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Jon Shenk Gets Up Close and Personal with The Island President

Jon Shenk Gets Up Close and Personal with The Island President

Articles - Directing

For some, the issue of climate change is an academic one: How is the way in which we live our lives affecting the environment? For others, it’s an issue of activism: We are causing immense damage to our planet, so how do we stop it? But for the Maldives, the issue of climate change is, pure and simple, one of survival.

That’s because the Maldives, a chain breathtakingly beautiful islands in the Indian Ocean, is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. Even now parts of the country are disappearing under the rising waves, and a rise in sea level of three meters would submerge all of the 1,200 islands to the point that they would be made practically uninhabitable, the population of the entire country forced to find a new home.

When Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed came to power in 2008, it was as the country’s first democratically-elected leader, following the 30-year reign of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After the fight to bring democracy to the Maldives was won—not without personal cost to Nasheed, who was repeatedly tortured and imprisoned by the Gayoom regime—Nasheed jumped headfirst into another seemingly impossible struggle: Fixing climate change.

Throughout his first year in office, Nasheed made climate change his priority, meeting with other world leaders (some more receptive than others) and becoming a key player at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, where he was instrumental in getting a deal passed that marked the first time China, India and the United States agreed to reduce their carbon emissions.

As we know from countless sports movies, audiences love an underdog, so it’s a good thing for environmentalists and fans of compelling stories alike that documentarian Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) was on hand to capture Nasheed’s inspiring first year as President for The Island President, in select U.S. theaters starting tomorrow, March 28th. For his film, which won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Shenk gained unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes work that went into the history-making Copenhagen Climate Summit. Of course, all of that was possible due to Nasheed himself, who granted Shenk and his team the sort of access to his everyday life—the film sees him in cabinet meetings, arguing with his advisers and even sitting down to have dinner with his wife—that is more or less unheard of among heads of state. Then again, if there’s one thing that’s proven over the course of the film, it’s this: Nasheed is not your average politician.

Shenk took the time to chat with MovieMaker about, not only his film, but the unfortunate coda to Nasheed’s presidency: In February of this year, he was forced to resign under the threat of violence by security forces loyal to former dictator Gayoom, bringing to an end his Presidency but not, Shenk believes, democracy in the Maldives. “Nasheed’s movement and tenure in office have given the Maldivians a taste of freedom, transparency and good governance,” he says. “It’s hard to take that away from people once they know what it feels like. The protest movement is bigger now than it was before Nasheed took office. The genie is out of the bottle.”

Rebecca Pahle (MM): As a DP, you’ve worked on political and environmental documentary projects alike, and The Island President combines the Maldives’ recent political history with President Nasheed’s environmental crusade. Was it either one of these aspects in particular that drew you to Nasheed’s story?

Jon Shenk (JS): I was drawn to Nasheed when I first heard about him in October of 2008. He had just won the presidency in the Maldives after fighting for democracy there as a civil rights activist for 20 years. When he stepped into office as the first democratically elected leader in that country, he immediately took on the challenge of climate change. He began saying provocative, brutally honest statements regarding the climate issue. He said, for example, that the Maldives would soon be looking for a new homeland for its people because their island nation (the lowest-lying in the world) would inevitably go underwater. The lightbulb that went off in my mind was, “Wow, up until now, the debate about climate change has been mostly a scientific argument. Scientists agree about the problem, yet it’s been difficult to motivate the masses, and leaders have failed to adopt change. Here’s a chance to humanize the issue.”

When you meet Nasheed (or see him for the first time in The Island President), one is immediately struck by his wit, candor and charisma. He is a man who has faced the most challenging situations—torture, solitary confinement—and he did not give up. He fights like a man who has nothing to lose. And therefore the story of this film becomes a David and Goliath tale, or the little mouse that roared.

Also, visually, one could not ask for a more beautiful backdrop than the Maldives. It is… exquisite, and the visual story is quite apparent to the naked eye. You take one look at those islands and you think to yourself, “This is absolutely gorgeous.” And a half-second later you think, “They are so vulnerable.” There’s no place to go when the water rises!

MM: In the film, you captured footage of not only Nasheed, but also of his meetings with other world leaders. How did you go about getting access for that? Did you ever have doubts that you’d be able to get the material you needed?

JS: Of course we had doubts! Self-doubt and insecurity [are] great sources of alternative (creative) energy.

