The Hilton LightStay Sustainability Award, part of a programme in association with the Sundance Institute, is given to films that heighten sustainability awareness.
And they could not have picked a better candidate than The Island President.
Whilst the film as an extremely one-sided case will do nothing to convince the conspiracy theorists who do not believe in climate change (although I’ve yet to see anyone make a convincing argument as to just why ‘they’ are lying to us on this one) this is a documentary that is more about a man who very much does believe, and his battle to have the world agree and act accordingly.
That man would be Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, former president of the Maldives (he was ousted earlier this year following a military coup). And as we come to learn, he’s quite the extraordinary chap. But The Island President‘s raison d’être is Nasheed’s fight against climate change and thus, past the usual news clips—this time of the UN’s climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, the event to which this documentary will culminate—we open with his visit to inspect erosion on one of the islands.
The locals state that they have seen 300 feet of land disappear, with the loss of 57 palm trees. At this point you may question whether Nasheed would usually inspect such reports himself or if his presence is merely PR; regardless, the last shot of this segment is telling. He is silent, looking helpless and bewildered.
The Maldives are known to the rest of the world as an idyllic holiday spot, whereas the everyday reality is growing deadly, and director Jon Shenk does a wonderful job of capturing the islands’ vulnerability via aerial shots that show densely populated areas that appear to go right to the edge of the sea.
Nasheed informs us the Maldives is just one-and-a-half metres above sea level, but it is this imagery that really hammers the point home, that the area is in danger.
The Island President follows Nasheed in what is his first year of office—albeit solely with regards to his work on climate change—having come to presidency via a 20-year pro-democracy battle against the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Reluctant to speak of the inevitable arrests and torture endured, he is completely focused on the country’s predicament, stating that climate change was clearly the Maldives’ primary issue when he entered office, the impact already being felt, fishing boats bringing in half a ton per trip compared to the usual three.
Thus, Nasheed announced his intention for the Maldives to become the world’s first carbon neutral country. We witness the preparation of his case for the aforementioned conference and his drumming up of awareness via international press appearances.
A meeting with Gary Streeter, Conservative MP, is amusing. “Supporting democracy in an Islamic country; what’s more important than that?” says the deluded fool. “It’s no good having democracy if we don’t have a country,” replies Nasheed.
Told entirely by interview snippets, with no voiceover, this is a style that can grate. However The Island President is immensely watchable. The majority of Shenk’s work lies within cinematography, and this really is apparent. There is some beautiful imagery on show. But the footage here is not merely superficial, the camera capturing Nasheed’s literal last-minute remonstrations with the president of AOSIS over what he feels is a pointless, unpersuasive document that will do nothing for their cause (it worked).
Outspoken to the point of consternation in his international media advisor capacity, perfectly happy to ‘be a nuisance’, it is this combination of nonchalance and defiance that makes for an immensely charismatic character you’ll root for to the end.
Earlier ponderings regards genuineness fast disappear as it is clear this is a man who cares, very, very much. And he will make you care, too.
DVD Release: August 27th. The Island President on Amazon.co.uk