Small Islands, Big Impact: Film from the frontlines of climate change impact…

A short film, 20 years in the making...

A short film, 20 years in the making...

Some films, like certain books, are in the making for years or decades. My latest film, Small Islands, Big Impact, just released online by TVE Asia Pacific, is quite short: slightly under 6 minutes long. But it has been forming in my mind for the past 20 years.

As a science journalist, I have been covering its story since 1989: how the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives – Asia’s smallest country by area and population – is on the ‘frontline’ of climate change impact.

The Maldives packs 325,000 people into a combined land area just under 300 square kilometres spread over 1,192 islands and islets. With an average ground level of 1.5 metres (5 feet) above sea level, it is also the lowest country on the planet. When I first visited the Maldives in late 1988, they were still recovering from a massive storm surge in 1987. Although the damage was limited, the experience showed how vulnerable the Maldives can be to even a small rise in sea levels – this prompted the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to take up the issue internationally. (It was President Gayoom who took up climate crusading at statesman level, well before Al Gore turned up on the scene.)

Interestingly, my first encounter with President Gayoom had nothing to do with climate – it concerned a celestial phenomenon: the Maldives was witnessing an annual solar eclipse and the President wanted to observe it in the company of amateur astronomers from their nearest neighbour, Sri Lanka. So he invited a couple of us over (I was active in the Young Astronomers’ Association of Sri Lanka at the time.)

Small states conference on sea level rise logoI returned to the Maldives in November 1989, that time as a member of the international media covering the first ever small states conference on sea level rise. Held at the Kurumba island resort, it was one of the earliest international gatherings on climate impacts on low lying states, a topic that was to gain public interest and momentum in the years to come. Among the participants were delegates from practically all the small states in different parts of the world (defined as those with less than 1 million population), and scientists from disciplines such as oceanography, climatology, meteorology and geology.

This was one of the first international scientific events that I covered as an eager young science journalist. I was a foreign correspondent for Asia Technology, a monthly magazine on Asian science and technology published from Hong Kong (now defunct), and freelancing for The Island daily newspaper in Sri Lanka. (There’s nothing online from that coverage as it was in the pre-web era!)

The conference had technical sessions where experts debated scenarios and implications, and a political segment where delegations made their official statements. In the end, they issued the Malé Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise, which urged for inter-governmental action on the issue.

Our Maldivian hosts knew that scientists and officials alone couldn’t send out a powerful message to the world on what climate change meant for low lying islands of the world – many of them mere specks on the world map, barely registering in media’s radar. So on the last day of the conference, we were taken to the Maldivian capital of Malé, where a demonstration and public rally were held by school children and ordinary people.

That turned out to be the most striking moment of the whole week. I had been listening to experts and officials talk about impacts, scenarios and mitigation measures for several days, on which I’d filed several stories. But unless I go back to my personal archives, I can no longer remember those details. My lingering memories of this event are in a few photos I took, showing school children telling delegates – and the world – what it means to be living on the front lines of climate change impact.

This was the most striking photo – three more are found in an earlier blog post:


After 1989, I visited the Maldives on a couple of occasions for professional purposes during the 1990s. After I started working with TVE Asia Pacific in 1996, I was keen to return to the story of the Maldives and climate change – this time, in moving images – but I never had the chance until this year.

But I was covering the bigger story of climate change and its impact on the Asia Pacific from other locations. For example, in 2002, I commissioned and executive produced Voices from the Waves, the first-ever documentary on climate change in the South Pacific made by a native Pacific islander. Directed by Fijian film-maker Bernadette Masianini, the story revolved around two teenagers growing up on Fiji and Kiribati, each facing an uncertain future because of climate change.

In November 2007, the Maldives once again hosted representatives from small island states to discuss climate change. Eighteen years after the original meeting, the subject was no longer a fringe concern; it was now on everybody’s agenda. The meeting urged the the human dimension of global climate change to be included in the agenda of UN Climate Change Summit in Bali (December 2007), and sought the international community’s commitment “to protect people, planet and prosperity by taking urgent action to stabilize the global climate change”.

This time, the Male’ Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change called for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to assess the human rights implications of climate change and “to conduct a study into the effects of climate change on the full enjoyment of human rights”. It also requested the UN Human Rights Council to convene a debate on human rights and climate change.

I wasn’t present at the 2007 meeting, but followed the process online. While climate change emerged as a major global concern, political change and reforms were underway in the Maldives. The country moved to a multi-party democracy, and in November 2008, the Maldivian Democratic Party‘s candidate Mohamed Nasheed won the presidential election.

