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In the Maldives, Fighting for Democracy and Against Climate Change

The Island President follows now-ousted Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed fighting for the future of his nation.

Not long after Mohamed Nasheed was elected president of the Maldives, an Indian Ocean nation made up of 1,190 islands, documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk flew across the world to sell the new president on an idea. Shenk wanted to follow him around, filming the first year of his presidency, culminating at the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Rising sea levels are threatening the continued existence of the Maldives, and from the beginning of his term, Nasheed worked to call attention to the problem. He pledged that the Maldives would be carbon-neutral by 2020, and he started looking for a place to move his population in the event that their islands become uninhabitable. If the climate negotiations were to succeed, larger, more powerful countries like the United States would need to recognize the plight of countries like Nasheed’s.

The Maldives wasn’t used to the sort of transparency Shenk was proposing. Before becoming president, Nasheed had fought for years against the autocratic government of President Maumoon Gayoom, who had ruled the country for three decades, and he'd spent more than one stint in prison for his activism.

The Island President will be released at the end of the month, but as of February, Nasheed is no longer president of the Maldives. A day after he stepped down from office, Nasheed told reporters he had been forced to do so at gunpoint. The new government has issued a warrant for his arrest, and he’s now pushing for elections to be held in the near future. GOOD talked to Shenk and to producer Bonni Cohen about Nasheed, climate change, and filmmakers' responsibilities to their subjects.

GOOD: What first attracted you to Nasheed’s story?

BONNI COHEN: About three years ago, Jon and I read an article about Nasheed. I think it was buried in the front section of The New York Times. He was looking for somewhere to move his population. It was so bold, it made us look into who he was. We saw an opportunity to have this incredible character connect with people about the climate apocalypse.

JON SHENK: We were attracted to a couple of things. The first was the provocative things he was saying about the climate compared to other world leaders. It's such a secondary issue for most heads of states, and they talk about it in mealy-mouthed terms. Whereas Nasheed would say these out-there things that were amazing in their honesty and vision.

And the second thing was that we realized the reason he was so passionate about climate issue was that it was an extension of a battle he'd been fighting all his life—a civil rights and human rights struggle. Ultimately, climate change will affect people, and that's what it's all about. It's not about facts and figures but about human rights and what the world can do to forestall human tragedy.

When you meet the guy, he's so charismatic and funny and disarming, and it seemed like he embodied that idea—to make climate more of a human story than a science one

GOOD: Before he became president, Nasheed triumphed over dire local politics but, in the film, he ends up having to compromise for longer term goals in international negotiations.

SHENK: We didn't really know what would happen at Copenhagen. There were so many twists and turns in the year leading up to that. At one point, it seemed like there might be a dramatic turn of events there. And at another point it seemed like nothing would happen there.

COHEN: You have to compromise wherever you go. On the local level, he was having to compromise his full ideals to take in the thoughts of the radical Islamists and other factions of the governments. On the international stage, he was more willing to compromise than he willing to in his own country.

When we started filming, he was more optimistic about the science and politics in general. As he experienced the reactions to his ideas, it's not that he was less radical in his thinking, because that was never the case with him. But I think he was much more realistic. There's a great scene in the movie, where he tells a minister, “You have to take off your scientist hat and be a minister now.” I think he was also talking to himself. That was his moment of realism.

GOOD: How do you respond, as a documentary filmmaker and journalist, when the person you’ve spent so much time following around ends up in a difficult, dangerous situation, as Nasheed did in February?

SHENK: It gets into this question: As a documentary filmmaker, how do you see yourself? Are you a storyteller, telling the story you witness in the most dramatic way possible? Or do you put on an activism hat and have your film fight for something you believe in?

When it comes to the Maldives, I know the situation well enough to say, “Look, there are some greedy dark forces that have been in control of the Maldives for decades.” There's no question in my mind that Nasheed and the people in his camp are fighting a relatively pure fight. They want good government and rule of law and to see justice prevail. Basically it's a simple story. You have people who are trying to change things to make government answerable to the people, and you have people with an interest in keeping things the way they were and who were making a lot of money.

COHEN: We have these relationships with Nasheed and all of his cabinet members. We're not making the film anymore. So to the extent we can help to shine a light on the truth of what's happened there, we're going to do that. I think it would be a more questionable role if we were in the edit room. But maybe not.

Without good governance, you can't really have these conversations about climate or whatever else is going on in the world. At the root of these conversations is good governance and that's what Nasheed's about.

SHENK: I see our film as a moment in time. It was Nasheed’s first year in office, and he was working on a very specific goal. What's happened in the last month is a huge, important moment in the history of the Maldives and in Nasheed's life. And I feel like, “Thank goodness we were able to capture what it was like when the Maldives had their first taste of democracy.” What we're seeing now could be yet another chapter. Who knows what will happen if they end up getting an election? Nasheed could end up back in power. Or he could end up back in prison.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Else - Samuel Goldwyn Films

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