“We can lose many, many battles, but we cannot lose the war.”
– Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives.
Global warming found its way back into mainstream news headlines this month thanks to the UN Climate Summit in New York. And while the summit itself wasn’t particularly useful in terms of producing any immediate action against rising temperatures, it did remind us that (a) climate change is still most definitely an imminent threat, and (b) a lot of people do give a shit (click here to see photos of the estimated 310,000 people marching in New York last week). The Island President, directed by Jon Shenk, is visually stunning (thank you, Maldives) and aurally beautiful (thank you, Radiohead). Most of all, however, it is a compelling story that forces us to view global warming as an urgent issue with real consequences for real people.
The hero of The Island President is Mohamed Nasheed, a man who endured torture, exile, and 18 months of solitary confinement at the hands of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime before co-founding an opposition party and bringing democracy to the Maldives in 2008. In his first year as president Nasheed found himself confronted with the greatest problem a political leader can face: a very real threat to his country’s survival.
The Maldives – a beautiful chain of 1200 coral islands off of the Indian sub-continent – is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. If sea levels don’t stop rising, global warming will destroy the Maldives. A rise of just 3 feet – a little less than 1 metre – will be enough to make the country uninhabitable. According to Mark Lynas (Mohamed Nasheed’s presidential advisor on climate change in 2009) if global warming continues at its current rate sea levels will eventually rise by 25 metres. It’s no wonder, then, that the Maldives has been dubbed a future Atlantis, and that Nasheed made fighting climate change his number one priority while in office (a fight that culminated in the 2009 Copenhagen UN Climate Summit).
As a film, The Island President is fantastic on all fronts. The Maldives is captured wonderfully throughout (director Jon Shenk is also an award winning cinematographer) with shots of its startlingly blue waters and white sand, crystal clear close-ups of crabs on rocks, aerial views of the island chain, and a frequent focus on the everyday lives of the country’s people. Much of the soundtrack was provided by Radiohead (Tom Yorke is quoted in Pitchfork: “Unless something is done to stop rising sea levels they [the people of the Maldives] will lose everything … Some of our music was used to help tell the story”); songs such as Kid A, Tree Fingers and Everything in its Right Place give this documentary the weight and atmosphere it deserves.
The best thing about The Island President, however, is Mohamed Nasheed himself, and his fight to save his country. Nasheed is immediately likeable – he is candid, concerned about people (not yachts), and his determination and stoicism are balanced by his sense of humour. Seeing global warming through Nasheed’s eyes (particularly in the context of the Copenhagen summit) made me realise (really realise, in a concrete way) the threat it poses. The Island President is a documentary, but it is a documentary that watches like a thriller – which is, of course, exactly how we should feel about climate change all the time. Terrified, but also motivated and energized. Compelled to do something.
The result of Copenhagen in 2009 was a decision to “take note of” an accord drawn up by heads of state (basically, governments agreed to think about reducing emissions, but no one was legally obliged to do anything). Five years later the recent New York summit failed to achieve much more; a number of world leaders didn’t even bother to attend, including Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, as well as the leaders of India, Canada, Russia, and China. And this was in spite of the fact that last August was the warmest on record: 0.75 degrees Celsius higher than the twentieth century global average of 15.6 degrees Celsius.
The Maldives is not underwater just yet. There is still time to counteract some of the worst future effects of climate change, but we have to act now. And there is hope – more than 300,000 people turning up to march (and that was just in New York) proves this, and a lot of governments are taking big steps to reduce harmful emissions.
Something else that The Island President made me aware of was just how unaware I am about global warming (both in terms of the problem and the solutions). Thanks to Nasheed (and Jon Shenk) I am now motivated to do my own research – watch this space for a much more comprehensive post on global warming coming soon.
The Island President premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2011. It was funded (in part) by the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Sundance Institute. In February of 2012 Mohamed Nasheed resigned as president of the Maldives, under threat of violence.
Read more about this documentary and watch the trailer at theislandpresident.com.