Science News cover - 28 Feb 2009

Science News cover - 28 Feb 2009

President Nasheed continues the climate advocacy that President Gayoom had sustained for nearly a quarter of a century. President Nasheed has emerged as an outspoken and pragmatic voice speaking on behalf of his and other small island states, grouped under the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

In early 2009, President Nasheed announced that the Maldives would become the world’s first fully carbon-neutral nation within a decade. To accomplish this, they would vigorously pursue renewable energies and green energy sources to replace current dependence on fossil fuels.

The final inspiration for Small Islands, Big Impact came in February 2009, when Science News magazine in the United States carried a cover feature on the challenges faced by Kiribati and the Maldives because of climate change. Written by senior science writer Cristine Russell, the article noted: “The Maldives and Kiribati highlight a hidden challenge for coping with climate change. It’s not just about slowing the emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s also about figuring out what to do for localities threatened with the possibility of extinction from rising ocean waters.”

My original plan was to film interviews with President Anote Tong of Kiribati, and President Nasheed. While sharing the same overall concerns, the two leaders (and their governments) have adopted somewhat different responses to the challenges posed by climate change. Unfortunately, the interview with President Tong did not come through in time, even though I had a Kiribati TV crew standing by to film it. So I decided to go ahead with the film focusing solely on the Maldives.

Location filming in Male - Hussein Makzoom (left) and Ibrahim Yasir

Location filming in Male - Hussein Makzoom (left) and Ibrahim Yasir

As with all TVEAP films, I was keen to make it with a local crew. Mariam Niuma, an engaging young Maldivian woman who had worked for nearly two years with us as an intern, helped me find a very capable crew in Ibrahim Yasir and his colleague Hussein Makzoom.

Niuma had been urging us to make a film about her country and was delighted that we were finally able to take it up. She helped us in numerous ways with local knowledge, introductions and advice. She also took time off her work with a local charity to show me around the Male’ island – which I was returning after a dozen years, in which time it had changed almost beyond recognition. (Male’ is one of the most crowded places on Earth – every one in four Maldivians lives on the tiny capital island.)

Small Islands, Big Impact was filmed on location over a few days in late August in Male’ and the nearby island of Vilingili. Our tiny production budget didn’t allow us to spend longer or venture further into the more remote islands and atolls (coral island formations, 26 of which make up the Maldives).

Overcrowded Malé, capital of the Maldives

Overcrowded Malé, capital of the Maldives

The timing wasn’t ideal either – the Monsoon was still active, and rain often interrupted our filming. There was some irony that a climate film was being shot in inclement weather. Sometimes we filmed in spite of the rain – one ferry ride we took from Male’ to Vilingili island had to cross very choppy seas that made me (a land lubber!) quite nervous. For our Maldivian crew, however, it was all in a day’s work…

President Nasheed’s media team had been quick and supportive in accommodating our interview request, but when actually filming it, we faced an unexpected challenge which I’ve described in an earlier blog post. (Clue: In addition to inclement weather, we had to deal with a nasty influenza virus). With the month-long Ramadan fast period about to begin, which would significantly affect the pace of work in the 100% islamic Maldives, we had no choice but to persist with our filming, improvising as we went along.

I returned to Colombo with five camera tapes rich in footage, one of which contained a 15-minute interview with the amiable and technocratic President Nasheed. Over the next few weeks, I worked with our editor Umesha Fernando in distilling this material into a short, compact film less than six minutes. It took a good deal of time and effort — especially since I chose not to have any narration and to let President Nasheed tell the story in his own voice, interspersed with text-supported transitions.

Because of this style, soundtrack mattered a great deal, and we agonised over custom-composing the music. As I put everything this together, I kept recalling the wise words of senior Australian film-maker Bruce Moir: “Film is a lousy medium to communicate information. It works best at the emotional level.”

In the end, we barely met our self-imposed deadline: the film was released online just in time for the International Day of Climate Action. At the same time, I released the full interview (in text) on TVEAP website and the Groundviews citizen journalism website.

I can’t judge my own film, but I have tried hard to strike a balance between its intellectual and emotional appeal. My team and I set out to tell a compelling story about a country on the frontlines of climate impact. No less a person than its dynamic head of state stars in our modest effort, made on an incredibly tiny budget.

So here it is, a film that has been 20 years in the making – Small Islands, Big Impact!

Note: Small Islands, Big Impact was produced on an editorially independent basis by TVE Asia Pacific in collaboration with COM+ Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development. As with all other TVEAP productions, this series comes without license fees, where only copying and dispatch costs are payable. To order broadcast master tapes, please contact:

It may also be ordered in high resolution on DVD (without regional coding) from TVEAP’s e-shop.

President Mohamed Nasheed: Encounter with a genial climate crusader…

President Mohamed Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers!

President Mohamed Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers!

It had taken many days to set up the interview, but in the end we got only 15 minutes of the promised 30. President Mohamed Nasheed turned up more than an hour late, lagging behind in his day’s schedule. While waiting, his staff had repeatedly asked me to cut down the interview as the President was already late for a state function. I had nodded half-heartedly.

