For those American viewers used to seeing their chief executive on television as a figure representing, if not their interests, at least their status as citizens, the fleeting, flickering glimpses of Barack Obama that appear in the news broadcasts reproduced in Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President are sure to feel more than a tad bewildering. Following with nose-to-the-ground intimacy the early days of the presidency of recently ousted Maldives leader Mohamed Nasheed, a period dominated by the buildup to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, the film successfully positions its point of view with the developing countries that suffer the most immediate consequences of global warming rather than the developed countries most responsible for climate change and from whose citizenry Shenk’s prospective audience is likely to be drawn. So when the outspoken Nasheed shows up in Denmark, desperate to secure a joint guarantee from the world’s nations that will reduce carbon emissions to a sufficient level to save his already partially submerged archipelago country, our point of view remains firmly with the powerless, only able to secure access to important world leaders by making a constant nuisance of themselves. As for Obama, Nasheed never interacts with him. No sooner does the U.S. president arrive at Copenhagen than, a newscaster informs us, he’s whisked away for a private meeting with the representatives of the other major world economies, while leaders of countries like the Maldives are forced to wait for the larger talks to resume.
This outsider’s perspective—along with the determined, though never foolishly optimistic personality of the former Maldives chief executive—is what makes The Island President more than an uncritically sympathetic great-man portrait. There’s plenty to laud about Nasheed’s achievements, whether it’s his spearheading of his country’s democracy movement, which helped overthrow longtime dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, or his refusal to compromise on the question of his country’s continued survival—at least until some measure of conciliation becomes necessary at Copenhagen. But through segment after segment of rather astonishing video footage, covering both official business (Nasheed’s first cabinet meeting as president, conferences with leaders in India) and aerial views of coastal erosion (a shot of the densely developed capital island, Malé, with water beginning to seep in at the edges), the near impossibility of making the world listen to a tiny, powerless nation faced with extinction is briskly and repeatedly communicated. Like the tireless president the film portrays, Shenk’s doc refuses to simply sound alarmist bells, even when it makes evident the near impossibility of the task at hand, but it also refuses to take any triumph in the questionable agreement struck at Copenhagen (a final title card to the contrary). The film shares Nasheed’s pessimism (indeed, it wouldn’t be a very honest work if it didn’t), but it’s also able to celebrate that wonderfully stubborn individual’s constant need to fight on regardless of the eventual result. It’s in this middle ground between cynicism and wide-eyed enthusiasm that Shenk’s movie finds its delicate balance.