Friday 17 August 2012

On DVD: "The Island President"

With its golden sands and clear blue sea, the Maldives have long been a holiday destination of choice for the well-to-do. Enjoy it while it lasts, Jon Shenk's documentary The Island President is here to warn us, for that may not be very long. This low-lying series of islands in the Indian Ocean has proved more susceptible than most to the vagaries of climate change, presented here as a real and immediate threat. You can see it with your own eyes, if not in the dramatic amateur footage of the 2004 tsunami that swept over the islands, then in the kind of polished helicopter shots conventionally used to boost tourism in travel ads: placed in a wider context, the Maldives suddenly appear vulnerable indeed, isolated, waterlogged, like something from The Day After Tomorrow, only without the need for CGI.

In so far as there remains a barrier between the Maldives and a watery demise, it may well be the nation's toothsome leader Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed, who was raised in England before returning to his birthplace as a political journalist, has some experience in holding out: he was imprisoned and tortured under the previous Maumoon Gayoom regime, which kept its human rights abuses well back from the beaches and holiday homes before its eventual outing in 2008. Democratic change is one thing; holding back the tide, as Canute discovered, quite another. (As Nasheed puts it, "What's the point of democracy if you don't have a country?")

In his favour, Nasheed has demonstrated true leadership - resolving to make, and succeeding in making, the Maldives the world's first carbon neutral country, then staging an underwater cabinet meeting to publicise the fact - and tremendous honesty: he endears himself to us in one archive clip by openly sniggering at, rather than merely rebutting, one of Gayoom's more preposterous claims, then allows us to sit in on his policy meetings (where we overhear him openly lambasting those contractors who've parked their yachts around the island while doing very little in return to sustain it) and to accompany him on his quests to first the United Nations, then to 2009's Copenhagen climate summit.

The term transparency means something in the Maldives, you sense, because its politicians don't have the luxury of spin, having nothing (and, increasingly, nowhere) to hide: the country's shoreline is receding, and claiming otherwise is no longer a tenable position. What's dramatic about Shenk's film - and frustrating, if not infuriating - is when this clarity of purpose comes up against smoggy-headed superpowers whose eco-rhetoric is generally composed of around 98% hot air, which is the last thing our climate needs, of course. Nasheed's line is that if the Maldives can reduce its emissions by 100%, why shouldn't others strive to do so by at least 10% - especially when you consider that New York, for example, sits at a no more elevated sealevel than the Maldive capital Malé, and stands an equal risk of going under.

The film accumulates its considerable charge from showing such pluck and fortitude running into a kind of playground obstinacy: the US, China and India all maintain that if others aren't rushing to cut their emissions, why should they? (Our political leaders once had the gumption to rattle sabres at one another; now they sit with their arms folded tight.) We're left watching a disaster movie unfolding in slow motion, one where nobody listens to the scientists and everyone - sooner or later - dies. Nasheed's heroism, his persistence and willingness to take action, should be enough to shame First World viewers, diplomats and politicians alike: as he puts it, with typical frankness, "The Maldives are going to be annihilated. But at least we can die knowing we did the right thing."

The Island President is available on DVD from August 27th.

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