The Island President  

by director Jon Shenk

Mohamed Nasheed is a one-in-a-billion person. At the young age of 44, he has already spent 20 years fighting for truth, justice and democracy in his home country of The Maldives. He has suffered for years as a political prisoner, became his country's first democratically-elected president, profoundly changed the international politics of climate change, and, most recently, been evicted from office at gunpoint.

I first heard about Nasheed in October of 2008 when he had just won the presidency in the Maldives. When he stepped into office, he immediately took on the challenge of climate change with provocative, brutally honest statements such as "The Maldives will soon be looking for a new homeland" for its people because their island nation (the lowest lying in the world) would inevitably go under water. The light bulb that went off in my mind was "the climate debate is not a boring story about science, it's one of the most profound, dramatic stories in the history of humankind!" What could be more exciting than a hero trying to save the planet from the impending apocalypse?

After meeting Nasheed (or seeing him in The Island President), people are immediately struck by his wit, candor and charisma. He is a man who has faced the most challenging situations—torture, solitary confinement—and refused to give up. He fights like a man who has nothing to lose. And therefore, the story of this film becomes a David/Goliath tale.

Visually, one could not ask for a more beautiful backdrop than the Maldives. You take one look at those islands and you think to yourself, "this is absolutely gorgeous," and a half-second later you think, "they are so vulnerable. There's no place to go when the water rises!"

We proposed to Nasheed a no-holds-barred-access film. Yet, even as we pitched him on the idea, we realized that we were asking for something virtually unheard of. No other head-of-state has participated in such a movie.

The President agreed to do it, I think, because he himself had a background as an activist/journalist and had used writing and the internet to move The Maldives toward good-governance. Also, later on (well into production), he told us (with a laugh), "I thought you would go away after a while."

But we did not go away. We persisted. We negotiated to become part of the Maldivian delegation at Copenhagen so that our camera would not be held behind the press barricades. When faced with a bi-lateral meeting with another head-of-state, we tried to make our case, or simply continue filming, begging for understanding when asked what we were doing. It wasn't easy, but Nasheed looked at me one day and said, "Jon, I like people who try to do impossible things," and winked at me. I'll never forget that. He is mischievous. He has a way of pushing people but never without a sense of humor.

Nasheed became a larger part of the international debate on climate than we ever dreamed would happen. I thought that if he went to the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, it would be as the leader of a tiny country protesting against the powerful countries. Of course, he did do that, but he was also invited into the small group of leaders who banged out the details of the final agreement. I believe—as we show in the film—that he was responsible for eking out the step forward that did take place in Copenhagen.

I don't go to the movies to learn. I go for the emotional journey. Traveling around the world, negotiating with India, China, and the U.S., making the case for his people, Nasheed is like an action-hero racing against a ticking time bomb. He inspires me to ask myself, "what can I do in my life to change things for the better? What would happen if we all asked that question every day?"

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