HRAFF Film Review – The Island President

By Jess O’Callaghan
Still image from "The Island President"

The Island President made me feel both hopeful and anxious. Hopeful because if anyone should feel anxious, it’s the focus of the film – the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed – and although his fear for his country is certainly present throughout the film, so is his optimism, cheek and charm.

Exploring the relationship between human rights and the environment requires an eye for nuance, and it’s something that film and art are uniquely good at. In this documentary, where the protagonist is grasping for both democracy and sustainability with increasing desperation, the relationship and conflicts between the two are drawn out spectacularly well.

Part of the film’s gravity comes from the astounding beauty of the footage, the islands and atolls from above, striking aqua and teal.

The Maldives is a nation made up of 1200 islands that lie vulnerably low. If the sea level rises just three feet, all of the islands will be submerged enough to make them uninhabitable. As Nasheed says in the film’s opening voice-over, there is not a single hill on all the islands.

This makes for striking images, and a beautiful country. Paradise, as it’s referred to many times during the film (and in tourism brochures). Part of the film’s gravity comes from the astounding beauty of the footage, the islands and atolls from above, striking aqua and teal.

The Island President follows Nasheed’s first term in office. The first part of the film details his 20-year struggle against the Maumoon Abdul Gayoom regime, his years in prison, and the overwhelming public support for democracy in 2008. In many films about human rights, this marks a triumphant end to the narrative. In the case of The Island President, however, it is just context. The real struggle is against the rising ocean, and the lack of attention being paid by the rest of the world.

Nasheed’s desperation, and the emotion involved in his attempts to alert the world to the danger his country is in, means that even the small triumph of salvaging a non-binding agreement is enough to make the audience exhale with a bit of relief.

Nasheed causes a stir early on in his presidency, by declaring that the Maldives will become the first country to become 100% carbon neutral by 2019. This is embarrassing for other developing nations, who are clinging to the notion that they shouldn’t be held to standards that developed countries like the United States and Australia weren’t held to during their initial development. It is also discomforting for these Goliath states, as their lack of ambition where climate change is concerned is thrown harshly into the spotlight.

During the months leading up to the 2009 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Nasheed travels to London and New York, and also visits the islands of his nation. He explains why sea walls aren’t a viable solution, and pulls media stunts to gain the world’s attention. While in London he compares the imperative to act against climate change to the military action taken by the allies when Germany invaded Poland at the start of World War II.

Culminating in the Copenhagen Summit, a tense inevitability hangs over the film. The audience knows what’s going to happen, even as Nasheed’s cheek and optimism push through the diplomatic mire. The Summit was meant to provide a framework for tackling climate change after the Kyoto Protocol’s end in 2012. However, no binding agreement was reached between the major carbon emitters, and the Conference has been remembered as a failure.

“For us to have a government,” Nasheed explained, “we must first have a planet.”

Which is not to say that the film portrays no hope. The Maldives play a role in the Summit disproportionate to the country’s size, influence and usual role in international politics. Nasheed’s desperation, and the emotion involved in his attempts to alert the world to the danger his country is in, means that even the small triumph of salvaging a non-binding agreement is enough to make the audience exhale with a bit of relief.

The discussion after the film was both informative and bizarre. It was bizarre because it’s not often after watching a film that the hero video links you, their grinning face floating on the film screen, answering questions about what you just saw. But President Nasheed did exactly that, and because of the political changes in the Maldives in the time since filming, the questions were varied and insightful, swinging between the environmental and the political.

His opinions on both were interesting, but it was clear, even after spending his life fighting for democracy, what his biggest concern was: “For us to have a government,” Nasheed explained, “we must first have a planet.”

The Island President screened at Melbourne’s ACMI Cinemas on 27 May, at Canberra’s National Film & Sound Archive on 28 May, Adelaide’s Mercury Cinema on 1 June, Byron Bay’s Pighouse Flicks on 12 June, and Perth’s Luna Cinema Paradiso on 14 June 2012.

To visit the HRAFF website, click here.

Latest