The Island President: New film profiles Mohamed Nasheed at the Frontline of Climate Justice

When it comes to climate change, we're all Maldivians!

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives is an articulate, passionate climate witness on behalf of his endangered island nation of 350,000 people. The technocratic and amiable President is one of the youngest heads of state in the world today. The one-time freelance journalist (who worked with and for various media when he was in political exile) remains very accessible to the international media. He knows the power of old and new media — and how to leverage it for his cause.

I admit to being a Nasheed fan. During the past couple of years, I have blogged about, interviewed and made a short film about President Nasheed. In the less than three years he has been in office, he has faced more than his fair share of economic and political challenges at home, but he has never lost sight of the long-term, bigger issue of climate change advocacy.

And now, his global status as the ‘rock star of climate change’ is enhanced by ‘The Island President’, a 90-minute, feature-style major documentary about him produced by a leading American production company, Actual Films. The film is to be released this summer at various film festivals. I can’t wait to catch it.

The Island President has been in the making for nearly two years. The film makers had exclusive access to the President both in his island nation and on his international travels.

The Island President: Official Trailer

The official Synopsis reads: “The Island President is a a dramatic feature documentary that lifts the issue of global warming out of the theoretical and into the personal. President Mohamed Nasheed is trying to save 385,000 people from drowning. His nation of 1,200 low-lying islands, the Maldives, is sinking into the Indian Ocean as sea levels rise due to global warming.

“With a young, charismatic South Asian leader updating a role once played by Jimmy Stewart, The Island President is like a non-fiction Mr. Smith Goes to Washington elevated to the world stage. Actual Films has secured exclusive access to follow President Nasheed as he prepares over the coming months for the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit in December. The terms of the 1997 Kyoto Treaty on Climate Change are about to expire, and leaders from around the world will converge on Copenhagen to hammer out a new treaty with renewed urgency. As the Danish Minister for Climate and Energy acknowledged, “the December days in Copenhagen in 2009 will be…a political thriller on an international scale.” The Summit will be an international showdown where President Nasheed will try to convince world leaders to finally take serious action against looming danger of climate change. The stakes couldn’t be higher-President Nasheed sees this as the last chance to save his homeland, and the world.”

The Island President is a co-production involving Actual Films, AFTERIMAGE PUBLIC MEDIA and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Read about the film makers: Jon Shenk, Director; Bonni Cohen, Producer; and Richard Berge, Producer.

October 2009: President Mohamed Nasheed: Encounter with a genial climate crusader…

President Nasheed knows what to say and how to say it to the eager media...

When it comes to climate change, we are all Maldivians!

It was Woody Allen who said ‘Ninety per cent of life is just showing up’. Well, part of the remaining 10 per cent must involve waving our hands and speaking out in this increasingly attention-challenged world.

My organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, lacks both a travel budget and a promotional budget. So I need to be both resourceful and persevering when showcasing our work in the vast Asia Pacific region and beyond. I attempt this by turning myself into a one-man cheering squad for our work in the public interest. (If this makes me something of a self-promoter, so be it!).

I was very grateful when our friends in Greenaccord accommodated my last minute request to screen our latest short film Small Islands – Big Impact at their 7th international media forum in Viterbo, Italy, today. This is what I recently made in the Maldives, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to sea level rise.

I presented this at the end of the fourth day, soon after the gathering of 130 journalists and scientists from 55 countries had listened to 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change.

Here is what I said introducing the film:

Small and low lying island states are on the frontline of impact from climate change. That is why we made this film, so that we can highlight the plight of the Maldives in various climate related discussions around the world.

It is based on an exclusive interview that President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives gave me in August 2009. In this wide-ranging interview, he shared his concerns and visions for his island nation.

President Nasheed is an articulate, passionate climate witness on behalf of his endangered island nation of 325,000 people. The technocratic and amiable President is one of the youngest heads of state in the world today. Interestingly, he worked as a freelance journalist when he was in exile for several years, and remains very accessible to the international media.

As a journalist and broadcaster, I’ve been covering this story for over 20 years, from the late 1980s. I have seen how the vulnerability of small island states – like the Maldives – has risen up in the international discussions on climate. Sustained reporting by journalists has played a significant role in this process.

We have unfinished business. As President Nasheed says so emphatically, we are in this together. We need to work on coping and survival strategies.

When it comes to climate change, we are all Maldivians.

This is the second time a TVEAP film has been showcased at a Greenaccord event. In October 2006, the post-tsunami Asian environmental series The Greenbelt Reports was previewed at the 4th Greenaccord Forum.

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:

maldives-too-young-to-die-say-school-children-nov-1989.jpg

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.

