"Blessed — or maybe cursed — with fortuitous timing," begins Melissa Anderson in the Voice, "Jon Shenk's lionizing documentary of Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Republic of Maldives, the archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean consisting of 1200 tiny islands, closely follows the charming president from 2008 to 2009, his first year in office. The film, a hopeful portrait of a crusader that premiered at Telluride last September, is now inadvertently a record of a bygone era: Nasheed was forced to leave office February 7, the result of a coup by loyalists to his predecessor, the dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom."
And that predecessor, AO Scott notes in the New York Times, was "a dictator with the usual authoritarian habit of imprisoning, torturing and terrorizing his opponents…. As soon as he took office, Mr Nasheed faced an environmental crisis of existential dimensions. The steady rise in ocean levels caused by melting polar ice and increasing global temperatures had already caused serious erosion on some islands, and the eventual catastrophic inundation of this small, vulnerable nation was starting to look inevitable, rather than just frighteningly plausible. Mr Shenk and his crew were given extraordinary access to Mr Nasheed during his first year in power, and The Island President moves with the sometimes manic energy of a young, ambitious leader throwing himself at enormous challenges."
In Slant, Andrew Schenker begins his review with Nasheed being sidelined at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference and writes that "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."
More from Noel Murray (AV Club, B-), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 3/5) and Ed Vallance (Cinespect). Nigel M Smith interviews Shenk for indieWIRE and Nasheed and Shenk are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.
The Island President is at New York's Film Forum through April 10 and Shenk will be on hand for Qs&As on Friday and Saturday. See the site for further cities and dates.
On February 8, the day after he was deposed, Nasheed wrote in the NYT: "The problems we are facing in the Maldives are a warning for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform. At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back. With patience and determination, the beast can be slain. But let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship."
For the latest updates, follow Democracy Maldives.
Update, 4/10: Mark Hertsgaard interviews Nasheed for the Nation.