‘The Island President’ Director Jon Shenk Talks Coups and Courage

New doc chronicles ousted Maldives climate-change hero, Mohamed Nasheed.

Ousted Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed is carried by his supporters in Male February 8, 2012. Credited with bringing democracy to the Indian Ocean island nation, Nasheed said he was forced out of power at gunpoint. (Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Mar 27, 2012· 5 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Jon Shenk had never been to the Maldives when, in the fall of 2008, he read about a young activist named Mohamed Nasheed who had just become the country’s first democratically elected president after 30 years of horrific dictatorship.

“When I started paying attention to Nasheed’s presidency, I was struck by his willingness to say these brutally honest things about the global environment. His was a truly unique political story.

“A lightbulb went on in my head. Here was a chance to completely shift the conversation about climate change from something a lot of people consider boring or are powerless over—climate change—to a story with both inherent drama and a kind of hero.”

Weeks later the San Francisco-based filmmaker—who was director of 2004’s Lost Boys of Sudan and was DP on the Academy Award-winning Smile Pinki—was face-to-face with the new president, attempting to convince Nasheed to be the subject of a David-versus-Goliath bio-doc.

Shenk asked for unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access to the president, his office, his travels, and backroom negotiations. Within three minutes after meeting, Nasheed agreed.

The filmmakers ultimately trailed the president across five continents, filming him 78 times, gaining backroom access to high-level climate-change negotiations at both the U.N. and Copenhagen’s international climate-change conference in November 2009, where the film ends.

But Shenk could not have predicted that just as his film was to be released across the country, Nasheed would be forced out of office by a coup d’état.

“Only later,” Shenk tells me on the eve of the nationwide opening of The Island President, “did he tell me he never thought we’d stick around as long as we did.”

As I talk to Shenk, he keeps his fingers tightly crossed, hopeful that among the film’s opening-night guests at New York’s Film Forum (on Wednesday) will be the now-ousted island president.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What was your reaction when you heard President Nasheed had resigned, on February 7?

Jon Shenk: It was devastatingly sad news. I was immediately worried for his safety, and his family’s safety.

During our research I’d seen hours of [archival] footage of what is possible when people want to use force in the Maldives, and what we saw last month when he was forced out of office looked eerily similar to the protests he’d led during the fight for democracy days.

One of the first things he did when he was elected was to order all of that riot gear be put away. But as soon as he was deposed, all that stuff—batons, pepper spray, water cannons—came out of the closet.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: His deposing was amazing in how quickly it happened, a kind of reverse Arab Spring. You had a democratically elected president being forced out by allies of the dictator he had worked so hard to defeat.

Jon Shenk: It was spooky because late last year Nasheed had publicly cautioned activists in Egypt and Tunisia that just because you oust a dictator doesn’t mean it’s over. Sure enough, he became the victim of just that.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Even with the incredible access you had to the president and his backroom meetings and strategy, was it difficult to film a sitting president?

Jon Shenk: Yes and no. While we had his cooperation, having one man’s cooperation in the Maldives did not mean it was all carte blanche. The Maldives is a country that had been traumatized, so people were wary of cooperating with us. These are people who had lived under a dictator, with people disappearing and constantly fearful of disappearing. We would ask questions about politics, and people would whisper back to us, looking around first before answering to make sure no one was listening.

I got the sense from the start that the shadow of the dictator had not gone away. At the time I thought that was absurd, that the dictator was never going to take power again. Of course, now I’ve been proven wrong: their fears were founded.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: As a journalist and human rights activist before being elected president, Nasheed had been imprisoned by his predecessor, held in solitary confinement, and tortured. He clearly is a big believer in transparency and a free press and has been very good at reaching out to the media. As president he vowed to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country and held an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the coming impacts of climate change on low-lying island nations. In your time with him would you consider him more activist…or politician?

...what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.

Jon Shenk: He’s been an activist for much of his life, a Martin Luther King/Gandhi-like figure. To put his own safety on the line, to put up with solitary confinement and torture...this is not activism light.

But he is the first to admit that in order to get attention for important issues you have to be dramatic. He’s better at that than any politician I can think of.

So while he’d spent his life organizing on the streets and Internet I was amazed by how really good at governing he became when he stepped into office. But ultimately his efforts to turn out the entrenched corruption in the Maldives and create a functional economy made him a victim of the very wealthy people who were no longer getting their share as he tried to change the system.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What do you think of the criticism Nasheed was receiving in the Maldives before he was ousted that he was spending too much time traveling and working on international climate-change issues and not enough time at home focused on local problems like the economy, crime, drugs, education, etc.?

Jon Shenk: We showed The Island President at a theater in (the Maldivian capitol) Male for a week in November, and it got almost unanimously positive reviews, even from opposition websites. They said they had no idea what he was doing when he went abroad, but when they saw the film, when they saw him trying to get adaptation money and mitigation for the future, then they understood.

When he traveled abroad he was obviously working on international issues that couldn’t be more important to the Maldives. In the film you see him working like a dog. If I were a Maldivian, I would realize this is not some playboy going off to have fun; he was a hard-working negotiator working on behalf of the Maldives.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Though he’s only been out of the presidency a few weeks, do you have any idea what’s next for him?

Jon Shenk: I asked him the same question over the phone 10 days ago. What he said kind of shocked me in its optimism. He basically said he thinks this may turn out to be a good thing, that if and when there are new elections in the Maldives, the people are going to know much more about who the remnants of the corrupt oligarchy are. Perhaps if Nasheed or some decent person is able to take power again, maybe that person will have more leeway to root out the criminals.

I look forward to following his career. The world of international climate politics is virtually impossible to change, because there is so much inertia. But he has carved out a place for himself in the environmental movement, which is looking for leadership.

Of course, that’s all on a back burner right now since he fears for his life and is still trying to maintain democracy in the Maldives. Because he’s smart, charismatic, and knows what’s right and wrong, I think he still has an amazing career ahead of him.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Have you made any changes to the film given that he is no longer the president?

Jon Shenk: We never really saw this film as a news story but as a kind of David vs. Goliath tale about one of the “good people.” You see him standing up to leaders from China, Europe, the U.S. and India, saying over and over, “We’re not going to stand down.” So the film is really about leadership and the story of a man and how he’s chosen to live his life.

To change the film would pierce that. It is about what happened to him during that period, a precious document of that time of his life.

We did add a card at the end of the film that explains what’s gone on in the last couple months. I’ve been in audiences when that card comes up at the end, and there are audible sighs, because what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.