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“The Island President” Director Jon Shenk Recounts Coups and Courage

Jon Shenk had never been to the Maldives when, in the fall of 2008, he read about a young activist named Mohamed Nasheed who had just become the country’s first democratically elected president after 30 years of horrific dictatorship.

Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

“When I started paying attention to Nasheed’s presidency, I was struck by his willingness to say these brutally honest things about the global environment. His was a truly unique political story.

“A lightbulb went on in my head. Here was a chance to completely shift the conversation about climate change from something a lot of people consider boring or are powerless over—climate change—to a story with both inherent drama and a kind of hero.

Weeks later the San Francisco-based filmmaker—who was director of 2004’s Lost Boys of Sudan and was DP on the Academy Award-winning Smile Pinki—was face-to-face with the new president, attempting to convince Nasheed to be the subject of a David-versus-Goliath bio-doc.

Shenk asked for unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access to the president, his office, his travels, and backroom negotiations. Within three minutes after meeting, Nasheed agreed.

The filmmakers ultimately trailed the president across five continents, filming him 78 times, gaining backroom access to high-level climate-change negotiations at both the U.N. and Copenhagen’s international climate-change conference in November 2009, where the film ends.

But Shenk could not have predicted that just as his film was to be released across the country, Nasheed would be forced out of office by a coup d’état.

“Only later,” Shenk tells me on the eve of the nationwide opening of The Island President, “did he tell me he never thought we’d stick around as long as we did.”

As I talk to Shenk, he keeps his fingers tightly crossed, hopeful that among the film’s opening-night guests at New York’s Film Forum (on Wednesday) will be the now-ousted island president.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What was your reaction when you heard President Nasheed had resigned, on February 7?

Jon Shenk: It was devastatingly sad news. I was immediately worried for his safety, and his family’s safety.

During our research I’d seen hours of [archival] footage of what is possible when people want to use force in the Maldives, and what we saw last month when he was forced out of office looked eerily similar to the protests he’d led during the fight for democracy days.

One of the first things he did when he was elected was to order all of that riot gear be put away. But as soon as he was deposed, all that stuff—batons, pepper spray, water cannons—came out of the closet.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: His deposing was amazing in how quickly it happened, a kind of reverse Arab Spring. You had a democratically elected president being forced out by allies of the dictator he had worked so hard to defeat.

Jon Shenk: It was spooky because late last year Nasheed had publicly cautioned activists in Egypt and Tunisia that just because you oust a dictator doesn’t mean it’s over. Sure enough, he became the victim of just that.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Even with the incredible access you had to the president and his backroom meetings and strategy, was it difficult to film a sitting president?

Jon Shenk: Yes and no. While we had his cooperation, having one man’s cooperation in the Maldives did not mean it was all carte blanche. The Maldives is a country that had been traumatized, so people were wary of cooperating with us. These are people who had lived under a dictator, with people disappearing and constantly fearful of disappearing. We would ask questions about politics, and people would whisper back to us, looking around first before answering to make sure no one was listening.

I got the sense from the start that the shadow of the dictator had not gone away. At the time I thought that was absurd, that the dictator was never going to take power again. Of course, now I’ve been proven wrong: their fears were founded.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: As a journalist and human rights activist before being elected president, Nasheed had been imprisoned by his predecessor, held in solitary confinement, and tortured. He clearly is a big believer in transparency and a free press and has been very good at reaching out to the media. As president he vowed to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country and held an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the coming impacts of climate change on low-lying island nations. In your time with him would you consider him more activist…or politician?

“…what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.”

Jon Shenk: He’s been an activist for much of his life, a Martin Luther King/Gandhi-like figure. To put his own safety on the line, to put up with solitary confinement and torture…this is not activism light.

But he is the first to admit that in order to get attention for important issues you have to be dramatic. He’s better at that than any politician I can think of.

So while he’d spent his life organizing on the streets and Internet I was amazed by how really good at governing he became when he stepped into office. But ultimately his efforts to turn out the entrenched corruption in the Maldives and create a functional economy made him a victim of the very wealthy people who were no longer getting their share as he tried to change the system.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What do you think of the criticism Nasheed was receiving in the Maldives before he was ousted that he was spending too much time traveling and working on international climate-change issues and not enough time at home focused on local problems like the economy, crime, drugs, education, etc.?

