Mohamed Nasheed (pictured), the president of the Maldives and star of Jon Shenk’s doc The Island President, told TIFF attendees he hopes the film will give his country more leverage in the battle against climate change, following its premiere at the festival.
The film follows president Nasheed as he comes to power after leading a 20-year pro-democracy movement against the brutal regime of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
It sees the newly elected leader battle to fight climate change and struggling to convince world leaders to take strong measures to battle rising sea levels – the Maldives is considered the lowest lying country in the world, and a rise of a mere three meters in sea level will flood its 1,200 islands, rendering the country practically unlivable.
In an onstage Q&A with director Shenk and TIFF programmer Thom Powers following the film’s Toronto premiere, president Nasheed expressed optimism that the film could help press the issue of global warming to a broader audience.
“I hope that the film will give us more leverage to continue against and get an understanding on climate change,” he said. “The window of opportunity is getting smaller but I believe there is still hope. I don’t think people should give up.”
Shenk said that as president Nasheed had not seen political vérité docs by filmmakers such as Albert Maysles or DA Pennebaker, it was difficult when they first met to explain the kind of close access, high ratio filming approach that he wanted to take.
“When we first spoke to the president we made it clear that we weren’t making an in-house film,” the director said. “We would be editing the story that we saw was true, and he had to trust us.”
He added that while on paper the project might have looked like a dry subject, he knew as soon as he met the politician that it would make for an interesting film. While some saw a boring subject, “we saw The Bourne Identity,” said Shenk. “It’s as dramatic as it possibly gets.” He added that he knew “if we could stick with him, the drama would happen.”
For his part, President Nasheed said that his attorney general initially advised him not to do the project, warning him that he would not be able to protect him from statements made on camera. However, the president’s view was that “we have to trust people,” something he felt intuitively with Shenk from the off.
“He looked like an honest guy, and he was very, very honest about [his plans],” he said. “You could see that Jon, from the very first instance, he was different. He was looking for my story in the sense that he was asking if he could observe me in the present, and what would happen next.”
That said, he added that the film crew’s presence was at first distracting. “The filming was a nuisance,” said the president. “He had a mic on me and a camera on me for eight months, and that sometimes distorted things. But as we went along that went to the background.”
He added of seeing himself onscreen: “Some of the times it was fairly embarrassing – I wonder what my mother thinks now,” to laughs from the crowd.
The president also expressed his philosophy that he was not discouraged by the failures and setbacks he had experienced during his campaign to lower carbon emissions, because, as he saw it, “one of these days you’re going to expend all of your failures, and then what you have left is success.”