At the very end, with a title, the documentary The Island President conveys what is probably the most important piece of information: The island president isn't the island president anymore. Mohamad Nasheed led the Maldives from 2008 until earlier this year, when he left office under disputed circumstances. He was the Indian Ocean archipelago's first democratically elected leader in decades. The future of democracy in the Maldives is uncertain.
This profile of Nasheed is clearly meant to be inspirational. So for director Jon Shenk, the political developments must have made for some stressful moments in postproduction.
The Maldives are in trouble. The globe is warming and the oceans are rising, and the tiny developing nation risks being swallowed up. The documentary follows Nasheed as he organizes worldwide efforts to stem the warming, or tries to. In far-flung locales like New York and London, the young, attractive president cuts a dashing figure as he pitches his carbon proposals at various international gatherings.
His efforts come to a head at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. After wheedling among less- and more-developed countries, a climate deal is struck. Nasheed rejoices.
Much about The Island President is arresting. In particular, the images of the Maldives are heart-stoppingly beautiful - the sandy beaches, the glittering reefs, the bright blue water. In his country, Nasheed meets with his staff, visits eroded shorelines and breaks Ramadan's fast with his wife.
Nasheed is an interesting guy, an energetic leader. A former activist, he knows how to stage a media event, including an underwater meeting of cabinet officials in scuba gear. Under the old regime, Nasheed's activism landed him in solitary confinement for months. The film documents this harrowing experience in a clear-eyed way.
But in covering Nasheed's global efforts, The Island President falters. It skips around too quickly and doesn't convey enough nuance about how the work of eco-diplomacy is done. In one montage, Nasheed shakes hands with numerous international pooh-bahs. Great, but doesn't that happen at any conference? A puzzling sequence at the Copenhagen meeting shows Nasheed huddling with advisers over cigarettes. They're strategizing, but the details are elliptical and confusing. I'm left wanting to know more.
Something else troubles me. Nasheed was a democratically elected leader, meaning some people voted for him and others, presumably, against him. Yet Shenk doesn't talk to Maldivians who have anything discouraging to say about Nasheed, and that makes for an incomplete portrait. We're meant to understand Nasheed as a gifted wheeler and dealer on the global stage, so why can't we also watch him negotiate the politics of the Maldives? Too often The Island President verges on hagiography.