Directed by: Jon Shenk
Premise: A documentary about Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives, a country that consists of twenty-six islands in the Indian Ocean. After struggling against and eventually toppling the dictatorship that controlled the Maldives for decades, President Nasheed discovers that the survival of the Maldive Islands is imperiled by climate change.
What Works: Political documentaries often deal with either the most powerful countries in the world or with corrupt leaders in the third world. Stories of developing nations rarely make it into mainstream American news outlets, much less documentary films. That alone makes The Island President noteworthy but this is an exceptional film beyond the novelty of its subject. The Island President is fundamentally about the struggle for survival and that struggle takes on multiple layers in the film. The first section of The Island President addresses the period in which the Maldives were ruled by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who held autocratic power over the country for thirty years. The film documents the struggle for democracy in short hand, using testimony and archival footage. As the history of the Maldives gives way from despotism to democracy, the story also transitions and becomes about the survival of the island country. The people interviewed in the film explain how global climate changes are eroding the islands and will make them unlivable in the near future, erasing the country and turning its citizens into refugees. In that way, The Island President succeeds were so many other documentaries dealing with climate change have come up short in that it makes the issue immediate and concrete. In the effort to address climate change and save the country, President Nasheed plans a trip to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit in which it is hoped an international agreement can be reached on greenhouse gas emissions. As the story moves toward the Copenhagen Summit, The Island President continually expands and evolves in its scope as President Nasheed and his allies cope with the realities and responsibilities of governorship of their country and confront bigger and broader obstacles on the world stage. That gradual expansion of the palette of the film makes this not only a profile of the President of the Maldives but also a lesson in the challenges for young democracies, the realities of international relations, and the relationship between commerce, government, and the environment. This all works because the film is deftly edited and extremely well shot. The scenes of cabinet meetings and international diplomacy are assembled in ways that create drama and they are contrasted with some beautiful imagery of the Maldives.
What Doesn’t: The Island President reveals in a postscript that President Nasheed was forcibly removed from power by a military coup in 2012. This seems like an important piece of information and it exposes an acute flaw of this film: it does not include any dissenting voices. As a politician, President Nasheed was bound to have critics but their voices are excluded from this film. That omission reveals that The Island President is primarily a promotional piece for the Maldivian president and the environmental catastrophe awaiting his country. That the documentarians have an agenda does not discredit the film or the claims in it but the picture would have been strengthened if it had included a more complex portrayal of life and politics in the Maldives.
DVD extras: Interviews.
Bottom Line: The Island President is a terrific documentary film. While it may be primarily a PR piece, the filmmakers tell a serious story in an entertaining way and this is one of the better documentaries about climate change to be found.
Episode: #423 (January 20, 2013)