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Where EAST meets the Northwest

ISLAND ADVOCATE. The Island President is screening Friday, February 24 at 6:15pm as part of the 35th annual Portland International Film Festival. Pictured is Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, whose quest to become president of the Maldives and fight for environmental justice is documented in the film. (Photo/Chiara Goia, courtesy of the Northwest Film Center)

From The Asian Reporter, V22, #04 (February 20, 2012), page 11.

A matter of life and death

The Island President

Directed by Jon Shenk

Produced by Bonni Cohen and Richard Berge

Screening February 24 at 6:15pm at the

World Trade Center Theater, 121 S.W. Salmon Street, Portland

By Josephine Bridges

The Asian Reporter

The Maldives, a nation of 2,000 tiny islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is a place of surreal beauty, tragic history, and cutting-edge thought. For some, global warming is a troubling concept. For others, it is a conspiracy. But for the entire population of this country that lies 1.5 meters above sea level, global warming is a matter of life and death.

The Island President documents the relentless quest of Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, president of the Maldives, for environmental justice. Stirring, chilling, riveting, yet understated, this is documentary filmmaking at its zenith.

Revolutionaries, once they seize power, all too often become as corrupt as the tyrants they displace. Yet Nasheed, an activist who spent 18 months in solitary confinement during the 30-year rule of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, not only went on to defeat, in free and fair elections, the autocrat whose name had become synonymous with the word "president," but upon his election, began to work tirelessly for his country’s very survival. In one astonishing scene, he explains succinctly to a man whose island needs help that other islands must come first. "Yes, okay," the man replies.

Only seven years ago, in December of 2004, when a massive tsunami took just an hour to destroy more than half of the Maldives’ gross domestic product, the country had already been on edge for more than a year following the beating death of a young man who was in jail. Nasheed had gone into exile for his safety.

When countries in Europe offered $100 million in aid to the ravaged nation, they insisted the money be linked to political reform, and Nasheed returned home to establish the Maldivian Democratic Party, already set up abroad, in the Maldives.

"When this started," says Ahmed Naseem, a former political prisoner and cabinet member, "I knew that Nasheed would be either murdered by Gayoom, or he would be president of the Maldives." In November of 2008, Nasheed was sworn in.

"When we came to power," says President Nasheed, "we thought we’d won the fight." But it became clear after the first few cabinet meetings that most issues before the new government involved climate change. "It won’t be any good to have democracy if we don’t have a country," he points out.

The year leading up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009 was a busy one for Nasheed. He announced to the world that the Maldives planned to be the first country in the world to become carbon neutral, meeting all its energy needs through renewable resources such as solar and wind power, within a decade. He travelled to England, the United States, and India for meetings on climate change, participated in the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, and investigated saltwater seeping into fresh groundwater on one of the islands, all the while addressing the population of his country by radio every Friday.

At the Copenhagen Climate Summit, Nasheed, ordinarily given to gracious understatement, is clearly exhausted. Asked what the plans are for the Maldives if the conference fails to reach its goals, he answers, "None. We will all die."

Nonetheless, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, calls him "the hero of tonight" for the part he plays in bringing about the summit participants’ 11th hour agreement on a document that calls for, but doesn’t require, reduction of greenhouse gasses. This is an enormous compromise for Nasheed, whose objective was much stronger language, but the agreement of China, India, and the United States to reduce carbon emissions is a historic first step.

With its moody soundtrack, historical footage, and stunning aerial shots of the otherworldly archipelago, The Island President is as moving as it is informative, and as heartbreaking as it is hopeful. Unfortunately, like the waves eroding the shores of the Maldives, the bad news just keeps breaking.

The Island President ends with a note that in the year following the Copenhagen Climate Summit, atmospheric CO2 rose from 387 to 390 parts per million, and continues to rise. On February 7, 2012 in the midst of political turmoil, Nasheed resigned from his presidency.

The Island President is screening Friday, February 24 at 6:15pm as part of the 35th annual Portland International Film Festival (PIFF). To order advance tickets, call (503) 276-4310. For more information, or to view a complete PIFF schedule, visit <>.