Return to Paradise: Maldives on the frontline of climate change

Related blog post: 6 Jan 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die

Mariyam Niuma - photo by TVEAP

All of us at TVE Asia Pacific are missing Mariyam Niuma.

This bubbly, happy-go-lucky intern returns to her native Maldives this week after working with us for over a year as a programme assistant. She plans to spend more time with her family, and explore work opportunities in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of 370,000 people.

Niuma, in her early 20s, applied for a staff position in late 2006. Among other things, she came with skill and dexterity in graphic design, web research and English proficiency — always useful for a regional communication organisation like ourselves.

“I want to learn as much as I can how a non-profit organisation works,” she told as at the recruitment interview. She had plans of taking the knowledge and skills back to her home atoll, hoping to make life better for her people.

I hope she found what she was looking for. We found in her an energetic young person with good attitude – one who could be challenged to work on tough (and sometimes tedious) tasks on a regular basis.

“The last year has been a very challenging and fulfilling year for me, and being at TVEAP helped a lot,” she wrote in an email on her last day at work. “I will miss you all and being a part of you and will always remember the good times and everything I have learnt here both professionally and personally.”

Some months into her internship, Niuma gave us a presentation on her home country, home atoll and life at home. To many outsiders, Maldives evokes images of palm-fringed sandy beaches, shallow seas of an exquisitely azure blue, high end resorts, crystal clear blue waters for diving…and plenty of sunshine all the year round. (Image shows Kurumba resort, Maldives.)

Well, all that’s true as widely advertised. But Maldives is a whole lot more – a history going back to at least 1,500 BC, distinctive island culture, and a nation that is struggling to reconcile tradition with modernity. Divehi, the Maldivian language, contributed the word “atoll” (a ring-shaped coral reef) to the English language.

The former British protectorate, which became independent in 1965 and a republic in 1968, has a pro-democracy movement sustained over the past few years. If such political turbulences create a sense of uncertainty in the minds of Maldivians about their future, it’s only one source of concern.

They also have to worry about whether their nation would have a collective future. That’s because of climate change that scientists now confirm are underway, aggravated by human action.

Most of the 1,200 islands in the Maldives are no more than 1m (3 feet) above sea level. Even a modest rise in sea levels could inundate these lands. Within 100 years the Maldives could become uninhabitable.

Time is indeed running out for Niuma and her country — as this poster produced by The Body Shop reminds us.

Time is running out...and not just for the Maldives

In 1987 and 1991 storm surges flooded a large number of islands, including one-third of the capital where one-quarter of the country’s population lives. Unusually high waves forced the international airport to be closed, causing great damage to tourism and constraining emergency relief operations. On 26 December 2004, the Asian tsunami battered the Maldives, forcing the evacuation of 13 of its 200 inhabited islands. These incidents indicate how vulnerable the islands are to wave action.

Maldives was among the first countries in the world to raise climate change as a serious issue at the United Nations. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom raised the alarm back in 1987, when most people had not even realised the problem and scientific evidence was just beginning to come in.

The Maldives did more than raise the issue. The country played a lead role in rallying around other small island states worldwide that would be among the first to be impacted when sea levels rise due to thermal expansion and melting of polar ice.

In November 1989, the Maldives hosted the first ever small states conference on sea level rise, which was one of the first international scientific events that I covered as an eager young science journalist.

The conference issued the Malé Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise, which urged for inter-governmental action on the issue. The small island states played a key role in negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1992. This is the precursor to Kyoto, Bali and other processes that are now very much in the news.

Just a few weeks ago, in mid November 2007, the Maldives once again hosted representatives from small island states to discuss climate change. Eighteen years after the original meeting, the subject is no longer a fringe concern; it’s now on everybody’s agenda.

Maldives from the air: tiny specs in the ocean

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 requested the UN Human Rights Council to convene in March 2009 a debate on human rights and climate change.

I wasn’t at the November 2007 Male meeting, but was glad that the meeting stressed the need for adding a human face to the complex, nuanced challenge of climate change. This resonates very much with my own experience.

Read my April 2007 blog post: Wanted – human face of climate change

Mariyam Niuma takes me a bit closer to the realities of what climate change means to communities living on the frontline. Unlike Niuma, who is web savvy and connected with the wider world, many are blissfully unaware of the problem.

Our challenge is to bring their voices, stories and aspirations to the global news agenda and the myriad discussions now underway searching for solutions.

I hope someday we can work with Niuma again — perhaps amplifying her story in moving images.

Nov 2007 blog post: True people power needed to fight climate change

Related blog post: 6 Jan 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die

Photos of Mariyam Niuma courtesy Manori Wijesekera of TVEAP