By Hilary Lau

Photo courtesy of True/False Film Fest

What would you do if your tropical paradise homeland were slipping into the ocean? President Mohamed Nasheed, the former leader (he resigned Feb. 7) of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, has found himself in the midst of this predicament as global warming causes his tiny island nation to slide further into the sea. Nasheed isn’t sitting idly by, however; the heart of The Island President lies in the charismatic leader’s steadfast mission to save the Maldives. Thanks to the impressive style of Jon Shenk, whose cinematographic repertoire includes award-winning direction of the documentary Lost Boys of Sudan (2003), The Island President provides a cinematographically beautiful inside look at President Nasheed’s first year in office and the everyday struggles he faced to build a democratic government that could effectively manage the slipping nation and influence worldwide climate policy.

Filmmaker Jon Shenk pushes the limits of the documentary film genre with The Island President and gains exclusive access to tiers of government life that aren’t often granted unfiltered exposure. Shenk follows the daily presidential activities of Nasheed, whose ideology has been shaped by his own experiences as a political prisoner and time spent living under the Maldives’ formerly militant government. Nasheed demands public attention and response through unconventional political action, including his orchestration of the first ever underwater cabinet meeting, which features politicians in scuba suits working at submerged desks — a true visual treat from Shenk characterized by brilliant blues, sea-greens and lots of bubbles.

Nasheed brings a charming and likable persona to a cause that is daunting and deadly, and Shenk’s beautiful high-altitude shots of the Maldives islands set against melancholic music from Radiohead and Stars of the Lid creates a juxtaposition between the beauty of the Indian Ocean and the danger its rising poses to eroding islands in the Maldives. Shenk relies on time lapse sequences, news footage of protests and government assemblies and behind-the-scenes interactions with Nasheed to piece together his documentary, and this structure seems to propel the action, as well as audience support for the tiny nation’s big initiative.

Shenk follows Nasheed as he gains support for his cause, aligning the need to save the Maldives with the potential loss of an entire national identity should this initiative fail. In preparation for what will be the climax of the entire documentary, Nasheed meets with diplomat after diplomat from nation after nation before appearing at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. While making friends and gaining international support, Nasheed also encounters opposition, namely on the Chinese front (though at one point during the film, Venezuelan and Sudanese leaders call the Maldives-related initiative “disturbing). Eventually, the world leaders at the Copenhagen Summit find themselves in a gridlock.

As audiences watch the dramatic Copenhagen Summit unfold and experience President Nasheed’s emotional plea for a worldwide reduction in carbon emissions on behalf of his drowning nation, feelings of helplessness and despair inevitably arise. Although Nasheed remains a strong and fearless leader, he speaks of his own feelings of disappointment and voices his concern about the magnitude of the problem upon returning home to the Maldives, where he is again confronted with cracking and falling rocks and constant seawall construction — a grave reminder of the mortality of human life and of his mission to preserve it.

Vox Rating: VVVV

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