The Island President is a documentary about global warming. But, of course, it’s more than that. It’s a David and Goliath story, and an observational account of a unique man fighting a unique battle. As the lowest-lying country in the world, the Maldives is seriously threatened by climate change, and President Mohamed Nasheed struggle is to bring the concerns of his tiny nation to the attention of the world during 2009’s Copenhagen Climate Conference. I had a chance to talk to director Jon Shenk about navigating that balance between a social issue and a personal story. He also shares a bit about the film’s impressive photography, the anxiety of never knowing what could happen in a documentary and President Nasheed’s lasting impact as a grassroots leader.
The Island President is playing now at Film Forum in New York.
Film Capsule: I thought I would start by asking you about any inspiration you had for this project in particular. Were there any documentaries that you looked at as a guide for the style or narrative of the film?
Jon Shenk: I’ve always been a big fan of cinema vérité. I love those films and I love making those films. When we went to pitch this project to President Nasheed, we wanted to give him examples of films he could watch that would show the subject and style, what it would be like. There is no observational film about a sitting head of state that has the access that we wanted to have with Nasheed. But we looked at films like Street Fight about the mayoral race in Newark; I thought that was an excellent vérité film. I love election films in general and I thought that was one of the better ones.
FC: Right, like Primary and Crisis?
JS: Primary, of course. The film that had just come out when we were beginning this film was Valentino about the fashion designer, which I thought was a really great example of a largely vérité film that also felt very personal and very privileged. It’s nice when an observational film can find somebody, a character at a very crucial point in their live, and that had that element. You know, I’m a big Maysles fan, and Leacock and Pennebaker. I was educated by John Else in the Bay Area; he’s a brilliant director and vérité shooter. So, a lot of influences.
This film actually ended up having a chuck of it that was historical, and I’ve always really liked that too, when it’s done well. I haven’t done a lot of that myself, but in college I saw The Thin Blue Line and it just blew me away. I thought, God, if you can get people to tell stories in this really passionate way, what you could do with it.
FC: That historical approach to documentary is very different from the vérité style, though, because it’s narrated in the past tense, rather than explicitly taking place in the present.
JS: Exactly. We knew almost from the beginning that we were going to have to tell the world who Nasheed was in some way, whether it was through flashbacks or what have you. We eventually realized that really Nasheed’s backstory was the first act of a film. That first 15-20 minutes kind of builds his character. Then when the observational material starts, you know who you’re dealing with. We used it, obviously, to get some information across, but really more to build his character and show what his reactions to things were when he got into tough situations.
FC: Yes, I noticed that historical approach to a lot of the early scenes, like when Nasheed tells stories about his imprisonment and solitary confinement. Do you have to plan for those ideas, photographically, in a different way? Do you think about those scenes during preproduction as separate from the rest of the film?
JS: Yeah, it’s totally different. In vérité, the battle is largely access, and then the physical and mental Olympics that you go through to capture the scenes as they’re happening. It’s almost like hunting, you know [laughs]. You’re using all your senses and trying to figure out what the gist of the conversation is or where the conversation is happening, or am I even in the right room? It’s a very primal, gut-sense type of activity. The historical moments still has some of that sense when you’re doing the interview. You’re with somebody and guiding them through it and trying to get them to tell the story in a specific way.
But going about getting those visuals for the historical scenes is more of a logistical thing. It’d be really nice to show the confinement shack where Nasheed was held, and we have to leave no stone unturned until we find it so we can really give people a sense of what it was like. That was a very important psychological moment. In some ways, that’s more like a feature film. You’re really trying to think about what images you need. You don’t want to be too obvious or cheesy. There’s a lot that goes into that. It’s very fun and really interesting photographically, but in a totally different way.
FC: So much of deciding which images will be used in juxtaposition with the interviews is done in planning the film, or does that come in the editing process?
JS: A little bit a both. We knew, for example, when we flew into the Maldives and looked out the window: OK, we have to have that! And it can’t just be OK, it has to be great, it has to be really great aerial photography. That, at the end of the day, is a beautiful, natural thing. People love the fact that we live on this beautiful planet. How many millions of dollars a year are spent for people to go to beautiful places and just appreciate nature? The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, The Arctic Circle, you name it. There are these wonders of the world and people are attracted to it because we have this sense of how lucky we are to be living here. So I thought that we had to get that shot, and that it would probably be near the beginning of the film and would weave in and out of it.
