If Judge William Lee brought along his favorite DVDs, you'd probably vote him off the island.
Can this man save the world?
The Maldives is an independent nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Its territory is comprised of a chain of 1,192 tiny islands spread over an area of 35,000 square miles. With an average ground level of four feet and 11 inches above sea level, the entire country would be submerged if oceans rise. Before watching The Island President my knowledge of the Maldives was next to nothing. After watching this documentary, it's impossible to forget the man who went from political prisoner to world leader.
Filmmaker Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) started his directorial career making behind-the-scenes featurettes for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones. Perhaps his association with those films taught him that political maneuvering and endless meetings between diplomats can be exciting on film if the players are sympathetic and the stakes are significant. President Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed is the ideal underdog protagonist in this real life story concerning the fate of the world.
The first part of the movie deals with the recent history of the island nation and Mohamed Nasheed's early political life. After completing his education in England, Nasheed returned home with political change on his mind. He led a radical magazine that attracted the attention of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives' dictator for 30 years. Throughout the 1990s, Nasheed was arrested and tortured numerous times. During one prison term, he was kept in solitary confinement for 18 months. When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the Maldives—wiping out more than 50 percent of GDP—international aid came with the condition of political reform. In 2008, Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives.
The main thrust of the film focuses on President Nasheed's efforts to get action on climate change at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December of 2009. While most of us saw occasional news reports to the effect of "they haven't reached an agreement yet," the view from the ground was much more proactive. Jon Shenk and his crew have nearly unrestricted access to the president's meetings with other world leaders. Some are sympathetic to the plight of the islands while others are downright hostile to the suggestion of curbing emissions and impacting their own development. Through it all, Nasheed is an agile statesman. He doesn't waver from his goals, he knows which fights to fight and he makes allies wherever he can. He's also smart about getting the media's attention. He's never shy about appearing in front of the cameras and he even stages an underwater cabinet meeting. That's how this leader of a nation that most people had never heard of shared the spotlight with the United States, China and India when the world waited for them to set a direction for the earth's future.
The Island President excels by taking this huge event and telling it on a personal level. It's essentially the story of a little man who takes on the big adversaries with little more than moral fortitude. Casting Nasheed as the David against the major nations' Goliath is very effective. You can't help but root for the articulate, smart and sincere Nasheed. The consequence, however, is that the film is very much his tale alone. There are no alternative voices explaining the erosion of the islands. The mood of the Maldivian public is not gauged. Nasheed seems like a single-issue president since we learn so little else about his administration. The factors that would eventually lead to his ouster from office (after the completion of the film) aren't explored. Climate change deniers and political enemies will easily point to the film and call it eco-propaganda. That's not to deny the film's splendidly riveting storytelling.
First Run Features has done a nice job with the technical presentation of the main feature. The picture quality of the new footage shot for the film is excellent. The flawless image shows off strong colors and a good amount of fine detail. There is a mixture of archival footage used to fill in the history and that material varies in quality but it's never too shabby. The surround sound mix isn't overly complex but it's perfectly balanced for this kind of movie. Dialogue and location sound effects are clearly heard through the center speaker while the surround channels are reserved for music. The alternative rock tunes by Radiohead and Stars of the Lid are used effectively to set the mood and pace but they never overpower the dialogue. There are no optional subtitles on the disc but permanent English subtitles translate the occasional scenes when people are speaking other languages.
The most substantial extra on the disc is a Q&A session (24 minutes) with the director following a screening. Jon Shenk is properly recorded for his answers but the moderator's microphone is considerably weaker. On the plus side, the audio recording is clear enough that you can crank the volume way up (so you can hear the questions from the un-amplified audience) without any distortion or hiss. Be ready to ride the volume though. The other bonus material consists of a promo video (3 minutes) mentioning the award the film has received and several text screens detailing the biographies of the director and producers.
This documentary delivers great drama by focusing on a truly fascinating person, following his extraordinary journey to the global stage. The remarkable access to world leaders and the glimpse of the backroom workings of an international summit are unprecedented. Stalled talks between politicians never looked so suspenseful and that is an amazing filmmaking accomplishment. The DVD deserves a big recommendation.
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