Jon Shenk: We showed The Island President at a theater in (the Maldivian capitol) Male for a week in November, and it got almost unanimously positive reviews, even from opposition websites. They said they had no idea what he was doing when he went abroad, but when they saw the film, when they saw him trying to get adaptation money and mitigation for the future, then they understood.

When he traveled abroad he was obviously working on international issues that couldn’t be more important to the Maldives. In the film you see him working like a dog. If I were a Maldivian, I would realize this is not some playboy going off to have fun; he was a hard-working negotiator working on behalf of the Maldives.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Though he’s only been out of the presidency a few weeks, do you have any idea what’s next for him?

Jon Shenk: I asked him the same question over the phone 10 days ago. What he said kind of shocked me in its optimism. He basically said he thinks this may turn out to be a good thing, that if and when there are new elections in the Maldives, the people are going to know much more about who the remnants of the corrupt oligarchy are. Perhaps if Nasheed or some decent person is able to take power again, maybe that person will have more leeway to root out the criminals.

I look forward to following his career. The world of international climate politics is virtually impossible to change, because there is so much inertia. But he has carved out a place for himself in the environmental movement, which is looking for leadership.

Of course, that’s all on a back burner right now since he fears for his life and is still trying to maintain democracy in the Maldives. Because he’s smart, charismatic, and knows what’s right and wrong, I think he still has an amazing career ahead of him.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Have you made any changes to the film given that he is no longer the president?

Jon Shenk: We never really saw this film as a news story but as a kind of David vs. Goliath tale about one of the “good people.” You see him standing up to leaders from China, Europe, the U.S. and India, saying over and over, “We’re not going to stand down.” So the film is really about leadership and the story of a man and how he’s chosen to live his life.

To change the film would pierce that. It is about what happened to him during that period, a precious document of that time of his life.

We did add a card at the end of the film that explains what’s gone on in the last couple months. I’ve been in audiences when that card comes up at the end, and there are audible sighs, because what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.

Maldives “Island President” Forced Out at Gunpoint

In a move surprising to those not living in the Maldives—where most of the recent press has focused on its green-thinking on climate change and carbon use—the island nation’s president, Mohammed Nasheed, has apparently been forced out in a  coup d’etat. Vice president Dr. Waheed Hassan has been sworn in as the new president.

Fingers are being pointed at allies of the previous president, Maumoon Gayoom, for orchestrating Nasheed’s resignation. It was the Gayoom administration, which spanned 30 years, that had locked up and tortured a younger Nasheed before he became the first democratically elected president in the country’s history.

While celebrated internationally for his environmental politics, Nasheed’s presidency has been at risk at home. Critics have claimed the “Island President” (the name of the documentary that has recently won awards and attention at festivals from Toronto to Sundance) was paying too much attention to global issues and not enough to his backyard; others complained his leadership was not “Islamic enough” for the all-Muslim nation.

In recent months the country has experienced its own brand of “Arab Spring,” but rather than oust a dictator, this movement was against the country’s first democratically elected president.

Three weeks ago President Nasheed ordered the arrest and jailing of a high court judge—an ally of the former president—on charges of corruption. Street protests against the president, said to have been coordinated by allies of the former president—including a half-brother and members of his security force—were successful enough for the military to be sent into the streets.

Nasheed’s resignation speech indicated he was stepping down to avoid further and more serious clashes between the military, the police and protestors. It is being reported that he claims to have stepped down after being threatened by policemen with guns and that he is now being held under a kind of house arrest. There have also been reports that the now former president may have been injured during continued street protests.

Coincidentally, when I flew into the Maldives four months ago, I landed at the southern island of Laamu, where a sizable crowd was gathered on the sidewalk outside the airport. The street was clogged with women in headscarves and men in pickup trucks. They seemed to be surrounding a man walking. I asked what all the hubbub was about and was told it was former president Gayoom, who was clearly still liked by many.

