Director Jon Shenk on His Love for the Maldives, Public Television, and Pizza

April 18, 2013 by Independent Lens in Uncategorized

A world of change has happened since Jon Shenk filmed The Island President (airing April 22 on Independent Lens). After Shenk released the documentary in 2012, Maldivian leader Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign and arrested twice on the campaign trail to reelection.

Below, Jon Shenk reacts to the chaos in the Maldives, followed by an interview with Independent Lens from last year in which he reveals his documentary filmmaking fuel — pizza and coffee.

Can you give us an update on developments since the film was completed?
I was shocked to learn that President Nasheed was forced from office in a coup d’état. In early 2012, we were preparing for the theatrical release of The Island President when we got word from the Maldives that the normally spirited politics in the country had taken a violent turn. Throughout his presidency, Nasheed, who chose not to prosecute the former dictator Mamoon Gayoom, had been struggling with Gayoom and his supporters. Nasheed had (and continues to have) broad, popular support in The Maldives, but the democracy was hamstrung from the beginning by a loose-end that had not been tied up when the new constitution was written in 2008. At that time, as part of a compromise, Nasheed’s party agreed to not dissolve the judiciary which was largely comprised of judges (most of whom had never been to law school) who had been appointed by the former dictator to life-time positions presiding over institutions like The Supreme Court.

The judiciary tried to undermine Nasheed’s reforms throughout his presidency. Yet, while Nasheed often criticized the situation, he did not act until he discovered that Judge Abdulla Mohamed of the Criminal Court was using his position on the bench to squelch an investigation concerning his own corruption and that he was favoring Gayoom’s allies in the courtroom. Abdulla Mohamed, a notorious judge, had previously forced a young girl to reenact, in front of the court, the sex crime of which she was the victim. In late 2011, Nasheed, the father of two young girls himself, decided to arrest the judge for unlawful behavior.

In the aftermath of the arrest, the military and police led a violent demonstration which ended in a threat to Nasheed’s life. The president resigned and it’s been a roller coaster ride ever since. The new government has indicted Nasheed on charges that he abused his powers when he arrested Chief Judge Adbulla. Nasheed has been arrested twice since the coup and, though free as we speak today, has spent time recently in the same jails where he was formally tortured by Gayoom. The new government which is made up of many of Gayoom’s old cabinet ministers and supporters is clearly attempting to exclude Nasheed from the political process. Elections are scheduled for late 2013, and Nasheed maintains a great deal of popular support.

The international community, initially shy to support Nasheed after the coup, has recently come around. The European Union said last week it would be difficult to consider the Maldives elections credible unless Nasheed is free to contest and campaign. The U.S. wants to see ‘transparent and inclusive’ elections in the Maldives in which all participating parties are allowed to put forward candidates of their choice, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said in a Feb. 13, 2013 statement.

[Editor’s note: For updates on developments in the Maldives, visit The Island President newsfeed].

What impact do you hope this film will have?
First and foremost, we hope The Island President entertains and excites the audience. One of the most exciting moments for me in showing the film to audiences has been the reaction of young people. We screened the film for a group of high school students in Telluride, and their intense, emotional response was palpable. It seems that young people who have grown up with an image of a planet under siege are full of fear, and they seem so relieved and inspired to find a hero in Mohamed Nasheed. We are working with, one of the great environmental organizations, throughout our theatrical, video, and television release to maximize the impact the film has on the climate conversation. We will also be creating an educator’s version of the film with tools for teachers to use the film in social studies, international relations, and climate change lessons. It’s a rich film that touches on so many issues. We are working to ensure a long life for it.

What led you to make this film?
I first heard about Mohamed Nasheed in October of 2008 when he had just won the presidency in the Maldives. When he stepped into office, he immediately took on the challenge of climate change with provocative, brutally honest statements such as “The Maldives will soon be looking for a new homeland” for its people because their island nation (the lowest lying in the world) would inevitably go under water. The lightbulb that went off in my mind was “the climate debate is not a boring story about science. It is actually one of the most profound, dramatic stories in the history of humankind!” What could be more exciting than a hero trying to save the planet from the impending apocalypse?

Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed
Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed

Meeting Nasheed (or seeing him in The Island President), people are immediately struck by his wit, candor, and charisma. He is a man who has faced the most challenging situations — torture, solitary confinement — and refused to give up. He fights like a man who has nothing to lose. And therefore the story of this film becomes a David/Goliath tale.

Visually, one could not ask for a more beautiful backdrop than the Maldives. You take one look at those islands and you think to yourself, “this the absolutely gorgeous,” and a half-second later you think, “they are so vulnerable. There’s no place to go when the water rises!”

Nasheed is a one-in-a-billion person. At the young age of 44, he has spent 20 years fighting for truth, justice, and democracy in his home country of The Maldives. He has suffered for years as a political prisoner, became his country’s first democratically elected president, profoundly changed the international politics of climate change, and, most recently, has been evicted from office at gunpoint.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The travel was insane — five trips to the Maldives, plus India, New York, England and Denmark mostly within an eight-month period.

Getting and maintaining access to cabinet meetings, meetings between heads-of- state, off-the-record conversations was also challenging. We realize now that there is a reason why you don’t see these kinds of things on TV! It’s really hard work and you have to be prepared to have your heart broken many times a day, everyday for weeks.