We proposed to Nasheed a no-holds-barred-access documentary. Yet—even as we pitched him on the idea—we realized that we were asking for something virtually unheard of! No other head of state has participated in such a documentary. Of course, there have been incredible docs with amazing access to institutions and VIPs, but doing a verité doc with a president would be new.

He agreed to do it, I think, because he himself had a background as an activist/journalist and had used writing and the Internet to move the Maldives toward good governance. Also, later on (well into production) he told us (with a laugh), “I thought you would go away after a while.”

But we did not go away. We persisted. We negotiated to become part of the Maldivian delegation at [the] Copenhagen [Climate Summit] so that we would not be held behind the press barricades. When faced with a bilateral meeting with another head of state, we tried to make our case [to them] or simply film and beg for understanding when asked what we were doing.

I’m not proud of the tantrums I had when we got kicked out of meetings, but at the time I was so emotionally caught up in trying to tell the story in as intimate a way as possible. The producers, Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen, spent a lot of time on the phone, or in person, making the case for what we were trying to do. It wasn’t easy, but Nasheed looked at me one day and said, “Jon, I like people who try to do impossible things,” and winked at me. That put a little extra fuel in our tank. I’ll never forget that.

MM: Just last month, President Nasheed was ousted from office in an armed coup. As someone who was there for his first year as president, what were your thoughts on hearing the news?

JS: We were aware of the political tension in the Maldives from the time we arrived in early 2009. Many times, we were discussing politics in cafes in the capital when our Maldivian contacts would nervously look around and reply to us in whispers concerning Nasheed. They were afraid that a Gayoom-loyalist would be listening! This is a country that lived under a dictatorship for thirty years. Gayoom took prisoners and tortured his political enemies. People feared him and his loyalists. So, while I was shocked by the news, ultimately I am not surprised.

If you study the facts, you see that the new president has re-appointed the ministers who ran things under the dictator. The minister in charge of prisons now is the same guy who oversaw the prisons during Nasheed’s torture.

When I spoke to Nasheed about this last week, he told me that he thought the silver lining of recent events is that these people (corrupt power brokers) have now made it so clear that they are willing to bypass democracy to take back power. He is optimistic that when democracy is restored, those corrupt people will have completely ousted themselves.

The other thing is that Nasheed’s movement and tenure in office has given the Maldivians a taste of freedom, transparency and good governance. It’s hard to take that away from people once they know what it feels like. The protest movement is bigger now than it was before Nasheed took office. The genie is out of the bottle.

MM: Obviously, creating a documentary is an unpredictable process, but are there any major differences between the film you set out to make and the final version?

JS: The main difference is that Nasheed became a larger part of the international debate than we ever dreamed [he would]. I thought that, if he went to Copenhagen, it would be as the leader of a tiny country protesting against the powerful countries. Of course, he did do that, but he was also invited into the small group of leaders who banged out the details of the final agreement. I believe—as I show in the film—that he was partly responsible for eking out the small step forward that did take place in Copenhagen.

MM: What was the process for getting Radiohead to contribute their music to the film? How did that partnership come about?

JS: When I saw the Maldives for the first time from the plane, I was listening to Radiohead. I love their dreamlike, otherworldly music. It’s deeply personal but also very modern and has a borderlessness to it. I thought, “If there’s a way to get their music into this film, it would take it to another level.” It turns out that Thom Yorke cares deeply about the environment. In fact, he went to Copenhagen as an observer, and went to meet Nasheed during our production period. Through some friends, we were able to contact the band, show them some samples of their music against our film, and they liked it. One thing led to another, and I asked them about the idea of partially scoring the film with several of their tracks. They have been so generous to the project. We are eternally grateful!

MM: Anything you’d like to add?

JS: I think The Island President is a dramatic story. When we were fundraising for this film, people said to us, “Oh no, not another climate film!” And it’s true—people have become numb to this issue to a certain degree. But I think it’s because of the way it is framed. What could be more dramatic than a hero trying to save the planet from the impending apocalypse? As a viewer, you have no choice but to root for this guy! What other world leader is fighting with this kind of passion?

Another thought: I think the lesson of Nasheed is that anybody can ask themselves, “What can I do in my life to change things for the better?” You don’t need to be a president to ask that question of yourself. We all have households, schools, companies, communities. Everything needs to change. President Nasheed pushed the power of his office to extreme effect. What would happen if we all did that in our own lives?

The Island President comes to U.S. theaters starting Wednesday, March 28th. For more information on the film—and to see if it’s playing in a city near you—visit theislandpresident.com.

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