Director Jon Shenk explains how he made a global warming documentary that plays like an action-thriller
The Island President is a climate change documentary that plays like a Jason Bourne thriller. In former Maldivian president, Mohamed Nasheed, the film has a hero of epic proportions fighting a battle that is equally immense. Director Jon Shenk talks to Peter Moore about why he made the film and how he managed to get unparalleled access to the world leader leading the charge to save our planet.
Why the Maldives? Why President Nasheed?
I first heard about Mohamed Nasheed and got to know about the Maldives reading about his election to the Presidency in October 2008. He was the winner in the first democratically held elections in the Maldives. I’d heard about the Maldives before, but I was a little sketchy about where they were. I knew they were a very long way away but I knew almost nothing about the country.
But I was intrigued by the story. Nasheed himself has an incredible history. He spent most of his adult life as a non-violent leader, struggling against a despotic regime in the Maldives and then miraculously becomes president. As soon as he become president, he instantly turned on the jets, so to speak, in the fight against climate change, talking about it from a human rights point of view, which, at the time, I thought was a really unusual take on things. The view that the Maldivians could become climate refugees made me think about climate change in a totally different way.
So there were a lot of things that attracted me to the story, but mostly it was Nasheed and the way he had framed the debate.
Was it difficult for you to convince Nasheed to give you so much access?
It’s only now, sitting back with some perspective, that I realise just how amazing it was that a sitting head of state allowed a camera crew to go where really no camera crew had gone before. Not only did we have full access to his ongoing life in the Maldives, cabinet meetings, strategy sessions, his life at home, that sort of thing, but to be around with meetings with other heads of state and bilateral situations. You very quickly realise why you’ve never seen a film like this. There’s so much protocol about where cameras can go, where the press is allowed, where interviews can be done, how long they are, that kind of thing.
Basically, we went to his people and started talking about making a documentary. I knew it would be really hard to get the attention of people in America just talking about climate change. I knew it had to be personal and special, and part of that to me was to have really good access and to make it a film about a person, a human being, and a story about what they were going through. That’s essentially what I said to him and to his credit, he trusted the process and he let us in. I can’t tell you exactly why he did it, but he did. When you see the film, you’ll realise he’s a bit of a renegade kind of guy. Once you know him you’re not surprised that he would have done something unusual like this.
Of course, when you went to the COP15 conference in Copenhagen you were part of the Maldivian delegation that gave you a whole level of access you wouldn’t have got as press.
Absolutely. It was a real crash course in international diplomacy and international relations and just the protocol of being around a head of state. I knew almost nothing about that. A hard lesson learned up front was that if we just went in as press we weren’t going to get very far.
One of the first things we did was follow Nasheed to England on a State visit and we quickly realised that if we were going to get treated like all the other press people we’re going to be put behind barricades, we’re not going to be allowed into meetings. So we went to Nasheed and his press secretary and said ‘We can’t do the kind of work we need to do unless we’re embedded, so to speak, as insiders.’ And that’s when we had the idea that we become part of the delegation. We could travel in their vans, we could stay in their hotels, we could be in the meetings with them.
Of course, we still had to fight the battle with the other people who were in the room, the ministers, the other heads of state, but at least we could make our case. We weren’t just shut out as a matter of protocol.
The President’s pleas seemed to fall largely on deaf ears. Do you think the world’s relative apathy to the danger is because the danger is not as immediately apparent as it is in the Maldives?
You know, I do. I think that it’s easy to be cynical about climate change and sit back and wonder why people can’t pay attention to this overwhelming issue. But I think that the problem is not always so cynical. I believe there are cynical reasons, of course, why certain companies and certain governments aren’t doing anything about it but to be fair, to most people it’s a very difficult issue. It’s quite abstract for most people in the world. It’s something that’s going to happen in the future. The things that are already happening can be pointed out and can be studied, but they are relatively subtle compared to what science tells us will happen.
So it’s difficult. For the Maldives, which is the lowest lying country in the world, or to quote the President ‘It has no hill to run to’, it is very apparent. They’ve experienced ground water contamination. They’ve seen what happens when water rises. It’s in their blood, so to speak.
In a way, Nasheed is an ideal ‘canary in a coal mine’ character. He’s able to speak with a kind of moral authority that many other heads of state just don’t have. That’s what I really like about this story. I like the fact that he is from a place that is really vulnerable and yet he is able to rise above the petty argument and honestly draw peoples’ attention to the dangers.
