Jon Shenk and Mohamed Nasheed on The Island President
Originally posted during the Toronto Film Festival, here is a short video with the now former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed and filmmaker Jon Shenk on their collaboration making the climate change doc, The Island President. The film opened today at Film Forum in New York.
Over at Hammer to Nail, Daniel James Scott interviews Shenk. An excerpt:
H2N: So for you, filmmaking starts with story. Yet all of your films coincide with social or political issues that can be affected by the emotional power you described. I’m sure that few filmmakers know more than you the delicate relationship between entertainment and advocacy. How did you balance those two in The Island President?
JS: That’s a great question. I think that documentary filmmakers are unique in the film business because we wear two hats. We’re filmmakers working in a long history of cinema, and we use a lot of the same tools and a lot of the same structure in our storytelling. So we have to acknowledge that and be true to that. But on the other hand, when you’re making something that’s nonfiction, it’s true that almost by nature of that people are going to make the connection between your film and the real world. It’s inherent in doing nonfiction. So we wear those two hats. Sometimes the activism hat is a little larger. Sometimes it’s a little smaller. Going into a film like this, I would say that I’m certainly someone who cares about the environment. I’ve been concerned about what’s going on with the planet. And of course when you start reading the science and getting convinced that we’re really messing with the fundamental balance of the way things are in the planet, how could you not get concerned about that? How could any reasonable person not get concerned about that? Especially if you have children or are thinking about having children. So I went into it with a big heart in that area. But I also had a lot of the same feelings I think people have regarding climate change, which is that the debate just seems so… I don’t know, boring. There’s an absurdity to the politics of it. So I thought maybe this is a chance to actually turn it inside out. Instead of looking at climate change as something that’s been done, or an argument that can’t be won, I wanted to look at it as one of the most important, exciting, dramatic things that is going on in our lifetimes. And then I wanted to look at the people who are really dealing with it as human beings, rather than as a political debate. And I when I started reading about Nasheed, I started having these ideas. The activism and the story is all one and the same. It’s very difficult to separate them because it’s a story about people who are trying to right wrongs. It’s hero’s tale in a way, a David and Goliath story. And the story happens to be about trying to save the planet. And that in and of itself is just a very cinematic plot. So the entertainment and the advocacy just very naturally fit together.
H2N: Since Nasheed was forced to resign from office, has your relationship to the film changed? Do you hope it will help recover his position in politics as well as help the conversation about climate change?
JS: After Nasheed was ousted from office in the coup in February, and after I kind of satisfied myself that he was safe and that the people I knew in the Maldives were safe, I guess my thoughts about the film were that it made it all the more precious to me. Here’s a document of this guy who was a civil rights worker all his life, he finally got to be president, and this is what he did with that time, that precious time. In the same way that the islands themselves are vulnerable and precious, it’s very easy to transfer that symbol over to the symbol of democracy—how fragile it is, and how it must be appreciated, and nurtured as the kind of fragile thing that it is. So if anything, I think it kind of makes the film more precious. Of course, I hope that people get to know Nasheed through the film and if they’re interested, find out more about what’s happening to him politically. And who knows? Maybe that can help the political situation in the Maldives in the long run. But I think changing the film is kind of a silly thing because the film is the film. It had a certain period of time, it had a through-line, it had a character that led up to the Copenhagen climate conference. And it’s a very dramatic story for what it is.