The day after the debut, Nasheed — whose combination of forthrightness and idealism gives “The Island President” its momentum and moral ballast — was asked whether he was in danger of becoming cynical in the wake of newfound movie fame.
“No, no, no,” he said in his lilting, British-accented English. “I’m not cynical about anything. I trust humanity, and I think we have an amazing capacity to do good. . . . No one’s waking up to do bad. We all wake up and hope we’re going to do some good.”
Six months later, Nasheed had resigned his office after what he described as a coup and was visiting New York and Washington in a desperate charm offensive, promoting “The Island President” and telling anyone who would listen about the threats to the fragile democracy he helped introduce to the majority-Muslim Maldives. For Nasheed, 44, the two agendas — global warming and democracy — go hand in hand.
“I’ve been saying that you have to have a planet to have a democracy,” he said moments before being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell at the MSNBC studios in Tenleytown. “And you have to have democracy to have a planet. It goes both ways.”
When Nasheed was elected president in 2008, he arrived as something of a harbinger of the Arab Spring. Born in the capital city of Male, he attended college in Liverpool before returning to found a political magazine that was critical of longtime Maldives leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Throughout the 1990s, Nasheed was arrested several times, enduring torture and solitary confinement, and while in exile in Sri Lanka he co-founded the Maldivian Democratic Party. He came back to the Maldives to continue building support for democratic institutions and was elected in 2008.
“The Island President” chronicles those events, as well as the most famous episodes during Nasheed’s first year in office: a cabinet meeting he held underwater (in full scuba gear) to illustrate the effects unchecked global warming would have on the Maldives; his appearance before the United Nations, when he made an emotional appeal to world leaders to save his country and all low-lying nations from extinction; and his attendance at the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, where he can be seen maneuvering among the U.S., Chinese and Indian delegations in an effort to get an agreement to cap carbon emissions.
If Nasheed’s mission doesn’t end with unqualified success in Copenhagen, what emerges is still an impressive portrait of a charismatic, compelling leader punching far above his weight and managing to land a few blows. While he was in office, Nasheed learned the art of leveraging the very thing that puts him at a disadvantage: the Maldives’ tiny size. His country may be on the geographic low ground, but he has a clear claim on the moral high ground.