By John Greenwood | March 2012
Documentary Filmmaker, Jon Shenk, talks exclusively to Junsui Films about the creation of his new film, THE ISLAND PRESIDENT…
Junsui Films: The film has ended up capturing an incredible political journey experienced by former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed. Was the story you got the one you thought you were going to get when you set up the project?
Jon Shenk: We knew that we were going to be following President Nasheed through a remarkable year of his presidency. It was the first year of democracy in the country and we knew he was also keen on making as large an impact as possible on the global conversation on climate change. What we didn’t know was that he would be so successful in inserting himself into that conversation.
JF: The film deals with both climate change and the emergence of a new democracy from a despotic past. Was climate change always intended to be the centrepiece of the film?
Yes. We always knew the climate change issue was going to be the central through line. We thought of the film as a way to put forward the climate change issue.
JF: There are not many political figures that hold cabinet meetings under water. Did you know President Nasheed was going to be such a unique figure when you started the project?
We knew he was going to be making a shocking statement. But we did not know anything about the press stunts that he would end up making. The more outspoken he was, the more he continued to be provocative and brutally honest, the better it was for us. It made his profile that much higher and it did shift the argument.
JF: When you were making the film did you feel that the presence of you and your camera crew changed the way he behaved?
No. I never got the feeling that we were having an impact on his strategy. There were always lots of cameras at the press conferences, besides from ours. And he also knew that the film was not coming out until now, so he did not see it as something that would be having an immediate effect on what he was doing.
JF: Where did the idea for the documentary come from and how did you manage to get Nasheed to agree to such close involvement in the project?
We had read about Nasheed when he was elected. Then at his inauguration he made statements that made me think he was someone who was unusual. I made some enquiries, we e-mailed each other and called, and then we pitched the idea to him.
We soon realised that we were proposing something almost unique in history. There has never been this level of access to a new head of state given to a film crew in this way. To get the access we were asking for was a massive leap of faith on his part. We had to pitch him personally so we flew out there to do so and we talked to him. We told him we wanted people to feel they knew him as a person and that that would need 24/7 access to him. He thought about it, and he had a background as a muck-raking journalist and I think he saw something in what we were doing that appealed to him.
We shot on a total of 80 days over a year and a half. We were in the Maldives on five occasions and there were usually three people, myself directing, a sound recordist and producer, so we were closely involved.
JF: Just weeks before release we have had the extraordinary situation that Nasheed has since been deposed. How has this massive change affected the way the film communicates its story?
Both Nasheed and we were taken by surprise by what has happened in the Maldives. But it has made me feel that thankful we were able to capture such a precious moment in time. It makes what we have all the more precious and delicate a document.
It makes the story more poignant, but it also gives the film an added sense of how delicate the fight actually is. The fact that he has been deposed by dark forces feeds into the difficulty of the battle being faced by Nasheed. We have had to change the boards at the end of the film to spell out what has happened since.
JF: Where do you think Nasheed goes from here?
It is remarkable that he can hold out hope. I have spoken to him recently and I am amazed by his optimism. He sees that maybe it is a good thing that the forces loyal to the previous ruler are making clear exactly who they are.
In America there is a sense of ‘oh my god why have we not got politicians like this’. When it comes to global politicians, what happens to good statesmanship? Nasheed is such a natural leader.
JF: There is a moment in the film when it feels as though Nasheed is on the verge of compromising his ideals, much to the dismay of some of his entourage, and ends up agreeing to be photographed with the Chinese Premier. Does that show him as human and flawed?
I love that scene. It shows that politics is not a clean game. It is a game of high-stakes. It shows that he is an activist but is also a pragmatist. He has to make the choice between no progress at all or some progress. And he was willing to do it all in front of a camera. It shows he is willing to put up with debate.
JF: We must mention the music. How did the relationship with Radiohead come about?
When we first started working on the film we were being drawn to use a Radiohead track, something otherworldly that would provide a modern global take on this international issue. We thought that would be impossible but it turned out that Thom Yorke is very passionate about these issues. He went to Copenhagen as an observer and we made contact. Radiohead said they wanted to see some footage and we ended up working closely with them and they allowed us to use 14 tracks.
JF: Has the experience made you want to do more films with a political slant?
As a documentary filmmaker I follow my nose. If I hear a story that moves me, I want to do a film about it. One thing about documentary filmmaking is that it is so difficult to raise money. You have to be permanently and passionately making the case to foundations to raise the money. Will I do a political film again? I hope so.