Since you made the documentary, President Nasheed has been overthrown. Do you think all his good work has been in vain?
It’s a complicated question. I think his good work is not in vain, on the democracy side of things, because he has been part of a movement in the Maldives that has become quite electric. The people are very much hungry for freedom and democracy. I don’t see that going away. I’ve been tracking the news out of the Maldives pretty closely since February and I don’t think that the people who have now tasted freedom of the press, the right of assembly and free elections, are going to give up so easily against the old guard.
In terms of the environmental issues, on the negative side, the whole carbon neutrality thing he was pioneering has been completely scrapped.
When we were making the documentary it was so exciting to be sitting down with the engineers and scientists who were figuring out exactly how to do it. It was just so exciting to see that. The idea that a country would be carbon neutral would be so symbolic and important to the environmental movement, the idea that it is doable. Now the World Bank has withdrawn funding and the moment has been lost.
But who knows? Nasheed gets back into power, or democracy takes hold there, the team will be reassembled. I certainly hope so.
With all the current doom and gloom surrounding the current economic crisis, do you think climate change has taken a back seat to worrying where the next meal is going to come from?
Exactly. There are so many issues in the world. Even when it comes to the fight for democracy in the Maldives, the newspapers only have so much room. Bigger countries like Egypt and Syria and China have issues with democracy and despotism, civil wars going on, the idea that a tiny country with a population of 100,000 people will catch the attention of the world’s newspapers is almost laughable.
And on the environmental issues, you’re right, it is difficult for people to connect and make it a priority in their lives.
Having said that, there are certain segments of the world’s population that have been waking up to this issue in the last couple of years, especially young people. When we show the film in high schools young people really feel this issue. I remember when I was a kid I’d have nightmares about nuclear wars. I think the climate change/global warming issue is kind of like that for young people. They’ve grown up with it. They’re scared of it. They see themselves as the ones who will have to solve the problem and that gives me some hope. I think we are starting to see the beginning of a sea change of attitude about this issue.
Our film is part of that as well. It’s part of a new lens on this issue, telling personal stories, really getting underneath the political propaganda.
That is the really striking thing about this documentary. You’ve got such a dynamic lead character and it plays almost like a feature film script – a David and Goliath story set to a Radiohead soundtrack.
I’m glad you appreciate that! The interesting thing about this movie is that when people hear about a documentary about climate change, for the most part, their eyes roll back in their heads and they’d almost do anything else than watch another climate change movie. But for people who do see The Island President, it’s a surprise. It’s almost a 180 degree shift in attitude.
If you think about it for a minute, think about a James Bond film, you put the ingredients in – pending apocalyptic doom, a hero who’s fighting against a ticking time bomb, up against the major powers of the world and vested interests; it really is like an action feature film. People see that and get involved in the story. When we go to the conference in Copenhagen it’s like being behind the scenes of a thriller. So by the end they’re completely surprised, ‘I didn’t think this issue was being debated in such an intense and exciting way.’
That’s one thing I’ve been really proud of, being able to totally re-frame this issue.
What do you hope this movie will achieve? What was your goal in making it?
First and foremost, as a filmmaker, we have to think about entertaining people, giving people an emotional and visceral experience in the cinema. If you can’t do that you may as well be writing a scientific article. So that’s what we wanted to do. Make people really feel Nasheed’s story and feel what he was up against at a physical, visceral level.
Once you have people, then you can shed some light on important issues, maybe make people think about it in a different way.
I didn’t want the film to be like medicine. I didn’t want people to feel that way. But on the other hand, I do think that people like to think about things and they do like to see different perspectives on things on the planet and hope the film can provide that as well.
In your previous films you’ve covered human trafficking, civil wars and now global warming. What’s the next big issue that you feel the world needs to address?
We’re juggling a few different ideas now. We haven’t really nailed down a new project yet because we’re still really involved with the distribution of this one. But it’s really hard to see where to go from here. Climate change, democracy and basic human rights, they are the biggest issues of our day, the issues that come up in this film. We were a little bit spoiled by how rich this topic has been.
Being close to a sitting head of state, getting the access that we had, dealing with the apocalyptic type grandeur of the issue, we’ve really been on a roller-coaster ride. Not sure exactly where we’re going next.
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