The Island President: Film Review

Chiara Goia
Inspiring tale of a tiny nation's quest to get the world to act on climate change.

Filmmaker Jon Shenk tells an inspiring story of a small nation's quest to get the world to act on climate change.

A portrait of defiant optimism as a last-chance means of survival, Jon Shenk's The Island President offers not only a Mandela-like tale of political heroism but a much-needed perspective on climate change. Despite lacking a well-known face or any cinematic novelty, the doc might connect in a niche theatrical run simply on the strength of its perspective.

A "cross between paradise, and paradise," the nation of the Maldives is a collection of 1,200 islands (about 200 of them inhabited) in the Indian Ocean, a place of pristine beaches and coral reefs. It also is about as close to sea level as any country in the world and already is seeing the impact of rising sea levels attributed to climate change: Beaches are eroding at such a pace that President Mohamed Nasheed once suggested relocating the nation's populace to India or Australia.

Nasheed, a 44-year-old idealist, came to power only after fighting a tyrant for decades -- sometimes as a political prisoner in a 5-by-3-foot shack -- and finally seeing democracy come to his country in 2008. As soon as he took office, though, he knew he had to worry in earnest about climate change: Some scientists have predicted that his country could be underwater by 2050. This is one part of the world where it's not possible to pretend change won't affect the economy, that taking action might be "too expensive" to justify.

Vowing he'll make the Maldives the world's first carbon-neutral country, Nasheed sets out to sell other global leaders on the issue's urgency. Exhibiting a knack for showmanship, he holds a cabinet meeting underwater -- officials sitting around a table in scuba gear -- to illustrate his country's possible fate. He also visits England's Parliament and the United Nations to press the issue, and in one righteous moment, he tells the General Assembly, "We continue to shout … even though we know you're not really listening."

Shenk and his crew have remarkable access to Nasheed, eavesdropping on intimate strategy debates and, in the doc's most dramatic scenes, trailing the leader through 2009's Copenhagen Climate Conference, where he's a critical instigator between big old polluting countries and big new ones (like China), which don't want to be scolded by First World nations that built their wealth by spewing greenhouse gases.

The filmmakers capture real tension and heartbreak in these meetings, where the hard-line environmentalist is forced to compromise his ideals. Watching staffers in private here is like a real-life (if much smaller-scale) version of The West Wing.

Nasheed doesn't get what he wants, but he persuades others to bend far more than they intended. If the Maldives are climate change's canary in the coal mine, Nasheed is intent on doing a lot more than chirping before the end comes.

Opens: Wednesday, March 28 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Production companies: AfterImage Public Media, ITVS
Director-director of photography: Jon Shenk
Producers: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen
Executive producer: Jon Else
Music: Radiohead, Stars of the Lid
Editor: Pedro Kos
No rating, 101 minutes