Filmmaker Jon Shenk’s body of work reflects the personality of a man who is really engaging with the world around him, fighting for human rights issues and an end to all suffering. His latest doc, The Island President, adds climate change to that list. DocGeeks talks to the director about his Sundance award winning film and how he got unlimited access to the Maldives’ president.
DG: When you started making the film you weren’t sure of the access you would be given to who is now your main character, how did you go about and convince a president of the importance of your documentary?
JS: We told him about out work and we came up with some examples of other docs that had followed VIPs, but as we were saying this we realized that there really was no precedent for what we were pitching to him. Eventually we found ourselves in the Maldives sitting in a room with Nasheed, breathlessly pitching him on the idea. He listened for a few minutes and said let’s do it.
You have to hand it to him. The Maldives had no free press before Nasheed. The former ruler planned out and controlled all of his media exposure. Nasheed is truly committed to transparency. This movie is remarkable if only for its access.
Your films all have a strong social message, whether it is raising awareness for human trafficking or a civil war. This time it is global warming, a rather controversial subject for which it has proven to be difficult to get the attention it needs. How do you think your film will help the debate?
It occurred to me that the climate debate had gotten stuck in a ludicrous loop of scientific jargon. Every reasonable person on the planet accepts the science. That is really not debatable.
What many people don’t get, understandably, is how this will affect people. Nasheed helped me understand that climate change is ultimately a human rights issue. And Nasheed is also a great story – a true David to the climate change Goliath.
I realized that climate change is not a tired boring story, but in fact the most exciting cinematic story. Impending doom. Ticking time bomb. Unlikely hero fighting intrenched interests. Sounds like The Bourne Identity!
It does! Has this film changed the way you thought about certain matters, perhaps the way politics work?
Yes – this has been a profound experience for me. I never really understood how global politics functioned. I never really thought about climate change as a human story. Now, I can’t see it any other way.
Also – getting to know Nasheed and the Maldives has been just a thrill. He is a one in a billion kind of guy. Once you see him in action, you can’t help but to be inspired. Bottom up change is possible.
While filming a president, especially one who personally has granted you unlimited access, there must have been issues you filmed that you were later asked not to use, or was unlimited really unlimited?
We had 100% final cut. That was agreed to in a contract ahead of time. Nasheed didn’t see the film until it premiered at Toronto. He said to us, “I’ll have to trust you,” and we in turn told our backers, “you’ll have to trust us”. Many leaps of faith were taken to get this thing made.
After you made the film the president was ousted by the army. Did you ever consider including this in your film, changing the ending?
We added a card with an update. Nasheed’s ouster makes the film that much for precious and that much more poignant.
Knowing what the president did for the country and seeing it with your own eyes, how do you now see the future of the Maldives?
I’m hopeful. Maldivians have tasted freedom and good governance. I doubt that the genie can be put back in the bottle. There are huge protests going on there almost daily.
What part of the film making process did you enjoy the most?
I love making documentaries. It’s a huge privilege to get to know people like Nasheed, see the world from this type of perspective.
Turning a story like this into a movie was really exciting. It had it all – amazing character, natural plot leading up to Copenhagen, and a stunning visual backdrop that says speaks volumes.
It’s not very fun waiting to hear whether you have been granted fund or a premier in a film festival, but that’s part of the gig.
And finally, we’re dying to know, what is your next project going to be?
Getting some rest.
The Island President will be released in the UK on Thursday 29 March, for information on times and cinemas please check out the film’s website.