In Paradise, and Closer Than Ever to Disaster
‘The Island President’: Jon Shenk Documentary at Film Forum.
Lincoln Else/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Mohamed Nasheed at the Copenhagen climate summit, where he sought to broker a deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
By A. O. SCOTT, Published by the New York Times – in print – March 30, 2012
For many of us who live in temperate zones, inland regions and the industrialized West, global warming is a source of anxiety — even terror — and something of an abstraction. The mildness of this past winter on the Eastern Seaboard might have seemed ominous, yes, but it was also pleasant, and much of the time other social, economic and political problems have a way of seeming more urgent than human survival.
There is also a noisy subculture of obfuscation and denial that has pulled an already contentious conversation about climate change and the environment down into the fever swamp of American ideological animus. It’s a hoax! It’s a liberal conspiracy! It’s a scheme on the part of greedy scientists and power-hungry international organizations to shame us out of our S.U.V.’s and our plastic grocery bags!
In other parts of the world, though, the issue has a lethal, terrifying urgency. “The Island President,” a new documentary by Jon Shenk (“The Lost Boys of Sudan”), visits one such place, the Maldives. That archipelago of roughly 1,200 low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean, of which about 200 are inhabited, is described as “paradise crossed with paradise,” and its soft sand beaches and blue waters have made it a haven for wealthy tourists. Though the film includes spectacular aerial and underwater footage of the Maldives’ beauty, it concentrates its attention on uglier realities.
For 30 years the country was ruled by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictator with the usual authoritarian habit of imprisoning, torturing and terrorizing his opponents. Among them was Mohamed Nasheed, who after years as a pro-democracy activist and a political prisoner was elected president at 41 in 2008.
As soon as he took office, Mr. Nasheed faced an environmental crisis of existential dimensions. The steady rise in ocean levels caused by melting polar ice and increasing global temperatures had already caused serious erosion on some islands, and the eventual catastrophic inundation of this small, vulnerable nation was starting to look inevitable, rather than just frighteningly plausible.
Mr. Shenk and his crew were given extraordinary access to Mr. Nasheed during his first year in power, and “The Island President” moves with the sometimes manic energy of a young, ambitious leader throwing himself at enormous challenges. Informative, revealing one-on-one interviews with Mr. Nasheed, his advisers and his wife are interspersed with scenes from the hectic, peripatetic life of a postmodern politician. Mr. Nasheed confers with members of his cabinet and British environmental advisers, takes part in the filming of public service announcements (including one in which he pretends to hold a meeting underwater in scuba gear), takes cigarette breaks and travels to a series of conferences on climate change.
The last of these, the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, provides the film with its climax, as Mr. Nasheed becomes a crucial player in a series of complex negotiations that he hopes will lead to a strong international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the film provides a reasonably clear account of the technical issues involved — there is much discussion about acceptable degrees of warming, centimeters of ocean rise and parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air — it also sheds light on some of the 21st-century rituals of power and diplomacy. There are pomp, pragmatism, high principle and brazen manipulation, and it is sometimes hard to tell which is which.
Mr. Nasheed, handsome and earnest, well dressed and well educated, seems at home in this world of global high politics, even as he is often exasperated by its dysfunctional aspects. He is an agile, civil debater with a strong camera presence and a manner that combines boyishness with technocratic self-confidence.
In Copenhagen — and a few months earlier at a United Nations session in New York — he tries to use his moral authority as the leader of a small, imperiled nation to bring some of his more skeptical and cautious counterparts from the developing world over to his side. The geopolitical complexities are daunting, and the structural impediments to change seem overwhelming.
Mr. Nasheed also faces difficulties back home, though these, apart from the rising seas, are fairly peripheral to “The Island President.” Until, that is, a post-script tersely informs us, in white type on a black screen, that he was forced out of office last month, more than two years after the action of the film concludes. Another note relates that in that time, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have continued to rise.
It is in the nature of political leaders, especially in democracies, to be optimistic, to insist that solutions can be found to even the most intractable problems. Topical, politically engaged documentaries, particularly those made by American filmmakers, share in this tendency, offering implicit reassurance even as they deliver bad news about the state of the world. Awareness will be raised. Progress will be made. To doubt this is to court cynicism and despair.
“The Island President” is buoyant and spirited enough to keep those demons temporarily at bay. It is impossible, while watching it, to root against Mr. Nasheed or to believe that he will fail. But the hope that infuses this movie makes it all the more upsetting to walk out of the theater and contemplate a looming disaster that the world’s leaders seem unable to prevent.
The Island President – Opened on Wednesday March 28, 2012, in Manhattan.
Directed by Jon Shenk; director of photography, Mr. Shenk; edited by Pedro Kos; music by Radiohead and Stars of the Lid; produced by Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In English and Dhivehi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.