Helicopter cameraman Thomas Miller shooting aerial footage over the Maldives.
Helicopter cameraman Thomas Miller operates a camera over Male, the capital of the Maldives.

Shooting aerials of the Maldives proved to be quite difficult, and it literally ended being a military expedition. Near the end of our production period, the Indian military loaned a helicopter to the Maldives (mostly to be used for medical evacuations). It was the only helicopter in the Maldives. Our producer, Richard Berge, managed to convince the Maldivians and Indians to lend it to us for a few hours. We arranged for an aerial camera to be attached to the helicopter. The whole operation almost fell apart when we discovered an electrical incompatibility with our equipment. I thought Richard was going to have a heart-attack on the tarmac. Now, I cannot imagine the film without these shots. They really do speak a thousand words.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
We proposed to Nasheed a no-holds-barred-access film. Yet — even as we pitched him on the idea — we realized that we were asking for something virtually unheard of. No other head-of-state has participated in such a movie.

The President agreed to do it, I think, because he himself had a background as an activist/journalist and had used writing and the Internet to move the Maldives toward good-governance and democracy. Also, later on (well into production) he told us (with a laugh), “I thought you would go away after a while.”

Jon Shenk filming Nasheed during boat trip between islands.
Jon Shenk filming Nasheed during boat trip between islands.

But we did not go away. We persisted. We negotiated to become part of the Maldivian delegation at Copenhagen so that our camera would not be held behind the press barricades. When faced with a bi-lateral meeting with another head-of-state, we tried to make our case, or simply continue filming, begging for understanding when asked what we were doing. It wasn’t easy, but Nasheed looked at me one day and said, “Jon, I like people who try to do impossible things,” and winked at me. I’ll never forget that. He is mischievous. He has a way of pushing people but never without a sense of humor.

In the end, I think Nasheed’s trust in us came from his gut. Those around him took a little more time. But it’s natural for people to trust you as you spend more time with them genuinely getting to know their story. It was a two-way street, and it was very satisfying.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
There is a scene where President Nasheed is meeting with his most trusted advisors the night before he leaves for the Copenhagen Climate Summit. They are desperate to have an impact in Copenhagen and help save themselves from global warming. I love how you can see the intensity in their faces, and I love listening to their strategy. They come up with a plan to “make such a nuisance of themselves” in the press that the Danish Prime Minister will have to listen to them. Then we cut to Nasheed’s entrance into a huge rally in Copenhagen where he gives a rousing speech to a group of climate activists. It’s exiting to be on the inside and then watch the Maldivian delegation pull off their seemingly far-fetched plan.

Mohamed Nasheed on telephone at Copenhagen Climate Summit
Mohamed Nasheed at the final plenary of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, December 18, 2009.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Audiences are moved, stunned, and inspired by The Island President. It is a surprising movie. This is a film about a unique leader on a journey to save his people. When people see the film, they see a man on a mission who refuses to give up. The film has won some great awards, including the People’s Choice Audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Nasheed saw the film for the first time at Toronto in public. He and his wife, Lila Ali, sat next to me. I was really nervous. But they really enjoyed themselves. It was felt like sitting in a living room watching home movies — they kept whispering to each other about things they noticed. The President very much appreciates the film. He probably views it in the context of his overall work, but he also respects us filmmakers as individuals with a vision of our own.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Documentary filmmaking is a truly inspiring and rich way to live. Each project is a new education, a series of new friendships, travel, adventure, and storytelling. All the money in the world could not buy the experiences that documentary filmmakers have when they go about their work.

During the filming of The Island President, we traveled the world, got to know a sitting head-of-state, met other Presidents and heads-of-state, and learned first-hand about international relations, climate science, and the anatomy of a non-violent uprising to create democracy in a 100 percent Muslim country.

When one project ends, we wonder, “How can we top that?”

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
PBS is the best venue for independent films in the United States. We are so proud to be supported by ITVS and broadcast on PBS. ITVS believes in the importance of the independent voice in a democratic society. PBS ensures that the public sees the most exciting programs on television. Year after year, ITVS films and PBS programs are recognized by the Emmys, film festival awards, and the Oscars as guiding lights in documentary programming. PBS has consistently created programming that has celebrated diverse culture and investigated the tough questions. We are honored to be part of that tradition!

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
It is always very difficult to leave my family when I travel for work. Skype has helped.

What are your three favorite films?
The Thin Blue Line
Annie Hall

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t wait for somebody to help you make your own film because that is highly unlikely to happen. If you feel moved by a story, go for it. My father used to say, “Do something. Even if it’s wrong.”

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
I am a pizza freak. Good pizza. I have been known to go way out of the way to get the real thing.

Coffee is crucial at the beginning of the day, and a beer is nice at night. In the Maldives, there are laws against alcohol on populated islands. Some nights, we would take a ferry to a nearby resort to have a drink.

The Island President premieres Monday, April 22, 2013 at 10pm (check local listings) in celebration of Earth Day. Community Classroom video modules and resources are also available from ITVS. For updates on developments in the Maldives, visit The Island President newsfeed.

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