Island president reviewed in Phantom TollboothTrouble in paradise

When most people think of the Maldives, they picture an azure sea, the cobalt sky and a sprinkling of flat, sandy beaches in between. They picture paradise on Earth.

But it seems that where there is paradise, there are people ready to make a buck off it. Until recently, apparently aided by some resort owners, who didn‘t want to pay taxes, a tyrannical president ran the Maldives by banning any form of opposition or discussion about the way the islands should be run.

Enter Mohamed Nasheed, who was so sure about the need for democracy that he was arrested, tortured several times and suffered eighteen months of solitary confinement for his beliefs. One time while in jail, he became aware of a young boy who died in prison. Word got out. It was the catalyst that forced to the president to hold elections.

Before long, Nasheed had to leave the country, but when he returned it was as a candidate for the presidency, which he won in 2008.

Jon Shenk’s film tells the story of a principled and courageous year in office, ending with the Copenhagen Climate Summit, where Nasheed’s Maldives played a surprisingly key role, well out of proportion to its 300,000 population.

Despite comprising some 2,000 islands off the coast of India, no part of the chain is more than a few feet above sea level, so the predicted effects of climate change could mean that the Maldives become the first nation to disappear from the planet for climate reasons. The capital, Male, is particularly vulnerable. With high-rise buildings densely packed from shore to shore, it looks as if a section of Manhattan has been cut and pasted CGI-like into the Pacific.

When Shenk films Nasheed’s underwater cabinet meeting (part of a campaign to make the Maldives carbon-neutral) he captures governance and nature in one scene – as well as recording the President’s astute way of making a point.  

What he particularly captures is a passionate politician unusually driven by concern for his country, wanting to slash red tape in order to make some real changes in the way that the world works. Because they expect to be in office for such a short time, many politicians work from month to month, giving little attention to the long term. Nasheed knows that climate decisions have to be made now, before it is too late.

With unprecedented no-holds-barred access to a head of state, showing cabinet meetings in the Maldives and behind-the-scenes discussions in the UK, as well as at the UN General Assembly and throughout Copenhagen, Schenk picks enough bureaucracy to convey the necessary politics, but not so much that it offsets the sapphire visual impact of the islands.

Involving drama, dignity, statesmanship, susceptibility and betrayal, all against a stunning backdrop, Shenk’s watchable film focuses the global issue of climate change onto one nation and one man.


Derek Walker

Note: President Nasheed was forced at gunpoint to resign from his office in February.

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