The Island President’s Jon Shenk on Turmoil in the Maldives

Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed

For documentary filmmakers, breaking news can be either a blessing or a curse. By the time Jon Shenk finished directing The Island President, his title character was no longer the island president. The military and police ousted Mohamed Nasheed, a human rights activist and environmentalist, as leader of the Maldives in February 2012.

What started out as an inspiring film about the first democratically elected leader of the island nation evolved into a multimedia project to inform international audiences about a forced resignation (Maldives’s five-person Commission of National Inquiry ruled that the takeover was not a coup d’état, triggering protests). Shenk and his team used their original footage to produce an Op-Doc for The New York Times, turning the breaking news into an extension of their documentary.

Since the power shake-up that put President Mohammed Waheed Hassan and the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) in control, Nasheed has led protests and begun campaigning for an election scheduled in July 2013. However, the current government has other plans. They’ve accused Nasheed of illegally arresting a judge during his time in office, and if Nasheed is convicted, he will be ineligible to run. So far, Nasheed refused to appear at his trial. He was arrested briefly for defying the court order, but is already back on the campaign trail in the southeastern Meemu Atoll.

Jon Shenk, along with producers Bonni Cohen and Richard Berge, grew close to the former President after they spent a year and a half filming The Island President. Shenk, also the director of photography for the Academy Award-winning Smile Pinki, shared his admiration for Nasheed and his hopes for the Maldives’s future.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What lessons, if any, have you learned from being around Mohamed Nasheed?

I really was attracted to his story as a filmmaker because of the human drama. Just purely forgetting about the politics and environmental issues, he is a very inspiring figure because he seems to really act from an honest place and have kind of a lack of fear. Because of what he’s been through, having been in prison and survived torture, he operates as if he has nothing to lose. He’s looked death in the face and survived, so he looks at every day on the planet as a gift. It’s amazing what one man can accomplish with that attitude, along with intelligence and being articulate. No matter what your issue is, to go about it with the energy and tirelessness that Nasheed did was cool. It was our fortune to have him at the center of this documentary.

What were your impressions of the Maldives from your time spent filming there?

When you see them for the first time from above, flying in, suddenly these beautiful turquoise coral reefs appear. You are struck at once by what a natural wonder it is. It feels like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. It almost looks like an accident that they’re there in the first place. [Ed: None of the islands is more than six feet above sea level]. If the scales are tipped with climate change, you can see how vulnerable they would be.

We also got to see an incredible view of the country. For 30 years, the dictator, Maumoon Gayoom, would not allow outsiders to go to natives’ islands, and natives were not allowed to go to the resorts. We got to follow locals around; Nasheed was opening up the country. Just to see how the people there live was fascinating and culturally interesting. It was an awesome experience.

What was your reaction when you heard about the coup?

We were just kinda shocked by the news. When we were following Nasheed his first year in office, even though it was a new democracy and you had the sense of a very troubled past, Nasheed felt so much like the president. He has incredible leadership skills and he’s so loved and on the streets he has so much support. Even though intellectually, we knew his enemies were out there, we were shocked when this happened.

Mohamed Nasheed at a climate conference

Nasheed is a real radical political activist. He wants to bring democracy to this country and bring carbon neutrality and change the way the country gets everything from a diesel economy. A few guys have gotten very rich, and he got promised money from the World Bank to take away that diesel economy. Can you imagine if Obama said, “Okay, we’re taking the fuel economy away”? The backlash that would ensue? And add to that that you’ve come out of a strong-armed dictatorship where you put people in prison, it was surprising that [Nasheed] lasted a few years. The diesel-fuel millionaires are doing everything they can to keep him from standing for president again.

I think Nasheed is a once-in-a-lifetime figure. He’s a tireless fighter for the cause of democracy and progress and the health of the planet. He’s had a huge setback, but it doesn’t stop him from fighting. He leads rallies and protests and all that stuff he did prior to being president.

What are your plans to integrate the coup into the documentary, if at all?

The documentary was already out in festival and distribution by the time the coup happened. In many ways, we felt the film stands on its own, and it’s still the incredible story of Nasheed’s life and first year in office. We did feel it was important to change the title card at the end that gives an update on him being forced out of office.

We’ve had the fortune of having excellent press coverage. The New York Times invited us to do an Op-Doc, so we did a five-minute piece about the coup and what happened around those days in February 2012.

In these days, a documentary is the hub of a wheel that has many spokes of media, like the internet, Facebook, what you guys do at ITVS, outreach screenings that happen around the world. These things all become part of the bigger project of The Island President for people who want to find more about it. Back in the day, you would put a film out there but there was no way for it to truly live on. Now, we’ve made an educator’s edition of the film with all kinds of hyperlinks and video modules for students. Those are some really exciting opportunities to build upon the film.

How did you react when you heard about Nasheed’s recent arrest?

In some ways, when you make a film about somebody you really find rather convincing like Nasheed, I feel close to him, and I was personally very saddened and scared. I’ve been in the cells where he was tortured and kind of lived those details of what those people are capable of, so it got me in the gut. On the other hand, I know there’s not a lot I can do. I can’t say [to Nasheed]: “Stop, come to San Francisco and relax.” That’s wrong. That’s not what he’s about. I think he’ll keep going. I don’t want to overstate it, but the way he responds is a way Gandhi or Martin Luther King would respond. He doesn’t back down. He gets out in the street and continues to do what he does. It kind of scares me, but at the same time, I know what he’ll do. He’ll just get back out there and keep doing what he does.

Does Mohamed Nasheed stand a chance of being reelected in July?

Mohamed Nasheed surrounded by members of the press during climate conference.

Basically what the government is doing, they’re trying to do it in a way that smacks of legality to keep him from being able to run. In the Maldives, if you’ve ever been convicted for a crime, you can’t run for president. They don’t care if he goes to prison or not, they’re just trying to tell him he can’t run for president.

I know if he stood for president he would win. Anyone who has spent time in the Maldives can tell you how supported he is. He’s very, very popular. The question is, will he be able to run or will the old regime succeed in its obvious tactic of making him a “criminal”? I don’t know what’s going to happen. He seems to have support from the Commonwealth countries, members of his legal team are from the U.K. and bring a lot of civil rights expertise.

I don’t mean to sound like a salesman for Nasheed, but it’s hard. When someone you know really well is getting treated so terribly by people who are potentially mercenaries, it’s hard not to be honest about what’s going on. The press will say things like, “Nasheed says this, and the current president says this,” as if they’re equal weight. To the outside person who doesn’t know about the story, they ask, “Has Nasheed become a bad person or corrupt?” It’s hard as a journalist to put the thing in context to give the reader or the viewer all the information they need to really understand the story.

What are your hopes for the Maldives?

I always have this gut sense that we can wake up one day in the not-too-distant future and have a headline that says: “There’s a carbon-neutral country brought up by a youthful leader who sees the danger of what will happen to humanity if climate change continues to go on.” Nasheed personalizes the issue so well, and his personal genius is to know what will get people, what will give them hope. I think a carbon-neutral country as an example would be a really powerful symbol.

I hope democracy thrives there, and they could get back on track. I think that would be a huge symbolic moment for the planet and for people. For 150 years, since the industrial revolution, we’re all dependent on these huge companies to go about our daily lives, drive our cars, do our work that we deem important and necessary. The basic idea of a new renewable source of energy is that people are more in control of it because it comes from the sun or the wind. The Maldives could be a great example of that and of a people who are taking things into their own hands: We’re 400,000 people who are going to drown by sea rise, and our heritage and culture is going away. We’re doing a proactive thing to keep that from happening.