President Nasheed (known among his people as ‘Anni’) walked in, beaming and apologising for keeping us waiting for over a day. We had set up our lights and video camera the previous day, only to find that the President had cancelled all his appointments that day to be with his young daughter hospitalised with the ‘flu. As a father myself, I could fully understand – even if it affected our filming plans.

I introduced myself and crew, and asked how his sick daughter was doing. She is not in any danger, he said, and should be home soon. That was a relief.

I ushered President Nasheed to the simple chair we’d chosen for him to occupy during our interview, being filmed in the stately room where the President normally receives high level state guests. As the crew pinned up the mic and adjusted the lights, I quickly explained who we were, and what the interview was for – a short film that would be globally distributed highlighting the vulnerability of his island nation to climate change impact.

There was not an air of pomposity around him. He exchanged a few words in Divehi with my Maldivian film crew – Ibrahim Yasir and Hussein Makzoom. As I would soon find out in the interview, he was also very well informed, articulate and passionate. (I remembered interviewing former President Maomoon Abdul Gayoom nearly 20 years ago when I covered the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise he convened in Nov 1989. Gayoom was expressive in his own way but had an air of scholarly superiority about him.)

In the 15 minutes that we had, I asked a total of 10 questions. I had sent in advance a baker’s dozen questions to his media staff. I don’t know if they briefed him, but clearly President Nasheed was in his element. He didn’t have any notes, and yet answered my questions perceptively, genuinely and always eagerly. The one-time journalist and human rights activist was very media savvy.

Read my full interview on TVE Asia Pacific website and on Groundviews citizen journalism website (where a discussion is unfolding)

He must have been asked some or most of these questions many times before. Yet with each answer, he found his comfort levels with me and by about the fifth minute, we were nicely chatting along. I had to keep reminding myself that I was really talking to one of Asia’s youngest heads of state. At that moment, he sounded every bit a chatty technocrat.

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

President Nasheed had lot to say, and knew just how to say it. I had prepared for days, reading his recent speeches and op ed essays. I had figured out what to ask to elicit the kind of answers I was hoping for. He didn’t disappoint me. If his staff had not interrupted our interview, we could have easily gone on for half an hour or longer.

But I knew he had already given good ‘soundbites’ that we could excerpt in a short film. For example, how many heads of state would engage in plain talk like this when asked for his core message to the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen: “In a nutshell, I’d like to say what has already been said: ‘Don’t be stupid!’. Going on and on about who did it is not going to save us. This is the time to realise that the deed is done. So let’s see how we may be able to proceed from here…

Earlier in the interview, he sounded grave when he outlined the prospects for his nation, the lowest-lying country on the planet, now on the frontline of climate change impact. “We will die if this goes on, and therefore, we have a fundamental right for life. If that is challenged, we have to link it be a human rights issue, and not just an environmental issue.”

The next minute, his tone became more resolute when talking on coping with massive changes already unfolding as a result of global warming. He stressed the value of democracy, good governance and people’s right to information as vital elements in adaptation – the difficult task of living with climate change.

Responding to my questions, President Nasheed talked about plans to make the Maldives carbon-neutral within a decade, and said the ‘sovereign wealth fund’ he announced soon after his election was already saving money “so that we will have something when the going gets very bad….”.

Sinking slowly in the East?

Sinking slowly in the East?

We also wanted to film President Nasheed at work, to establish him as an engaged political leader – the first democratically elected President of the Indian Ocean archipelago of 325,000 people. But there was no time. We then hoped to film his daily walk home after work. But the rain and delayed schedule meant he went home by car – and after dark. So we had to rely on stock footage instead.

The mix of democrat and technocrat in President Nasheed makes him an extraordinary personality and the world is taking note. The New York Times Magazine did a full length profile in May 2009 with the title ‘Wanted: A New Home for My Country’. A Hollywood film company is currently tracking the President as he travels the world, calling for urgent climate action that goes beyond mere words. (In fact, with my consent, they filmed me filming the President.)

A month after my interview, TIME Magazine named him an Environmental Hero of 2009 – the only serving head of state so honoured this year. I was delighted to see this, but TIME’s chosen photograph made me very jealous. I had dearly wanted to shoot our interview outdoors, but a combination of bad weather and presidential schedule ruled that out. Evidently, TIME photographer Chiara Goia had better luck: President in full business suit standing about a foot deep in the calm, azure waters of the Maldives.

The same waters that he and his team are trying desperately hard to keep at bay, for as long as possible.

Read my full interview with President Mohamed Nasheed on TVEAP website and on Groundviews

Watch the short film, Small Islands, Big Impact:

Blog post January 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die!