True/False Highlights Climate Change Issue with Film on the Maldives

Credit: Chiara Goia

The Island President is a documentary film that follows the life of a former-political-refugee-turned-president during the lead-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference as he attempts to save his small country from the global political forces that resist the growing need to reign in the issue of climate change. I was fortunate enough to catch the film and the post-film Q&A with editor Pedro Kos and director Jon Shenk between my volunteer shifts at this year’s True/False Film Festival here, in Columbia, Mo.

Now, before you roll your eyes at the idea of yet another climate film after you (hopefully) sat through Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar winning documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, you should know that The Island President is not a slew of facts, figures, and digital renderings of the projected recession of the ice caps. No, The Island President humanizes the topic more than we’ve ever seen on a screen before now and it is quite possibly one of the most important films you could ever see.

The film starts off by getting us acquainted with the issue at hand. The film’s protagonist is the 44-year-old Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, a dark-skinned man with the wide charismatic smile of a child at the zoo and an intense air of optimism and urgency regarding his goal. We quickly learn why it’s urgent as he steps off of the boat he’s taken to one of the islands he is visiting that day. He greets the inhabitants the way he greets everyone, with a hardy handshake and a genuine “How are you?”. The inhabitants show him part of their Island where the beach front has recently eroded by a staggering 300 feet and 57 trees have fallen into the ocean. The Maldives (pronounced mall-deeeeves, NOT Mall-Dives!) is a chain of 2,000 islands in the Indian Ocean and they sit (or sat, at the time the documentary was filmed) at a mere 1.5 meters above sea level.

We learn that the country was previously controlled by the dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who was elected president in 1978. During the 30 year reign of Gayoom, Nasheed was educated in the U.K. only to return to his beloved Maldives to be arrested 12 times for political articles he had written about several elections that took place between 1989 and 1994. As part of his sentences he was tortured and, at one point, spent 18 months of solitary confinement in a 3 foot by 5 foot metal shed. He said he survived by taking walks inside the shed and imagining he was walking elsewhere. In 2003 he left the Maldives and started the Maldivian Democratic Party, returned in 2005, got the party recognized by the government, then won the presidential election in 2008. One of his political partners says in the film that to campaign Nasheed visited more than 52,000 homes to meet voters personally and win them over to his cause. At one point Nasheed laughed recalling that Gayoom had pleaded to voters to give him another ten years to complete his reforms.

Nasheed and his advisors meet with a variety of climatologists, marine biologist, and other scientists throughout the film. We quickly realize that the Maldives’ troubles are a result of global warming that has drastically shifted ocean tides and climate patterns. We discover that the monsoons have been coming 5 months earlier than usual, causing up to 5 meters of beach front erosion in the North Western area of the island cluster. Nasheed notes that there are two barriers to erosion, the first being the bedrock layer and the second being the green line.

This, coupled with a 2004 tsunami that Nasheed says did financial damage equivalent to more than half of the country’s GDP and a 1998 El Nino whose warm waters bleached and killed 2/3 of the coral reefs surrounding the Maldives indicates the urgent nature of the issue. Some fisherman even noted in the film that all of these issues have brought fishing down to about 1/7 of what is was earlier in their fishing careers.

The film follows Nasheed as he campaigns to diplomats around the world to set a global standard for CO2 atmospheric levels at 350ppm, a number that scientists believe could lower the temperature of the earth enough to save countries like the Maldives. Nasheed makes a strong argument that this is even a fundamental human rights issue, comparing what would happen if larger countries didn’t do anything to if no one had stepped in to save Poland from the Nazis. At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, world leaders ended up agreeing to a document that Nasheed helped to construct, though it did not require countries to meet the 350ppm limit, it did call for the limit.

During the Q&A, the film makers said that Nasheed was more than happy to give them full access to everything he did. The result is that you really get a sense that Nasheed is just an average guy who happens to be highly optimistic and who will stop at nothing to save his country. You can genuinely identify with his frustration when dealing with leaders of countries such as India, China, and Brazil, who he says are the major contributors to the issue.

Nasheed’s wife, on the other hand, is not so optimistic. Near the end of the film she says she wishes she had not had children, as this world is not a good one to raise them in. And at one point in the film I had to agree with her when an interviewer asked Nasheed “What’s the plan if the Maldives can’t be saved?” and Nasheed answers “None; we will die.” I couldn’t help but think that he was not only right, but that his statement applied to humanity as we know it. The film ends with Nasheed feeling exhilarated and hopeful, thinking of the document’s passage at Copenhagen as a good start to his path to saving his country and his optimism revitalized my own.

During the Q&A, Kos and Shenk said that, unfortunately, Nasheed had been pushed out of office early last month, and that while there were rumors that there was a warrant out for his arrest, they are untrue and he is surrounded by supporters. One audience member pointed out a key oddity in the film that Nasheed put little focus on pressuring the US to do something, to which Kos and Shenk noted that the U.S. is known around the world for moving extremely slowly on issues and being quite stubborn due to the nature of our congress, not to mention the fact that Nasheed was well aware that Asia, not North America, was the center of his sphere of influence.

In the end I found this to be a quite informative and inspiring film that I honestly believe everyone should see at some point. Who knows? Perhaps, it could drastically change your mind on how you should live your life.

For those wanting to know more about the movement to lower CO2 levels in the atmosphere to 350ppm you can visit the movement’s website here:

You can also visit the documentary’s website here: 


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