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The Green Life: MOVIE REVIEW: The Island President

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November 04, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: The Island President


During The Island President, a documentary about the Maldives’ political leader/climate warrior Mohamed Nasheed, we encounter the odd pairing of paradisal coral atolls and Radiohead. The music seems tuned to a grimmer landscape than this. Or maybe the image just hasn’t caught up with the bleak melody. The soundtrack might synchronize more smoothly with an archipelago of 1,200 drowned islands.

Which is a valid fear for President Nasheed and every other Maldivian: Scientists project that ocean swelling will soon cover their country with seawater. Director Jon Shenk cuts his film with Nasheed’s campaign to fend off this troubling future. The president, it seems, spends most of his time strategizing about how to keep the islands at breathing level. It makes sense. He just came to office (his predecessor was an authoritarian with the gaze of a porcelain doll), and before you can govern a country, you have to have a country.

Much of The Island President is an affair of missed opportunities. We spend the first hour scrambling for guidance through a land of bright but loosely connected scenes. What exactly is the film about? The imminence of climate disruption drives us forward, but it’s a drama too familiar to provide any narrative spark, and Nasheed’s audacious character blocks out the islands' story. When we finally depart the Maldives for Copenhagen, site of the 2009 UN climate conference, the story hits its groove. A series of negotiations pit our hero against Chinese and Indian diplomats, who could easily squash the tiny Maldives on their trample toward development. They yell at each other, and we get our first case of the jitters.

The film shines in its portrait of Nasheed, which achieves a high level of definition while leaving him room to breathe. There's always a tie around his neck, but he’s more open-coated salesman than buttoned-up diplomat. We get a lot of black suits on white sand, a lot of slacks in the surf (famously, he held a subaqueous cabinet meeting). We watch sessions with advisors, during which puts his raw passion on the table; they hone it into a political weapon.

We even catch him in his pajamas. A quick waking-up scene in a plush hotel room reveals a row of pillows bisecting his bed, begging the question: Does he hug them while he sleeps? Shenk’s degree of access to a president seems unparalleled.

Despite its average storytelling, The Island President is worth watching for its open look at a passionate and unfettered politician.

The Island President will screen on Nov. 8 during DOC NYC. Click here for tickets.

--Jake Abrahamson / video courtesy TVEAPfilms; for the film's official trailer, click here.


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