And then there were other things that were more happenstance. Like “Wow, the high tide today is really intense. We should run over to the sea wall and get those shots, because I know at some point in the film we’re going to have to show the looming threat of water.” It’s a real threat for the Maldives, it’s not an abstract thing; there actually is water seeping into the islands. It’s a lot of planning, but you could plan for ten things, then five of them don’t happen, but five other things that you didn’t plan for happen. And they surprise you.
FC: But that must be particularly true of documentaries. Maybe this is jumping ahead a bit, but the end of the film in Copenhagen is bittersweet. They’re fighting for this document, and they get, but his vision is a bit compromised. So, is it even possible to plan for a specific ending in a documentary? And if not, is there fear in not knowing what you’re going to end up with?
JS: It is scary! [laughs] Essentially, 80-90% of this film is vérité. As an observational filmmaker, you wouldn’t put yourself in this position if you weren’t confident that something was going to happen. You’ve got a great character, obviously, that’s number one. And characters that are going through something really important and intense, but you don’t know what your beginning, middle and end are going to be. We knew Nasheed was preparing for Copenhagen throughout the year. We were careful to follow the through-lines leading up to that.
FC: Right, it gives the film its structure.
JS: Yeah, and we knew that climate was going to be the backdrop. But what we didn’t know was what was going to happen at Copenhagen. At one point during filming, we started getting inklings that maybe they wouldn’t have enough money to even go to Copenhagen. Maybe it was going to get called off. Should we even go at all? We thought “oh my God, what are we going to do?” At some point we thought, maybe he’ll go but he’ll be a minor player, who knows? But we believed enough in Nasheed and his passion that something was going to happen.
We were totally surprised with what did end up happening. He used the same kind of bottom-up activism that he used in the streets, but he used it within the structure of a 192-nation meeting. You get 192 nations together, of course it’s going to be like a playground. You have your bully nations, your little nations, bullies that protect them, and Nasheed upset the apple cart in that paradigm. He was willing to say things and do things that world leaders just don’t do. His speech at the end of Copenhagen is really personal and emotional. In a UN plenary? Almost unheard of! We were shocked when he ended up at a table with China, the US, the UK, France… and the Maldives? It seemed almost impossible, yet it was happening.
FC: That political personality of the Maldives as a nation makes an interesting counterpoint against the personality of Nasheed as a man. The Maldives is an underdog player, but I think Nasheed recognizes that and uses it to his advantage. Maybe his influence is limited, but he’s still able to insert himself into important dialogues.
JS: Absolutely. One inspiration that he provides is as a reminder that old-school activism can work. What you just described is that grass roots activism, and he’s a modern example of that. I think there’s been a little cynicism about how Americans especially are not willing to go to the streets anymore. How do you get people to stand up and do the things that were taking place in the civil rights moments or the early environmental movement? Nasheed studied that. He studied Ghandi, and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. He’s not too different from those people in some ways. It’s moral authority combined with energy, creativity and excellent strategy.
FC: Obviously we’ve mentioned many different elements in this film – Nasheed’s personality, observational storytelling, the political process – but at its core, is this “a global warming” film? To what extent are you conscious of that as you’re making it? Do you embrace it or try to avoid it?
JS: I think it’s a David and Goliath story. It’s a film about a guy who’s a one-in-a-billion figure. People just want to know about interesting, incredible people in the world who are upending the paradigm and doing incredible, creative things. Nasheed is that. His passion is human rights and good governance, and he extends that into the climate debate. He sees the climate debate as a human rights issue. So in some ways, yes, of course it’s a global warming film. It’s not one like you’ve ever seen before…
FC: It’s not An Inconvenient Truth.
JS: Yeah. I think you can even be a pretty die-hard climate denier and watch this film and still be entertained, just at a personal level, watching this guy trying to get this thing done. I hope that it is a good tool for the movement. I wouldn’t mind that at all, but I also think it’s more than that. It’s an age-old tale, really. It’s both, I think.
FC: Right, I think so too, but I was curious how you think about that as a filmmaker.
JS: No, I’m glad you asked that.
FC: There are obviously a lot of “social issue” documentaries, but you need more than that.
JS: Right, and I’d hate to have the film pigeonholed as that, because I wouldn’t make it if at some level it wasn’t just basically entertaining and emotional. On the other hand, if you can learn something while going through that and have your world expanded, why not?