The Island President. Mohamed Nasheed

Mohamed Nasheed fights to save his country, the Maldives, from being submerged as a result of global warming in “The Island President.”

CHIARA GOIA — Samuel Goldwyn Films

Most arguments around global warming center on what will happen, or what won't happen. For Mohamed Nasheed, the issue is what IS happening.

The president of the Maldives, a nation made up of over 2,000 islands in the Indian Ocean, can see with his own eyes the effects of climate changes. The waters around many of the islands in the Maldives chain are rising, submerging a little more of the land each year.

By 2050, if nothing is done, scientists estimate the islands will all be underwater. American politicians say things like “The country’s future is at stake” all the time, but when Nasheed says it, it’s for real.

That urgency drives the documentary “The Island President,” a gripping film about Nasheed’s efforts to cajole much larger countries around the world, including China, India and the United States, into getting serious about controlling carbon emissions. “This is not something that will happen in the future,” he said. “This is something we are dealing with right now.”

Nasheed is a charismatic figure who became president in 2008 after helping oust the brutal dictator who had ruled the Maldives for the previous 30 years. Soft-spoken and polite, he nevertheless proves to be a very savvy player on the world stage, working whatever levers of power are available to him while understanding that his quixotic campaign may well end in failure. He’s also good at using the media to his advantage; in 2009 he made headlines around the world by holding one of his cabinet meetings underwater, with everyone in scuba gear.

Filmmaker Jon Shenk gets surprising and revealing access into contentious meetings between Nasheed and his cabinet. In the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, they argue over whether they should accept a watered-down agreement with the larger nations, even if it’s not enough to save the Maldives, or continue fighting, even if it means no deal on carbon emissions at all.

I give “The Island President” a lot of credit for showing the messy reality of world politics, and of climate change politics in particular, where everybody shakes hands and says the right things, but frustratingly little gets accomplished. The film does not inspire much faith in the ability of world leaders to collectively solve world problems. There’s one devastating scene where Nasheed is supposed to meet with the Chinese delegation in Copenhagen, and China sends somebody so insultingly low on the political food chain that he can’t tell Nasheed apart from the president of Sudan.

Shenk interweaves the political storyline with some stunning footage of the Maldives, including amazing underwater photography. This is a rare documentary that would benefit from an IMAX screening. The soundtrack also uses several songs by Radiohead, which sounds like a strange pairing, except when the haunting “How to Disappear Completely” plays over the closing credits.

If Nasheed isn’t able to wake up the world to his country’s plight, in a few decades, that could be the new Maldives national anthem.

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