One of the ironies of Nasheed’s three-year-long democracy is that a number of political parties emerged during that time, including one devoted to his predecessor. When I met Nasheed later that week, he was clearly worried about his upcoming re-election, especially due to the loyalty of Gayoom’s Progressive Party and a handful of other, smaller pro-Islamic political parties. I don’t think then that he envisioned his presidency would last just another 100 days and that he would be forced to quit.

That same day I had dinner with then-Vice President Dr. Waheed Hassan, a seemingly kind man who had previously worked for UNICEF, and his wife, a teacher who schooled students in her home. When asked at dinner (by Richard Branson) if he wanted to be president, he politely deferred. I’m sure he did not imagine that night that 100 days later he would be sworn into office.

Reports show military men going in and out of Nasheed’s private residence, carrying out boxes, including so-called “illicits” like liquor bottles. Be sure and read the accounts in The Guardian by Nasheed’s environmental adviser, Mark Lynas, who reports: “Gayoom controls the judiciary, now the executive, the media, and in couple of weeks probably the parliament. One thing he cannot control is popular support for President Nasheed, so he needs to find a way to jail or discredit him ahead of the 2013 election,” the spokesperson said.

“Using violence and then taking over the TV station, as well as recruiting converts among the police, the anti-democratic opposition faced Nasheed with a choice—to either use force or resign,” writes Lynas. “Ever the human rights activist, he chose the latter option and stepped down to avoid bloodshed. Even as I write, his whereabouts are still unknown, and though he is supposedly in the ‘protection’ of the military I fear desperately for his personal safety and that of his family. I have heard that he is currently being held against his will under military house arrest, in which case he must be immediately released. All I can do is take comfort from the fact that the struggle can only continue for a man famous in the west for his outspokenness on climate change, but whose real lifelong cause has been his commitment to bringing democracy to his Indian Ocean island homeland.”

 Several members of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) were seriously injured during the lead-up to Nasheed’s resignation and some are reportedly missing. Part of the president’s decision to quit was hoping to avoid a bloodbath on the streets of the capital city Male, where 100,000 citizens live, squeezed into 1.5 square miles.

The “Green President” Ponders His Home, the World … and Re-election

The office of Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed, near the edge of the capitol island of Male’, sits less than six feet above sea level, one reason he, like many of his countrymen, is concerned about rising sea levels.

President Mohammed Nasheed, by Six Senses

During nearly three years in office Nasheed has shown a backbone far stronger than his small frame might suggest (he’s not much more than 5 feet tall), earning him both praise as “The Green President” and criticism from climate change skeptics.

On a humid, blue-sky day on the island of Kunfunadhoo, 150 miles south of the crowded capitol island, the 43-year-old president spoke to a small group gathered for the third annual SLOWLIFE Symposium. He gave an update on his global campaign to light fires under other political leaders around the globe.

The first democratically elected president in his home country, Nasheed is a former journalist and human rights activist who was jailed by his predecessor, Maumoon Gayoom, an autocratic leader who held the presidency for 30 years. He is expected to run against Nasheed in 2013.

There is some concern that Nasheed’s globe-trotting presidency, the subject of a new documentary (“The Island President”) that recently won the best documentary award at the Toronto International Film Festival, may be distancing him from voters back home. Some think he may be more popular outside of his own country than inside, where the economy, jobs, crime and illegal drugs are growing problems.

I had the opportunity to ask him whether he thought most people in the Maldives understand the seriousness of climate change and its potential impact on them. “People living in Male’ and other urban areas are quite knowledgeable about the environment,” he said, “particularly young people. In more remote parts of the country, people see that erosion is increasingly. They know that the fish catch is more irregular and they understand that coral reefs are stressed. Maldivians know there are environment problems which affect their daily lives and that these problems are linked to global climate change.”

For now he shrugs off concerns, at least publicly, that his global campaign may be turning off voters at home, preferring to keep the focus on mankind’s continued burning of fossil fuels, which he believes, is killing the planet. “We don’t have much time,” he says, “just a window of opportunity of about seven years. If our leaders are not able to sort it out by then they should stop calling themselves leaders and get out.”

He gets a rise from the 80-person crowd when he asks, “Do you know what politicians get the most applause for?”

“Cutting ribbons at new power plants.”

