The Island President: Mohamed Nasheed’s Personal Fight With Climate Change

A documentary film that makes climate change personal.

In the environmental movement, there have been many leaders. Names like Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Carl Pope, Rachel Carson, and Annie Leonard come to mind. But few are as personally impacted by the negative effects of climate change as Mohamed Nasheed, elected president of the Maldives in 2008. As one of the most low-lying countries in the world, a rise of merely three feet of sea level would submerge the 1200 islands of the nation that lie to the southeast of India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. That makes for a political agenda fueled by a sense of urgency.

The impending disaster led much of Nasheed’s policy, both nationally and internationally, and is the subject of the documentary film, The Island President, which has its U.S. release this week. The film takes a very close look at the politics of climate change, following Nasheed during his first year in office and through the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

The world of global politics surrounding the climate change issue is complex, and often bureaucratic. How do you tell that story? By making it personal. Nasheed might be best known to the rest of the world for his underwater cabinet meeting, but this film takes us beyond the international headlines. With an intimate view of Nasheed, so personal that at times you feel like you could just as well be sitting down for a cup of tea with the leader, The Island President gives us a unique view of the fight to save not only a nation, but an entire world.

Nasheed has been in the public eye since he took office in 2008, taking the reigns from former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After 30 years under a dictatorship, the election of a pro-democracy activist and political prisoner that was only 41 was newsworthy. That was when filmmaker Jon Shenk started thinking about the potential of an intriguing story to put on the big screen.

“As soon as he stepped into the office he started making these very provocative statements about the environment that I was bowled over by… as a character he was willing that many world leaders weren’t willing to say.”

But translating that personal of a story with a world leader is certainly no easy task. “We were asking for a level of access that would be unprecedented from a sitting head of state,” says Shenk of the process of getting the film together. “His people sort of looked at us cross-eyed.”

Fortunately, Nasheed accepted. “He kind of listened to us for a few minutes and said ‘let’s go for it’… I don’t think he quite understood how much time we were asking for… he kind of joked later that he thought we were just going to come in and do a few interviews and leave,” says Shenk. “Our pitch was ‘look, before we read about you in the newspaper, we didn’t have any idea where the Maldives was.’ To get people in the U.S. to… see the human side of the climate debate, we really felt that we had to make Nasheed as human as possible.”

That’s the power of a good documentary, taking a complex issue and turning it into something tangible.

“The same thing happens to people watching the film as what happened to me when I was making the film: I saw climate change in a completely different way. Do you believe the science or not? I think that the media is pretty saturated with that stuff. There are certain types of folks that that doesn’t work with,” says Shenk.

The solution to climate change is multifaceted, but many know that when it comes to the grassroots level, engaging the general public is just as important as top level policy work. The question is, how are we getting that engagement?

“Our minds are not made to grasp numbers in the millions and billions… it’s not like anything that humanity has ever dealt with before. I think what we can understand a lot more naturally is a human being struggling against a situation.” That message comes across so strongly in The Island President, that after a screening of the film, a activist came up to Shenk and told him, “this answers how we humanize the issue.”

“If somehow we could personalize it and make it a personal story instead of a science story, it might help people see the story in a completely different framework,” says Shenk.

As Nasheed works his way through international press and media briefings, we see him tackle the bureaucratic corridors of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009. His case is urgent, but the response is not. As we all know, those talks failed, leaving the environmental community scrambling to figure out what to do next. In the film, we see Nasheed return home, frustrated, but not defeated. “At least we can die knowing that we’ve done the right thing,” Nasheed tells the camera.

Flash forward to February 2012 when Nasheed was forced to step down from his presidency after a political coup. Stripped of his political power, he has been forced to continue his fight from afar. Shenk brings up a recent phone call with Nasheed. “I asked him what his latest thinking was. He said that he felt in a funny way this could be a positive thing in the end. Once a population has tasted freedom and democracy, it is very difficult to take that away. If you have passion for those things, it’s a logical next step to say, if the climate is going south, we’re talking about a world where there is that much more strife. You can quickly see the environmental cause as the struggle for freedom.”

For Shenk, connecting the dots means seeing the bigger picture, and taking stock of what’s important. The idea that the environmental cause is also a struggle for freedom “articulates how so many people think and feel. There is all this petty arguing about turf battles and the remnants of tribal warfare when there are huge issues in the world that need global focus.”

In the end, although our own surroundings may not face the same immediate threats of climate change as the Maldives, the political battles of Nasheed and his people highlight a unified message. “Why can’t we all realize that this is a common struggle? That message is the same message as Gandhi and Martin Luther King: we’re all in this together,” says Shenk.

THE ISLAND PRESIDENT—A Documentary By Jon Shenk | Official Trailer from Sawyer Studios on Vimeo.

You can find screenings of The Island President here

Images: Chiara Goia, Lincoln Else

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.