Five Feet High and Rising
Albeit to accusations of selective whitewashing, like sea levels dramatized biographies of the famous are on the rise, with documentary lives lagging behind. The Island President, however, differs from other non-fiction screen lives in that, with relatively little on the past and archival footage, it focuses on one recent year. In a departure, it links its subject statesman with the polemic over global warming and the struggle of the G77 developing states to impress their concerns on the G7 big boys.
Wrapped before Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan’s February palace coup forced Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed from office as the Republic of the Maldives’ first democratically elected president and the destruction of sixth century National Museum Buddhist statues by suspected Sunni extremists, the hundred-one minutes can only refer to the ouster in end-titles. To music by Radiohead, those final credits are printed over aerial views of the archipelago’s twenty atolls of some two thousand tiny coral islands, stunning like phosphorescent jellyfish in blue-green water. To the film’s credit, it resists travelogue footage of one of the world’s lowest lying and poorest countries, one that has come to depend less on fishing and more on well-heeled vacationers.
Some time is necessarily given to background, in the 1978-2008 autocracy of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. There is a sole shot of an isolated hut, one of several places where foreign-educated Nasheed was long confined and tortured during numerous arrests as Maldivian Democratic Party co-founder.
Short and slight, handsome, humorous and articulate, he reflects on two decades’ political commitment, arrests, incarcerations, and exile. Then his girlfriend, now wife and mother of their two daughters, Laila Ali had been placed under house arrest but here remarks on fears for her husband.
Nasheed became something of a media favorite, with Time and the UN recognizing him as one of the Heroes of the Earth, when from the beginning of his tenure he pledged his country to be the first to achieve zero carbon footprint. Aware that rising seas would submerge the powerless nation that needed to catch outside attention -- 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami ravages in other, larger countries made more news splash -- he proposed relocating its whole four-hundred-thousand population elsewhere. A televised cabinet meeting was held underwater in scuba equipment, and in his business suit the soaked president sat for cameras at a desk half-submerged in surf.
Pragmatic publicity, though such statements and stunts are not cold calculation but arise naturally from the island president’s engaging personality. As much as the concrete situation, it was the person himself who “sounds incredible” that attracted director and photographer Jon Shank and his fellow Stanford alumni producers.
Void of graphics and animation, focus is on Nasheed in “this David and Goliath tale for the literal survival of his country.” Survival is also littoral, as he consults with fishermen and residents on sandbagged eroded beaches and cell-phones world leaders to bring them aboard.
The film crew obtained direct access to the president, his cabinet and staff, and attended official meetings and strategy sessions. Even during three months of consultations on five continents with heads and representatives of power-broker nations and organizations, the camera is right there despite issues of protocol, security and language. Nasheed would request the filmmakers’ presence although permission depended on, and was at times refused by, the other party/parties. The result is correspondingly direct, not filtered through the impressions of talking-head boosters, detractors or proclaimed experts.
For the climactic December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Control Conference, COP15, the president secured the crew Maldivian delegation credentials rather than press badges, and thus more was open to them. The issues of climate change are humanized by essentially peering over the shoulder of Nasheed rather than through an array of speakers and statistics or even excess footage of street demonstrations at “Hopenhagen.”
While that hundred-ninety-two-nation conference is normally painted as a failure, the desired 350 ppm of CO2 never agreed upon, the Maldives’ sitting head of state did keep smaller nations together and China, India and the United States pledged themselves to a non-binding reduction of emissions.
Nasheed’s honesty and realistic optimism are unusual among statesmen. Whether or not forced at gunpoint by police and army loyal to the ancien régime or by unsolved economic woes, his resignation is a loss to the world stage.
(Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and rated "PG" by MPAA.)