“Politicians, including me, love to hear clapping. Now we just need to find an equivalent of ribbon cutting for green power plants and renewable energy sources.”

He went on to say he doesn’t regard climate change as an “earth science, but an economic, development, security and safety issue.

“Too often we hear leaders who say capping carbon emissions would result in poverty, of course this is not true at all.” He cites Iceland, an island state that became a developed country through its emphasis on renewable energy, as a great model.

“But it’s an upside down world today. The richest country on the planet, the United States, is the one most in debt. And the leader of the poor countries, China, is now the biggest investor in the world.”

Nasheed is not against a good publicity stunt to draw attention to his rhetoric, like holding the first-ever underwater cabinet meeting in 2009.

“We estimate that over one billion people watched, heard or read about the underwater cabinet meeting,” he said when I asked if the underwater session was more than just a stunt. “While it was a bit of fun, it underscored a serious message. I hope the meeting raised people’s awareness about the dangers climate change poses to the Maldives and the rest of the world. I hope that some of those people go on to ask their own politicians what they are doing to help solve the climate crisis. It is only when people start holding leaders to account, when politicians start losing elections over environmental issues, that they will treat climate change with the seriousness it deserves. “

Sonu Shivdasani, CEO of the Six Senses resorts, which hosted the symposium, asked the president if he was worried about getting re-elected. “All of your actions have been well received on the global stage,” said Shivdasani, “but what are you doing in the Maldives to get that message across, to get the Maldivians to vote for your green party ticket? Isn’t your legacy at risk if you don’t get re-elected?”

Predicting that he would get re-elected “handsomely,” the president insisted that going forward no matter who is president of the Maldives will have to keep the focus on the environment.

“We have always lived right next to the elements and the sea is everywhere around us, making it far easier for us Maldivians to understand that if the ocean is out of balance, things will go wrong. Since the tsunami (2004) I think Maldivians are much more concerned about the environment.”

My experience though is that protect what we love and sometimes it’s hard to know just how much Maldivians can truly love the aquamarine ocean that surrounds since so many of them never learn to swim. While a group of a dozen young “Ocean Rangers” dressed in matching blue shirts kneel in front of the stage to listen to the President, the reality is that many in the Maldives have never used a mask and fins to explore their own “backyard.”

But Nasheed is convinced young Maldivians in particular appreciate what’s at risk. “I am very clear with them that if they destroy the reefs, they are destroying their homes.”

Environmental activist/actor Edward Norton, photo Six Senses

The president’s outspokenness prompts actor and environmental activist Edward Norton to offer a few words of praise. “I can’t think of many leaders around the world talking with such clarity and vision. And while I’m pretty sure you’re going to have a long tenure here, you’re still a young man. When you’re finished in the Maldives could you come and consider being president of the United States, we could use some of that clarity and honesty.”

“Most political leaders will do what their people tell them to do,” replied the president. “In the Maldives and the United States people must galvanize themselves to political action. People who can embrace the future now — today — will be the winners.”

Maldives, Live from the SLOWLIFE Symposium

If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner.

Photo by Jon Bowermaster

It is a place many have heard of but few could easily pick out on a map. Comprised of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level … making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited, by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.

I have been visiting the islands since 2005, when I first went to assess the damages wreaked by the massive tsunami that rolled from Indonesia to Somalia. The Maldives were largely spared; its coral reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave. In the years since, as rising sea levels and warming sea surface temperatures have gained more and more headlines, so has this tiny island nation.

Today erosion is a big problem on many of the islands and most of its coral is badly bleached.

In the past few days an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including the Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, for the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium.

Daryl Hannah and Richard Branson, photo Six Senses

Organized by the owners of the resort company Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, the barefoot conference brought together environmentalists from the United Kingdom including Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (author of “Six Degrees” and the new “God Species”), renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah).

The subject of three days of talks was, What can be done fast to slow climate change, before it’s too late.

Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.

It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”

Sonu Shivdasani, SLOWLIFE Symposium, photo Six Senses

While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are some good things to brag about here on the Laccadive Sea. Last year the country banned all shark fishing and any tuna in the Maldives are caught only by pole. Recently the Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere.

