The Island President


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Dogwoof
25 Sunday 25th March 2012

Filmmaker Jon Shenk and his team travelled to the islands to share Nasheed’s quest for a global agreement on climate policy at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2009, and spread the word on this rather awe-inspiring man. Soundtracked almost entirely by Radiohead and set against stunning scenery from the islands, the film paints a stunning picture of the crisis at hand and Nasheed’s infectious strength of character.

We speak to Mark Lynas, Nasheed’s personal climate advisor featured in the film, and director Jon about climate change, human rights and how to save the Maldives from new dictatorship.

Jon, to start, how did the idea for this film come up?

Jon: I first heard about Nasheed in October 2008 (when he was elected President after 30 years of single-ruler tyranny). Nasheed, the leader of the human rights movement pushing for democracy prevailed, stepped into office and started making these brutally honest statements about the environment.

It was incredible to me because it totally shifted the climate discussion again. For me Nasheed reminded me climate change isn’t so much about science but about people: it’s a human rights issue as much as any other. I thought if there was any way we could make a documentary where you get to know Nasheed and the Maldives, maybe we had a chance to show the human side of this issue.

Could you give us a brief timeline of how filming started?

J: In early 2009 we got in touch with him, went to the Maldives and pitched our idea: later I realised it was insane to suggest following a head of state around with a camera [he laughs]. He looked at me like I was crazy, but part of him identified with what we were doing because he’d used journalism during his activist days. He agreed to do it, then later joked that he thought we’d go away after a couple of interviews [he chuckles]. But we didn’t go away.

We ran into so many roadblocks, both in the Maldives and in other countries. It was a constant series of explanations and impassioned pleas for ‘just a little bit more’ footage. In the end I think we collected enough to give you a sense of what it’s like to be Nasheed: in his hotel rooms, in his cars, into meetings, out of meetings, with his family. There really isn’t another film like this – that I know of - which has this access to a sitting head of state and I’m proud of that.

Nasheed in Copehagen during COP15

Mark: Yes, I remember I started working with Nasheed in March 2009, before the crew came in. I think we launched the Carbon Neutral policy that month and set about making it a reality domestically, while increasing our voice internationally and putting pressure on other countries.

How did it feel being filmed working on such important policy content, Mark?

M: I very quickly forgot that the camera crew even existed, so truly did they become a fly on the wall. They hovered around in even our most private meetings and in retrospect it was quite amazing that they were given such intimate access.

How did you navigate gaining such close access to negotiations at the COP15 conference?

J: We had to just go in and show the reality of Nasheed’s life, taking into account the transparency he brought into the Maldives government. One hard lesson we learned is that a film like this would be impossible at that kind of conference if we’d just been accredited as the press.

We knew we couldn’t play by those rules, so were made part of the Maldivian delegation instead. Nasheed and his people worked with us to try keep the access alive, and one at a time as they had meetings we’d try to convince the other countries to let us film.

M: Yes, there were a lot of things in the film from Copenhagen that I would have preferred to have discussed in private [he laughs], but that's all part of what happens when you allow a film crew to cover your life.

As you both know, a coup destabilised the islands in February this year. What do you think is next for climate policy in the Maldives, now that Nasheed’s been unseated?

J: First of all, I think this is one of those scenarios where the press is trying to give both sides equal say and it’s not coming out as a fair story. I think there are greedy people who’ve taken power outside of the democratic process and a government that wasn’t elected is now in power. I believe Nasheed was held at gunpoint and there’s no question in my mind that he left power because his life and those of the people near to him were in danger. He wasn’t going to create a situation of bloodshed on the streets, so stepped down knowing the people wouldn’t just let this go.

M: The future is grim unless we see early elections and the Maldivian people are given the freedom to choose their own government. I don't consider Mohamed Waheed's ‘kitchen cabinet’ of former dictator sympathetics to be a legitimate government - I'm not really interested in whether they have an environmental policy or not because it's not politically sustainable. You have a democracy and civil rights in place before you start talking about the more ambitious things to do: I mean, no one's talking about making Syria carbon neutral right now, you know?

Nasheed famously chairing a cabinet meeting underwater, to dramatise the nation's future

J: I spoke to Nasheed the other day and he was very optimistic though. When the election comes, and hopefully it will come early, people will know who was who.

Finally, what do you think the international community can realistically do to help stop the Maldives sinking?

J: One absolutely shameful thing about the coup is that it’s a massive loss to the Green movement. It’s a huge uphill battle to try to take on climate change, since there’s such an air of inevitability about it, but Nasheed is the kind of humanist who would go down fighting the good fight. We have to show ourselves examples of heroes and people willing to do that – what is the alternative?


The Island President is out in UK theatres this Friday (March 30th, 2012). Click here to find a screening near you.

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