‘The Island President’ on screen in Aspen
ASPEN – “An Inconvenient Truth” put a lot of inconvenient, and disturbing, facts and predictions in front of viewers. But the film, which earned the Academy Award for best documentary, didn’t put much of a human face on the environmental catastrophe of which it warned. Featuring the wooden Al Gore alongside the PowerPoint presentation of statistics and forecasts didn’t do much to humanize the issue.Jon Shenk, a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker, believes he has found the ideal face for the threat of climate change in Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed. The president of the Maldives, Nasheed has been uncommonly bold in his words and actions. Which is appropriate, as the Maldives, a nation of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean, could be well considered the canary in the coal mine regarding rising temperatures and waters. The Maldives is also a tiny country, and combine the lack of influence with Nasheed’s small physique and sing-songy voice, and he comes off not as a bully but as an unlikely, and easy-to-like, voice in the environmental movement.”He’s real,” said Shenk, a 42-year-old who will be in attendance Monday at the Wheeler Opera House for a Q-and-A following the 7:30 p.m. screening of his documentary, “The Island President” ($10 admission). “In a funny way, he’s an everyday guy who says everyday things. He’s not an untouchable figure like Gandhi. He’s willing to compromise.”Shenk took some small notice when Nasheed was elected president of the Maldives in 2008. Nasheed had been a political prisoner and spent months in solitary confinement under the previous government, a notoriously corrupt regime. Adding to Shenk’s interest, Nasheed was the first democratically elected president of a purely Muslim nation.Shenk’s antennae as a filmmaker began buzzing when Nasheed started addressing environmental issues – “very provocative things that you never hear from heads of state,” Shenk said by phone from Snowmass Village. (Shenk has strong ties to the Aspen area: As a child, he attended the Aspen Music Festival with his mother; later, he skied here with his father, the late Snowmass Villager Richard Shenk.) The most noteworthy statement from Nasheed was his pledge, in early 2009, to make the Maldives a carbon-neutral nation within a decade.”A lot of us live wishing we could save the environment, wishing we could do more, and it feels like an impossible issue,” Shenk said. “And here’s this guy with a refreshing way to lead on the issue. And he has moral authority because his country is so threatened.””The Island President” – which earned the best documentary award at the Toronto Film Festival, had a sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival and recently took the Sundance Hilton Sustainability Award at the Sundance Festival – follows Nasheed in the run-up to the United Nations’ conference on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009. At Copenhagen, Nasheed commanded some of the spotlight as he negotiated significant language that was eventually adopted into the agreement signed by nearly 200 countries.Shenk’s film focuses tightly on Nasheed, capturing his personality, a combination of affability and determination. “The Island President” ties Nasheed’s inner makeup to his past as a prisoner. “He plays like he has nothing to lose,” said Shenk, whose previous film, 2003’s “Lost Boys of Sudan,” followed two African refugees on their relocation to the U.S. (He was also deeply involved with “The Rape of Europa,” a 2006 film directed by Shenk’s wife, Bonni Cohen, about the artworks looted by the Nazis.) “He’s been pushed to the edge with torture. I think of him as this guy who wakes up every day and says, ‘Well, here’s another day I wasn’t supposed to have – what am I going to do with it?'”In Copenhagen, Nasheed used his moral authority to act as a bridge between developing powers such as China and India and developed nations such as the U.S. and the U.K. The text that came out of the summit acknowledged the problem of global warming and the need to reduce the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. It was not a perfect document – Nasheed’s aim was a commitment to lower the carbon to 350 parts per million – but it was an unprecedented acknowledgement of the problem.”You wanted more. But it was a step in the right direction,” Shenk said.To Shenk, the film addresses topics beyond even the weighty one of the environment. “It’s as much about leadership and political issues,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for people to watch ‘The Island President’ and say, ‘Wow, I wish I had a president like that.’ You dream about this guy as your next leader.”
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