On Saturday night at the Film Forum, a small man walked into a small (sold-out) theater to thank the relatively small gathering of people there for coming to see an important film about his small island nation. He could tell from the way people stood and clapped — every person in the room, out of their seat, standing and clapping — that they enjoyed the film, and so he thanked them. Then he reiterated and elaborated on some of the crucial points made in the film, primary among them that within our lifetimes, if the world does nothing, his small island nation will cease to exist.
This was Mohamed Nasheed, the recently deposed president of the Maldives. (On Feb. 7, he resigned his office under threat of violence in a coup led by security forces loyal to his country’s former dictator.) The film was The Island President.
Nasheed is a brave and hopeful man. He is a former journalist and activist who survived torture and brutal solitary confinement, and who helped foment a revolution that in 2008 brought democracy — true democracy — to his country. And he is a man who learned, upon taking office, that his two-decade struggle for democracy was fated to be rendered futile by a threat larger than any single leader or nation could hope to conquer: the rising sea.
This is real. It is urgently, dangerously real. Many of us have heard this, and perhaps some of us have even been distressed. But The Island President — with its images of beaches and coastal walks lost to erosion, of golden landmasses sunken below turquoise waters, of human beings pleading for help because the oceans have infiltrated their supply of fresh drinking water, and because the graves of their ancestors are at risk of being swept away — makes the looming crisis impossible to ignore.
Or at least it should. In a sane world it would.
But this, as we know, is a less than sane world. It is a world in which the deposed president of a democratic nation says it wasn’t until he made a high-profile appearance on David Letterman’s show, pleading his case, that the U.S. State Department agreed to meet with him.
I am not going to rehash all the political arguments here. For illumination, read this interview with Nasheed and Jon Shenk, the American filmmaker of The Island President, in Salon.
Also, by all means, see the movie — I’m talking to you, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego, Minneapolis and Detroit — and tell all your friends, in real life and on Facebook and on Twitter, to see the movie.
A brisk tour of recent news coverage online reveals that supporters of the Gayyoom dictatorship in the Maldives have been comment-bombing, spreading misinformation to smear Nasheed’s reputation and discredit him. But to those in whom the detractors’ comments inspire skepticism, I would say withhold your judgment — withhold it until you can see The Island President and observe Nasheed in action. Learn about the values he stands for. Watch him spend sleepless nights at the climate conference in Copenhagen, struggling to broker an agreement (symbolic though it may have been) with the dominant powers of the world. Listen to him speak about human rights, and the rise of a women’s movement in his country. See the film and it becomes clear very quickly who is on the side of justice.
Here I will tell you what Nasheed told us in the Q&A at the Film Forum. A member of the audience asked him: “What can we, as ordinary Americans, do?” That is, what can we do besides watch a film and feel helpless? What can we do other than go back to our lives and wait to see the inevitable images of disaster and suffering played across our television and computer screens? What can we do to pressure our leaders to take climate change seriously? What can we do to move the people in power to think beyond the next election, and to see that other concerns — small and large — that we are arguing about today, and that seem so important, will be meaningless in a matter of decades when whole societies and cultures have been disrupted (or lost) because of warnings gone unheeded?
As Nasheed knows firsthand from leading a democracy movement in his country, and as we have seen with the Arab Spring, flesh-and-blood people, out in the streets, can bring change. What he told us at the Film Forum was that he thinks the sight of one million Americans coming out in peaceful protest on the same day (ideally in the same place) would make an impression on Washington. And not one million Democrats or one million Republicans, not one million black versus white versus brown, not one million men versus one million women, but one million people disturbed at the prospect of whole regions of their country winding up underwater.
This is not, or at least should not be, a question of partisanship. Perhaps I am moved by Nasheed and this film because I am the daughter of a small man who hails from a small barrio in a beautiful island nation. Perhaps I am moved because I grew up near the coast in California, which is also, already, losing its battle with the sea. But I don’t think it’s just those things. I don’t see how anyone could watch The Island President, or listen to Nasheed speak, and not come away thinking: Tell me when, tell me where, and I will be there. Million American March, anyone?