‘The Island President': Ousted Leader Fights Political Battle as Movie Rolls Out

As the documentary “The Island President” is released, ex-president Mohamed Nasheed fights for elections in the aftermath of a coup


"The Island President" at the center of Jon Shenk’s documentary is no longer in office, but Mohamed Nasheed’s environmental crusade on behalf of his island nation continues as the movie rolls out into theaters Friday.

Jon Shenk and Mohamed Nasheed

Nasheed, the first democratically-elected president of the Maldives in 2008, led a crusade to get the world's governments to recognize and take steps to stem global warming. At risk: his nation, a low-lying string of islands that could be submerged by a rising Indian Ocean within decades.

He let Shenk’s cameras to follow him almost everywhere in keeping with his platform of transparency. But while he was fighting against climate change, the coalition of parties backing him began to fall apart – and on Feb. 7, he was pushed out by loyalists of the nation’s long-running dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

(Photo of Jon Shenk, left, and Mohamed Nasheed by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Also read: Samuel Goldwyn Acquires Documentary 'The Island President'

Nasheed is working to rally international pressure on the Maldives to hold new elections, which has obviously made his crusade about the dangers of global warming less of a priority than it was before the coup.

Shenk opted to the let the movie, which already screened on the festival circuit, to stand as is, only updating the card at the end of the film. 

Mohamed Nasheed

TheWrap first spoke to Shenk and President Nasheed at the Toronto Film Festival last September, when Nasheed received a hero's welcome.

That conversation obviously took place under the assumption that Nasheed would remain in power (though a few of his comments now seem prophetic). A follow-up conversation with Shenk this week brought things up to date.

First interview: September 2011:

As a politician, it was a risky move to allow the cameras as much access as they had. Why did you grant Jon that kind of access?
Jon Shenk: Temporary insanity.

Mohamed Nasheed: We came into government on a platform of transparency and honesty. People are no longer looking for angels to rule over you. I think that's a huge misconception, and I hate these publicity companies, this industry running around trying to manage presidents and governments.

The question is always, What is the soundbite you have to give today? The soundbite you give today is what you feel like, what you think about. It shouldn't be something that my press secretary writes down and says, "Now this is what you say today." To my mind, government is made very inefficient by all this tampering and management. So we wanted to run a different government.

So I thought, I'll be me, and I'll let people see who I am. If people don't like it, I'll just have to go.

Shenk: One thing that was evident to me is that he clearly enjoys his work. When you see American politicians or European politicians on television, you kind of wonder, do these people enjoy what they do? But this is a government that struggled to get into power, and when they got there they thought, Okay, how can we do this right? It's almost like watching a "West Wing" episode. You get the sense that there are all these bright, intelligent people in the room, and they're there because they want to get the work of the day done. It is a fight for decency over evil at the end of the day, and you have palpable sense of that when you're in the office of the president.

The Island PresidentI told the story of this film to a friend, and was appalled when she said, "But where are the Maldives, how big are they, and why should we care if they get flooded?" How do you respond to people like that?
Nasheed: What happens to us today is going to happen to you tomorrow. Don't be so naïve to think that nature is only trying to hit 300,000 Maldivians. Manhattan would be flooded as much as the Maldives. Of course, in Manhattan you can move three stories up, because you have 12-story buildings. You have better embankments. You can live in a different kind of town. You might be better able to adapt, but it’s going to hit everybody.

Shenk: And another compelling argument is that if the Maldives goes underwater, we're all going to be living in a very unpleasant world. Starting with the fact that those 300,000 refugees will have to go somewhere.

You know, people in the United States debate whether climate change is real, which I think is absurd. I feel like we've been lectured to, we've been shown the maps. And for some reason that's not working. Even though 99 percent of the world's scientists agree that global warming is a reality, for many people it hasn’t sunk in.

So we're just trying to tell a story – what is the effect of what is happening? And it is the fact that some on the front line, like president Nasheed and the Maldivians, are just waking up to the fact that they're first. There are moments in history when people step up and make changes that could lead to a revolution in the world. We're not so naïve to presume that we're starting a revolution, but we're trying to tell a story that we think is really compelling.

