This year's DOC NYC lineup includes The Island President, which won the People's Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Audiences were undoubtedly charmed into casting their vote not just because of the film itself, but the charisma of the documentary's subject, the president of the Maldives.
President Mohamed Nasheed was imprisoned and tortured multiple times by the previous, dictatorial regime before being elected in the first fair election in thirty years. When he assumed office, he focused on the island nation's most pressing issue: Staying above water. The Maldives, which has a population of just under a million and takes a few hours to reach--by plane!--from India, has over 2,000 islands, many just above sea level. The citizens' constant struggle with erosion became a pressing political issue after the 2004 tsunami devastated entire islands in the archipelago, which had to be abandoned. Then the former president misappropriated over $100 million in aid in the aftermath of the natural disaster. The islands' erosion problems signify global warming. If carbon dioxide levels in the air continue to rise, the Maldives will be underwater in less than a century, a sort of canary-in-the-coal-mine for the problems that will be unleashed by global warming.
Director Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) has remarkable access to the inner workings of the president's regime. The audience is privy to the kind of compromises, drudgery, and deal-making required of a politician, and its close trail of its subject hearkens back to 1960's documentary classic Primary. President Nasheed shows he's game to unusual PR tactics like holding a conference underwater in SCUBA gear in order to bring attention to his country's plight, so it's easy to understand why he would welcome a filmmaker's cameras.
Shenk chooses the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit as the movie's climax. Nasheed ends up being a bridge between the developed and developing countries. The biggest carbon emitters, such as the U.S. and Europe, want everyone to reduce carbon emissions, while developing nations such as India and China argue they use just a fraction of the carbon of these rich nations and need to increase carbon emissions as their nation grows. The Maldives, as a small developing nation, offers a compelling argument for developing nations to help their own. Being on the inside reveals interesting insights. "I think India wanted to be like Canada [is to the U.S.], hiding behind China," President Nasheed observes, since India is rather reluctant to make the kind of stand at the summit that China is. I can't imagine many leaders are willing to let a documentarian sit at their meetings with aides and occasionally showing the kind of political and PR legerdemain that must be used in these situations. The Island President may be aiming to be an environmental documentary, but it's actually one of the most fascinating political documentaries in recent years.