A new documentary “The Island President” profiles Mohamed Nasheed as he tries to save his island nation of the Maldives from sinking into the Indian Ocean. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are slowly destroying the island nation’s fishing industry and contaminating its clean water supply.
If this trend isn’t reversed soon, the Maldivian people will eventually lose their home. Nasheed’s priority as the country’s first democratically elected president is to convince other nations to join his cause and take action.
As we see in the documentary, climate change isn’t the only challenge Nasheed has to confront. He is also haunted by the specter of the country’s 30-year dictatorship: This past February, Nasheed was forced to resign his presidency at gunpoint by police and army officers in a coup d’etat. And even as the country prepares itself for a new election, it does so against a bleak backdrop of continuing erosion and decay. A grim reality that Nasheed underscores when he asks, “How can there be a democracy if there is no country?”
I recently spoke to director Jon Shenk about how his film came together and the craft of documentary filmmaking.
Hannah Yi: It’s a pretty big commitment to decide to spend years of your life on one topic. How did you know you’d fall in love with Nasheed and his story?
Jon Shenk: To make an independent documentary and the years that it takes to fundraise for it and to travel and to leave your family and do this kind of work you really have to fall in love with your subject matter.
For me, this project really started when I read about Nasheed in the newspaper in 2008. He’s the first democratically elected leader of a Muslim country. It just jumped off the page. He did seem to me an absolutely unique character, kind of a … once in a lifetime character. He’s a freedom fighter, he’s charismatic, he’s handsome, he’s funny, he’s super mischievous.
One thing I noticed right away when we started filming is that whatever room that he was in – whether it’s a cabinet meeting or at home with his kids – everyone is always laughing and he’s having a good time. He has this boundless energy and it’s infectious. I think when somebody like that rises out of the midst of any population and then fights for what an unarguably good cause, you can’t help but he infected by that energy.
Yi: What was it like when you first went to the Maldives? There’s so much beauty and at the same time some dire situations.
Shenk: When you see it for the first time when you’re flying in there, it’s just absolutely breathtaking. You feel like you’re seeing a wonder of the world for the first time. You cannot absolutely believe this place actually exists on planet earth. Half a second later what goes through your mind is that it’s so vulnerable. It’s so precious. It feels like it’s almost an accident of nature that it’s there at all. And your heart goes out you want to protect it.
I love photography and that’s what documentary films are about — telling stories with pictures. The Maldives was a total gift to a documentary filmmaker because the setting was just so magnificent and also just really stark, like the erosion. It’s just tactile and very vivid.
Yi: Nasheed’s rise to political power and also the country itself seem to both have the underdog narrative. Was it intentional to show that similarity in the documentary?
Shenk: I’ve always been a huge fan of underdog stories. I think it’s actually a classic American kind of tale to pull for the underdog. The idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and being able to go from being a relatively obscure person to having a command of a country.
Nasheed definitely fits right into that. He is a bottom-up activist. That narrative was written into our film proposal: that this was an underdog story about the person and also the country of the Maldives itself. They have no real military, [it’s ] a tiny population, they’re totally dependent on exporting the fish that they raise. It is a classic underdog story from the physical view of the country and from Nasheed’s character point of view as well.
Yi: You’re now publicizing the film. How important is this aspect of documentary filmmaking?
Shenk: Well, it’s no secret that it’s difficult to get documentaries out in the world and have them seen. You want the film to be an enjoyable experience when you shoot it, then you want to be able to craft a story that’s satisfying, and ultimately you want an audience to see it. That’s what it’s all about in the end, so my team and I have always felt that distribution was just as important as any other piece.
But overall the life of a documentary filmmaker is just an incredible privilege. Often you get to meet people that otherwise you’d have no reason to meet, travel to places that are you know completely off the radar for most people and you know just having an incredibly rich life. Not to mention the fact that you have the privilege to tell these stories and craft you know stories of real people.
Yi: You followed Nasheed for several months and now you guys are together again promoting the documentary. Does that mean you both have become close friends? How important is it to draw the line between filmmaker/observer versus character/subject?
Shenk: During the film production I wouldn’t say that we became friends. I think we both felt that there should be a line. We shouldn’t be allies so to speak. I should be a storyteller, and he should continue doing his own work.
I think it’s totally natural and appropriate for filmmakers to get to know their subject and have a rapport with them. What I’m talking about is more subtle where you don’t want your subject to start suggesting how the film should go and you don’t want to cross the line and make recommendations about how they should be doing their business. Of course I had thoughts myself perhaps about what he should do in given situations but I held back. I’m sure that he felt like there should be things I should be covering or ways that I should be filming things, but at some point the two parties have to leave each other alone.
The first time he saw the film was in public at the Toronto Film Festival. After the film was done, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Wow now let me just really talk to this guy.” I think we developed a little bit more friendly relationship. This week he’s in New York helping to publicize the film and also talk about the recent events in the Maldives. I feel like now we can work a little bit more together as colleagues. But during the filmmaking and during the editing I felt like it was really important that there be a little firewall between us.
Yi: Some might watch the documentary and say it has a clear advocacy message, but you call this an observational film. It seems like a fine line and as a filmmaker how do you make the distinction?
Shenk: I’m not an activist. I didn’t mean to make “The Island President” as an activist film or as a commercial for the Maldives or Nasheed. That’s just not how I think. Ultimately at the end of the day the film has to be entertaining and exciting and deep and nuanced and ambiguous about the right way and the wrong way to go about doing things. On the other hand, I think that the film can see what I saw as a person. You can’t help but have a point of view and frame things a certain way.
Climate change deniers could look at this film and say, “Oh, this is an activist lefty film about a pro-environmental message.” And I think that’s a shame. It’s really a film about a person who has a point of view who’s trying to do this thing. And whether you agree with it or not you can’t help but be caught up in his story and his quest.
This interview has been condensed and edited.