President Nasheed, are you frustrated with the level of discussion in the United States?
Nasheed: I'm concerned. Because I've always so liked the United States, always so admired them. It's strange to think that they're so naïve now not to understand this. They understood tobacco and cancer. The tobacco lobby is strong, but they legislated it. So it's strange that we've not been able to get the right tickle here. But I think Jon's film might hopefully take us there.

Shenk: It will happen. Some day there will be a sea change, a tipping point. The problem with climate is that if you study the facts, you see that we have a very limited time. As time goes by, if the tipping point doesn’t happen, then so much damage has been done, there's a cyclical effect and a feedback cycle that happens. We need to figure out a way to hurry up the normal process.

Mohamed Nasheed in The Island PresidentThe United States has proven again and again that it will do the right thing. Eventually there was a civil rights movement, there was a sea change against tobacco. The U.S. system is good in the long run at correcting itself – but when it comes to this climate thing, that normal, decades-long process might not be fast enough. Hopefully by telling stories like this, we can unstick the conversation and speed it up.

One of the themes of the film, which we clearly see when you attend an international climate-change conference in Copenhagen, is compromise. You're faced with a clear choice: either stick to your guns and not achieve anything, or compromise and end up slammed by your supporters for not doing enough.
Nasheed: I'm always compromising. The biggest compromise is that in the Maldives, previous presidents are either murdered, arrested or sent away. We wanted to break that and keep Gayoom untouched. And that is a huge  compromise.

So many people have been tortured and ill-treated in jail that many people want to prosecute Gayoom and his followers. But I've always felt that democracy is a better dispenser of justice than prosecution and the courtroom. I don’t think you get sustainable justice there.

This is about the longer process of truths and reconciliations and speaking out. So I haven't prosecuted any of the former regime people. And I'm having to live with that compromise. I am told again and again and again that all my troubles stem from the fact that I have not done that. Which is true – but I keep telling them, we would have another set of problems if we did that.

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Second interview: April 2012:

The last time we spoke, President Nasheed talked about how many of his troubles stemmed from his refusal to imprison and prosecute the former regime. Did that lead to his downfall?
Shenk: In a way, it did. The problems of establishing a democracy turned out to be so much more complicated than anybody might think – it was a morass, politically. There were so many loyalists who had been paid off, or who had been the beneficiaries of corruption for all those years. They were in the ranks of the police, the ranks of the military, and a ton of Gayoom's people were still in the judiciary – most of the judges in the country are still lifelong appointees of the dictator. So every time Nasheed's government passed legislation, the judiciary tried to undermine it.

He chose to take the high road and not bring prosecution against the corrupt people, and yes, that probably hurt him.

Mohamed Nasheed on "The Daily Show," 4/2/12:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  
Mohamed Nasheed


Does the current regime have any interest in continuing his crusade to take steps against climate change?
Shenk: They're not the type of people who think like that. The people who ran the Maldives for all those years were corrupt businesspeople, and they are back. It's like any society: You have people who just want to make money, and they aren't ever thinking of the long term.

It's such a shame, because they were on course to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world. That obviously would have been a huge symbolic moment.

How have the events been reflected in your film?
Shenk: We updated the cards at the end of the film, that's all. We added a card saying that there was a coup, and that the political situation is still up in the air.

Does he have a chance of returning to power?
Shenk: I wouldn't underestimate him. He's got endless energy, and he doesn't give up. For him, it's never about hoping or dreaming for a better future – it's about working for it. So he's been out in the street organizing counter-protests, and he's upbeat. It amazes me.

The thing is, he still has 65 to 70 percent popularity in the Maldives. And young people there, during his presidency they tasted freedom of the press, freedom of speech, democratic elections … They tasted things a democracy takes for granted, and since the coup they've seen the independent media get clobbered and taken down.

There's not much nuance in what has happened. The thugs are back in control.