|“Climate change issues are real to us,” President Mohamed Nasheed says of the situation facing the Maldives. “This is not tomorrow’s events. These are today’s real events.”|
Then in 2008, the Islamic country held its first multiparty presidential election and Nasheed, known as “Anni,” won by popular vote. Immediately, however, he found himself fighting again for survival — but for that of a nation.
Nasheed had essentially took helm of a sinking ship. As one of the lowest-lying countries in the world — the average elevation is 1.5 metres above sea level — a rise of three feet in sea level would submerge its 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean; some scientists fear it could be underwater in less than 100 years.
“Climate change issues are real to us,” the 44-year-old president said. “There is so much erosion, dwindling [fisheries], water contamination because of sea water intrusion. This is not tomorrow’s events. These are today’s real events.”
President Nasheed was in Toronto this weekend for the premiere of Jon Shenk’s documentary, The Island President, at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shortly after he was elected, he agreed to allow Shenk unparalleled access to his life. For a year, the award-winning San Francisco filmmaker followed Nasheed as he travelled around the world lobbying for reduced carbon emissions.
“He was a journalist,” Shenk said. “He used journalism to affect change and even though he’s now a president, he hasn’t forgotten that the power of a story in some ways trumps politics.”
Nasheed, who watched the film for the first time Saturday, said he found it to be “very true.”
“The country was going through a major transition from dictatorship to democracy. Someone wanted to record that; I thought an extra pair of eyes would be good,” he said. “Also, we want to know how we might be able to impress the international community on climate change issues and the gravity of it. To do that, we don’t have much money and if someone was willing to do it in cinematography, we thought this was good.”
Nasheed is a small man with a relaxed aura that contradicts his ramrod straight posture. He has a likability and sincerity that can be illustrated in a BBC clip featured in the documentary: Nasheed is being interviewed during the presidential campaign about the incumbent Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The camera is focused on his concentrated face.
“The president says he needs another term to see through his democratic reform,” the reporter says.
Upon hearing that, a puff of air blows up Nasheed’s cheeks and then escapes from his lips. “Um, well, he’s already had 30 years,” he says, stifling his laughter, “and we really can’t quite see how and what else he is going to do with another five years.”
“I love that clip,” Shenk said. “It’s so indicative of someone living in the moment. … He’s very human.”
The film culminates at the climate change summit in Copenhagen in November 2009 where Shenk and his crew were accredited as part of the official Maldives delegation. This afforded them a rare behind-the-scenes look at the jockeying between leaders and of course, Nasheed’s very honest reactions (“I’m really going to lose it if these bureaucrats keep bickering endlessly about the text”).
“It’s fascinating to watch world politics,” Shenk said. “Whenever world leaders meet, there’s this dance they do, they shake each other’s hands and the cameras flick away. The real meat of the meeting happens behind closed doors. But in Nasheed’s case, he literally would walk up to people and he would immediately start discussing the hard issues. The leaders oftentimes were completely caught off guard. At the end of the day, I think he just wants to get down to work.”
Nasheed, who pledged to make the Maldives the first country to go carbon neutral within a decade, is credited with coaxing India and China to soften their stance on the issue.
“For India and China, there are a lot of questions of pride and sovereignty,” he said. “The United States or Europe cannot tell them to go and do something. You are conceding to them when you do something they ask. It’s a very different story when we ask them to do something. It’s not a conspiracy against their development. They’re very receptive when they understand that we have something to lose.”
Not one to mince words, Nasheed is blunt about what that something is. A journalist asks Nasheed in the film: If the conference doesn’t achieve its goals and sea levels rise, what options are there for the Maldives?
Nasheed is leaning on his elbow, his face in his palm. He looks the journalist square in the eye and says: “None. We will all die.”