Blessed—or maybe cursed—with fortuitous timing, Jon Shenk’s lionizing documentary of Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Republic of Maldives, the archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean consisting of 1,200 tiny islands, closely follows the charming president from 2008 to 2009, his first year in office. The film, a hopeful portrait of a crusader that premiered at Telluride last September, is now inadvertently a record of a bygone era: Nasheed was forced to leave office February 7, the result of a coup by loyalists to his predecessor, the dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Although obviously unable to include the tumultuous events of the past seven weeks beyond a closing intertitle, The Island President briskly presents the broader history of this country of 400,000. As in his previous doc, Lost Boys of Sudan (2003), Shenk forgoes voiceover, the salient facts of this country, best-known as a luxury-resort destination, relayed via the sit-downs with Nasheed and members of his team that dominate the first third of the film. As Nasheed wryly points out, the beaches where celebrities and aristos have romped were also—quite literally—the same spots where the torture sanctioned by Gayoom, who ruled from 1978 to 2008, occurred. And Nasheed should know: Born in 1967, he was imprisoned 12 times and tortured twice for his criticism of the autocrat’s regime; he formed the Maldivian Democractic Party while in exile and returned to the capital, Malé, in 2005.
After Nasheed’s election in the fall of 2008, The Island President uses as its throughline the months leading up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. Positioning himself as an eco-activist and declaring that his country will be the first to go carbon-neutral, Nasheed reveals his gifts for quippy doomsaying: “It won’t be any good to have a democracy if we don’t have a country.” Yet his fears are warranted; Maldives is the lowest nation in the world and extremely vulnerable to the rising sea levels caused by global warming. (2004’s tsunami destroyed much of the country.) The camera (Shenk also serves as cinematographer) tracks the tiny, dapper man—his ties and shirts often match the azure water his nation sits atop—down endless hotel corridors and in cramped, windowless meeting rooms in Oxford, London, New York, and Copenhagen, where he seems willing to talk to anyone who gives him a clip-on mic.
As an intimate look at a leader from a Lilliputian land assuming a role on the global stage, Shenk’s film is close enough to his subject to catch the leader who rails against carbon-dioxide emissions puffing on cigarettes in parking lots. The Island President also shows how the most high-minded idealists inevitably become deal-makers: The toothless agreement eventually ratified in Copenhagen—which calls for but doesn’t require CO2 reductions—is lauded by Nasheed as “a very good, planet-saving document”; he phones his mom on the way to the airport to tell her about it.
The thoughts Nasheed shared with Shenk post-Copenhagen now ring as foreboding: “Coming back to Maldives, you realize how impossible the whole situation is.” After the chaos that erupted in this island paradise two months ago, Nasheed’s vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan—a seemingly benign talking head seen briefly in the doc—is now the country’s leader.