While the Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of nations attempting to take themselves off the grid it’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information. But the Maldivian government officials reiterated what stands in their way is not lack of knowledge but of money. It’s one thing to have great ideas and access to information; paying for progress is something else, especially in a country with a fledgling democracy and a history of high debt and bad credit.

But it is trying. By 2020 the Maldives hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively be spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.

Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.

One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.

The Maldives, Ground Zero for What Ails the Ocean

For the next two weeks I’ll be in the Maldives participating in a pair of very cool eco-symposiums. I’ve been to the Maldives three times before — the first, in 2005, on assignment for the New York Times post-tsunami (attached here) — and find it one of the best informational grounds for a variety of environmental issues currently challenging the world’s ocean. Obviously climate change and resulting rising seas are an every day concern in a place where 400,000 people live just a few feet above sea level. As are concerns about its vast system of coral reefs, which are suffering due to warming seas, and the impacts of overfishing even in a most-isolated part of the Indian Ocean. Check out the programs for both the first-ever WaterWoMen event to take place on Laamu atoll and the third annual S.L.O.W. Life Symposium at the Soneva Fushi resort. Both events are sponsored by the Six Senses Resorts and Spas and hosted by owner Sonu Shivdasani.

In person at the WaterWoMen event will be a mix of some of the world’s great ocean athletes (surfers, free divers, kite boarders, windsurfers) and ocean conservationists and non-profit thinkers; the S.L.O.W. Life Symposium will feature presentations by President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, Sir Richard Branson, climate change writer Mark Lynas, Ashok Khosla, president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and many more. I’ll be posting from the Maldives for the next couple weeks, so please stay tuned!

Green Ocean Hero At Risk in the Maldives

As political unrest swept through the Muslim nations of North Africa, even the remote island nation of the Maldives was caught up in its own Arab Spring in the form of political protest and street clashes.

One major difference: Efforts in the Maldives were focused on pushing out a young, democratically elected president and replacing him with an aging despot.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

President Mohamed Nasheed, 44, has gained accolades around the globe for his commitment to preparing the Maldives for the coming impacts of climate change and simultaneously attempting to turn the country carbon neutral. Since the first of May, intermittent protests have wracked the streets of the tiny island capital of Male – just two square miles and home to 100,000 – with some calling for Nasheed’s resignation; the irony, of course, is that he is the country’s very first democratically elected leader.

As many as 5,000 protestors have been shouting not about green issues, but about homegrown concerns, including a sour economy and increases in crime and inflation. They have also complained about Nasheed’s alleged “westernization” of the traditional Islamic culture. One report has his popularity rating at just 18 percent. The military has dispersed youthful crowds with high-pressure hoses and batons.

Waiting in the wings? None other than Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 74, whose 30-year dictatorship ended in 2008 with Nasheed’s election. Nasheed has no love lost for the former president, who still lives in the Maldives. A former journalist, activist and political prisoner, Nasheed was tortured while in prison during Gayoom’s presidency.

Many attribute today’s economic mess to the 30-year-long Gayoom administration. It’s no big surprise that it’s the previous president and his representatives who are working behind the scenes to fan the current protests.

Nasheed spokesman Mohamed Zuhair suggested to the BBC that the former president is encouraging violence in the streets. “In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically, in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down a democratically elected government.”

It doesn’t help that oil prices are going through the roof, since almost everything in the Maldives is imported and one quarter of its GDP is spent on oil. Tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives economy, has been negatively impacted by the unrest.

On May 25 the government proposed an agreement with representatives of the International Monetary Fund that would raise import duties, lower capital spending, freeze public sector wages, raise the tourism tax and introduce a general goods and services tax as a way to help fix some of its economic woes.

Nasheed is well known internationally for his outspokenness regarding the fate of all island nations as sea levels rise. Among his first announcements after he was elected in 2008 was that he would set aside money from tourism to help buy land to move Maldivians as sea levels rose (to India or Pakistan, maybe Australia). To draw attention to the very real impact of climate change on a nation that is barely more than six feet above sea level, he held the first underwater cabinet meeting, which garnered more than a billion global media impressions.

(For the rest of my dispatches, go to