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‘The Island President’ Draws Attention to a Global Issue By Focusing on One Small But Fascinating…

By  · Published on March 31st, 2012

‘The Island President’ Draws Attention to a Global Issue By Focusing on One Small But Fascinating Man

The Maldives is a nation located in the Indian Ocean consisting of roughly 1200 small islands, and while a handful of them are as populous as the one pictured above the majority are beautiful pieces of green and gold paradise dotting the clear, blue ocean water like a breathtaking ellipsis.

In 2008, Mohamad Nasheed successfully ended the Islamic country’s three decade despotic rule by persevering through threats and potential incarceration to win a democratic election. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Nasheed almost immediately began fighting for his country’s very survival on the international front.

The country as a whole sits 1.5 meters above sea level, making it possibly the most low-lying nation on Earth, and by most accounts that number is shrinking due to rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Director Jon Shenk’s latest documentary examines a global issue by focusing on a tiny nation and the first year in office of its small-statured president. Nasheed’s dictatorial predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was by all accounts a harsh leader prone to corporal punishment, corruption and worse. Nasheed himself was jailed five times and sometimes tortured under Gayoom’s rule for protests and writing unflattering articles about the military-led government.

He paid his dues for the country he loves, and once elected he continued to fight by drawing attention to global warming’s immediate and near future effect on the Maldives and its people. He acknowledges that many countries are and will be affected by rising sea levels, but his is the only instance where the scale goes beyond a coastline or shrinking real estate. His entire nation could be wiped from the Earth’s surface.

Shenk’s film follows Nasheed’s efforts and exploits, including holding the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, to raise awareness and resolutions on the topic. We follow his first year in office as it builds towards an appearance at the Copenhagen Climate Summit at the end of 2009 where he hopes to strengthen an accord to get universal support behind the fight. You may already know the outcome, but you most likely haven’t seen Nasheed’s speech to the assembly captured here. It’s powerful stuff.

The film’s narrow focus on Nasheed’s specific and positive efforts to fight global warming keep the narrative simple and straight forward, but it also prevents a deeper look into the man and his job as president. His own presidency faced accusations of bribery and corruption as well as claims its efforts to fight global warming came at the expense of the country’s myriad other problems. It also never mentions any alternate viewpoints on the issue that argue against the belief that sea levels may have actually decreased in past decades.

And for a man so hell-bent on fighting global warming Nasheed sure does smoke a lot of cigarettes. They’re small potatoes compared to automobiles, factories and cows, but cigarettes still emit carbon dioxide (and contribute by way of the farming, manufacturing and distribution of tobacco as well). It would have been a nice touch and a solid piece of awareness on their part if someone in his cabinet called him out as even a minor hypocrite.

Nasheed is a fascinating man with grand ideas that stand in direct contrast to his appearance. He’s short and has a voice that often slips into a high-pitch not known for garnering results or respect. But listening to him talk reveals a man who transcends appearances, and just like his small country he refuses to be categorized as inconsequential amidst a sea of bigger and louder contemporaries. A recent coup in the Maldives this past February forced him out of office, but you can’t help but think the world hasn’t heard the last of Mohamad Nasheed.

The Upside: An eye-opening look at a little known country; engaging snapshot of a fascinating man; important topic

The Downside: Narrow focus on climate change prevents exploration of country’s (and Nasheed’s) other issues; no one points out Nasheed’s hypocritical smoking

On the Side: Maldives opened the first (and only?) virtual embassy in the online world of Second Life

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.