RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Climate Change Strikes Home

The True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, Missouri, at the February-March cusp is usually a hibernation interrupter, but the weather was in the 60s the week before, then dipped down to freezing for film-goers, so this year the fest was more a reminder that it can be chilly rather than a break from chilliness. The cold may have given an argument to global warming deniers, but it had no impact on my pick of the best documentary film for 2012.

It was The Island President, a truly beautiful film by Jon Shenk, and it was about global warming. The tiny nation of the Maldives, an archipelago of 1,200 islands adrift in the Indian Ocean, is being swamped as global warming melts ice caps and changes the currents to cause sea level to rise. The islands are about one and a half feet above sea level with, as the president explains, nary a hill.

When the sun is shining, the Maldives are a sliver of paradise with white beaches surrounded by blue ocean and blue sky. Idyllic except for in tsunami season when much of the island nation is under water.

The film followed the conservation-minded political team of Mohamed Nasheed, elected as the capable and idealistic president of the nation in 2008. At 41 years old, he was the first democratically elected president in their history and followed the regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who put dissidents (including Nasheed) in prison and tortured them. By challenging him, the entire Muslim nation put their principles on the line.

For the film, Nasheed gave the camera remarkable access to his life, from public appearances at home and abroad to the privacy of his hotel room, his offices and his informal conversations with aides as he grabs a quick smoke by the dumpsters behind the convention center.

His chief environmental advisor, the young Amanath Shauna, takes us along to her typical family home with her mother and sisters. In the Maldives, nobody lives too far from the ocean, and we walk with the women to see that, indeed, the island has eroded in her brief life. Shauna stands on a pile of rocks and remarks that the rocks are now at the ocean’s edge rather than back on the beach that she remembers.

This is serious business, and these educated policy makers are trying to get attention for the problem. Nasheed points out that, as the Maldives are in danger, all islands and all shorelines are equally threatened. New York City, he says, is also only one and a half feet above sea level. With a little imagination, we can draw a line around all the continents and see the land masses shrinking. To dramatize the situation, Nasheed holds an underwater cabinet meeting, all the participants in scuba gear.

But they are ignored.

The filmmakers follow the action to the global warming conference Copenhagen in 2008, where protesters carry signs designating the conference “Hopenhagen.” You might remember how that conference ended — scientists agreed that climate change could be stopped if we could bring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, but many nations including the United States said they would not impose limits.

The old normal CO2 amount until 200 years ago, before industrialization, was 275 ppm. And, we are now at about 390 ppm. Carbon dioxide can be stopped by burning less carbon-based fuel, like petroleum, coal and wood. Or we can put more carbon into sequestration by planting more trees or burying the carbon dioxide somehow. Nobody is seriously conserving or sequestering, sorry to say. I guess we’re just waiting for more proof. Still, the film manages to be hopeful. The world community, Nasheed suggests, has given attention to the plight of the Maldives, and all island nations, and promised aid.

While documentary films can shape a complicated story, the demands of the genre mean that filmmakers have to stop shooting and begin editing several months before anyone sees their work. Films that don’t take care with editing, and there are a few at every festival, come off as half-finished and confusing. The Island President avoids this error and Shenk’s crew turns out a polished piece.

But, the problem with documentaries is that the closing credits give the impression that the story is over. And it’s not. President Nasheed stepped down on Feb. 7, 2012, to protect himself and the nation from a threatened military coup by loyalists to Maumoon.

Weather-wise, 2012 has been a fascinating year with almost no winter anywhere, widespread drought everywhere and what looks like a record-breaking tornado season in the offing. After a few chilly days in each of our usual winter months — January, February and March — we’re into that brief spring and by the time you read this it may be in the 90s here in mid-Missouri. In the Maldives, especially, people are dreading the tsunami season.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Missouri. Email See

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2012

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2012 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652