately following the summit, carbon emissions dramatically escalated among developed nations, including China and the U.S.)
The film's approach, both conceptually and technically, involves basically limiting its perspective to that of Nasheed and his experiences. This is both a tremendous asset and a slight liability. It's a strength in the sense that it makes palpable for the audience the passion that this amiable man feels for his country and his culture; at times, he grows so emotional that his voice breaks. He reminds his listeners that not only will the Maldives cease to exist, but the same plight, if left unchecked, could easily destroy coastal metropolises such as New York City, which lies at the same elevation as Mali. The technical approach of the movie also helps strengthen the filmmaker's underdog perspective: Shenk frequently uses a mobile Steadicam to get across the immediacy of Nasheed's day-to-day experiences, and he conveys Nasheed's adoration of the Maldives by lingering on the country's sandy beaches, coral reefs, and paradisiacal waters of emerald blue and sapphire green -- making the picture as sensually pleasant as it is disturbing and thought-provoking.
For all of these reasons, it may have been impossible to find a more effective way to tell this chronicle than to step into Nasheed's shoes. And yet, paradoxically, the film's one weakness also arises from this limitation. By virtue of its lack of interest in looking beyond Nasheed's perspective, the battle becomes a touch too one-sided, too black-and-white, especially once the documentary reaches the UN summit. Likely because Nasheed didn't have the inside track on the opposition, the film remains as unclear as he apparently is on the arguments made by those countries objecting to the climate-change bill. We do hear surface-level refusals uttered by Venezuela, China, and others, and in a sense, these sound bites call attention to the movie's failure to document the counterarguments at length. Most inexplicable is the documentary's reluctance to even acknowledge the intransigence of the U.S. administration toward changing its carbon-admission policies -- even though Hillary Clinton (and at one point, Barack Obama) fleetingly appear on camera.
Fortunately, though, these are not serious lapses. And although they may raise broader questions regarding the minutiae of global eco-politics, they don't detract from everything that the film accomplishes. Above all else, it succeeds at etching out a profile of a remarkable political leader driven by such courage, fortitude, and strength that he helped bring to the world's attention the existence of a looming global catastrophe. One only hopes that the documentary will help advance Nasheed's mission and inspire others to join arms out of shared ecological concern. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi