Kelly Jane Torrance: The Maldives' Mandela tries to save his nation

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

With Earth Day celebrated Sunday, a handful of films dealing loosely with the environment are opening in theaters this weekend. "The Island President" is one of them. Yet the documentary is at its most engrossing when it moves away from the big picture and focuses not on Mother Nature by a few of the people she affects -- especially the title character.

Mohamed Nasheed became president of the Maldives in 2008, after years spent championing democracy in Asia's smallest country. He had been jailed and tortured numerous times by the regime of the previous president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

"When we were growing up, the word for president was 'Maumoon,' " says one young woman who's now a pro-democracy activist.

On screen
'The Island President'
3 out of 4 stars
Stars: Mohamed Nasheed
Director: Jon Shenk
Rated: PG for thematic elements, some violent content and smoking
Running time: 101 minutes

When Nasheed ran against Gayoom, one of his peers says, "I knew he would be either murdered by Gayoom or president of the Maldives."

He survived the election and triumphed. "After we came to power, we thought we'd won the fight," Nasheed, now 44, relates. He and his freedom-fighting friends now looked forward to a "happy little life." But he learned the Maldives might be facing a bigger problem than tyranny: the survival of the islands themselves.

The Republic of Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka and India, is the world's lowest country. Its population of about 330,000 is spread over 200 of 1,192 islands that have an average ground level of less than five feet above sea level. Some studies say sea levels have risen about eight inches over the last century. Much more of that, and the nation could find itself quite literally underwater.

"The Island President" chronicles Nasheed's attempt to, as he sees it, save his country. He can't do it alone, of course. The climax of the film takes place at the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. There, this man barely over 40 wheels and deals with some of the world's most powerful people.

But Nasheed implied earlier, that's all in a day's work for the head of the Maldives, the place "where the very rich and famous come and relax. This is the height of the good life. It's a cross between paradise and paradise." He's an interesting character -- far more intriguing than any back room dealings at a United Nations conference.

And far more fascinating things happened after the cameras quit rolling: Nasheed was deposed earlier this year in a coup d'etat. Given the state of climate science -- some studies show that, in fact, the sea levels of the Maldives have dropped in the last decades -- director Jon Shenk might have been better off focusing on this rebel rather than the international establishment with whom he only briefly dealt.

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
The Washington Examiner