The Island President / Jon Shenk / 2012 /

Active Ingredients: Photography; Unique perspective of the Maldives
Side Effects: Personal dimension; Political drama

In 2008, while Barak Obama was proclaiming that yes, in fact, we can, a very different nation was experiencing a similarly unlikely and dramatic change in political climate. The Maldives, an archipelago nation of nearly 2,000 islands, saw the democratic election of their first new president in 30 years, Mohamed Nasheed. But enduring imprisonment, torture and exile to bring democracy to the Maldives was only the beginning of Nasheed’s journey. As the lowest-lying country in the world, the Maldives is uniquely imperiled by the threat of climate change; many of its islands are already seeing their shores steadily erode, and, Nasheed claims early in the documentary The Island President, if the global community fails to react the Maldives could be completely wiped off the map.

Luckily, though, The Island President is not simply a film about global warming. Rather, it’s a story of survival and tenacity, about a leader forced by circumstances into testing the limits of his influence and raising a call to arms. Director Jon Shenk does well to focus on Nasheed and his advisers behind the scenes and the almost workmanlike way that they gather information and devise strategies to make the world take notice of the tiny nation. The film provides an interesting glimpse into the game of politics from the perspective of a desperate underdog. Nasheed has a flare for the dramatic, and a gift for using the Maldives’ relative insignificance in world politics to his advantage. With the clock ticking on his country’s very survival, Nasheed begins to throw his weight around, bravely pestering larger players to finalize a deal at 2009’s Copenhagen Climate Conference. The resolution, though, so common in politics, is bittersweet: a compromised plan that leaves the future of the Maldives uncertain.

While Shenk succeeds in creating a portrait of a fascinating political player, the film does not fully examine Nasheed as a man. It’s a rare example of a documentary with access to a sitting president, yet Nasheed’s story and personality arise only as an extension of his country’s. Similarly, Shenk finds a vibrancy, a pulse and a rhythm to the Maldives, but the film suffers when that identity is subordinated to Nasheed’s trips to conferences and anonymous hotel rooms on the road to Copenhagen. Shenk’s greatest gift as a filmmaker, though, is the color and clarity of his images, and The Island President is one of the best looking documentaries in some time.  With stunning location footage, Shenk deftly and economically paints the Maldives as both the paradise it is to tourists and the troubled developing country it is to its inhabitants. This duality in Shenk’s photography mirrors the frustrating role the Maldives plays in politics; Nasheed’s crusade is inspiring, but his realization that he can accomplish nothing without the rest of the world is melancholy indeed.

[The Island President opens at Film Forum in New York on March 28th.]