All At Sea With The Island President: Director Jon Shenk On The Maldives' Mohamed Nasheed, 'He's One In A Gazillion Right Now'

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There are many people who sound very impressive on paper but, unfortunately, when you meet them, do not live up to their reputation. Fortunately for film-maker Jon Shenk, the subject of his documentary The Island President was not one of these people.

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Mohamed Nasheed - "one in a gazillion on the planet right now" according to the man who made his film, Jon Shenk

"People say that he’s a politician like other politicians, and that he says things that other politicians will say, but I sense that he’s a very unusual type of politician, he just seems to not have the fear that so many politicians have, and have a higher goal as his end game.

"Of course you meet people and you see that they are human, but at the end of the day I feel like he is the real deal, he practises what he preaches and he’s one in a gazillion of people on the planet right now."

Jon Shenk is referring to Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives until he was ousted in a coup in February.

More: Mohamed Nasheed - aka The Island President - talks to HuffPostUK about his desperate battle for democracy

The film-maker had set out to make a film about the politician and his up-hill battle to alert the world to the environmental dangers faced by his native islands, and to marry this campaign with the ongoing struggle for democracy in his country.

Fortunately for Shenk, Nasheed's energy, intellect, eye for a good press picture and overwhelming audacity meant he had a god-given subject for a documentary.

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Mr Nasheed's campaign took him to the UN, the corridors of Westminster and the Environment Summit in Copenhagen

Filming primarily during the former president's first year in office, Shenk and his team trailed him around the globe, filming everything from the underwater cabinet meetings - where Nasheed conducted with ministers all wearing scuba gear to highlight the problems of rising water levels - to his trip to the UN, Westminster and Copenhagen's Environment Summit to beseech Western diplomats to act quickly in the name of global environmental protection.

Shenk had different problems from those of Nasheed, but equal challenges:

"I think he had an amazing amount of trust, but we quickly learned that there’s a reason why a film about this state's leader had never been made before. It’s just so difficult to get access to everything, whether it’s cabinet meetings, or family life, and then it becomes 1000 times more difficult once you leave that country, and you’re dealing bilaterally with other leaders, other heads of state, it was pretty much a constant battle."

Unfortunately, Shenk stopped filming shortly before Nasheed was ousted from office in a coup orchestrated by the tyrannous regime his government had replaced. As events raced ahead of him, Shenk added an end card to his film so viewers were kept updated:

"The film ended on a high with him still president, then by the film was released in cinemas in the US and UK, the coup had happened, and it changes the way that the film affects people.

"In a way, the film is completely unchanged by events because so much about his first year in office and the drama of him fighting that struggle at Copenhagen, but in other ways, it’s a depressing reminder of the vested interests that exist in the world, in keeping things the way they are, money interests controlling the day, even in countries where there is a strong independent national propensity to move towards democracy."

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The documentary was filmed mostly during the optimistic first year of Mohamed Nasheed's term of office

Events are moving at a pretty pace around Mr Nasheed, with the Maldivian government as recently as yesterday accusing him of inciting unrest in his home nation, and warning that they would not tolerate "violent demonstrations and unruly mobs", after an international investigation concluded that "he had resigned after a police and military mutiny and weeks of demonstrations against his leadership" (The International News, read more here).

After what he witnessed during the making of his film, Shenk is not surprised...

"They’re Muslims, so I don’t know if the David and Goliath metaphor would sit in their culture, but I think it’s a David and Goliath tale.

"It’s not hard to figure out, you can go on YouTube and watch the perpetrators of the coup admit what they did. The people who are behind the coup are the largest oil importers of the Maldives, one of the world’s biggest resorts on earth are the Maldives, and they did not like Nasheed imposing the first taxes on businesses. It’s pretty straightforward what’s going on.

"Waheed (the man back in power following the ousting of Nasheed) was the dictator for 30 years, now two of his children are in cabinet posts - they go through the motions of constitutional transition, but really they’re not trying to hide too much, they’re trying to put a positive spin on it all, and keep people coming to the Maldives.

"In reality, they are pepper spraying and beating people on the streets who are asking for freedom."

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Mr Nasheed's campaign has caught the imagination of all those who have seen Jon Shenk's film

With the story moving on so quickly, Shenk is resisting the temptation to try to catch up with another film... "Who knows? It's early days"... but he is cheered by the amount of people in the Maldives who have seen his film.

"We showed it in the Maldives last November. For the people of that country having lived under a dictatorship with a single TV station for 30 years, to suddenly see this film with a president who’s out there, saying what’s on his mind, you’re going home with him, it’s a huge source of pride for them.

"And once you’ve given that to society, it’s very hard to put it back in the bottle. I have a lot of hope for the Maldives, I think the people have awoken and I think we’ll see another round of democracy. How it will happen or what form it will take, I don't know, but it feels right for things not to turn back now."

The Island President is available on DVD now. Find out more about Mr Nasheed’s campaign at www.friendsofmaldives.org, and watch the trailer below…

Around the Web

THE ISLAND PRESIDENT—A Documentary Film By Jon Shenk |

The Island President - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Island President (2011) - IMDb

The Island President - Rotten Tomatoes

The Island President (2011), Trailer - YouTube

The Island President Trailer - YouTube

'The Island President': Mohamed Nasheed, Former Maldives Leader ...