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"The Island President": What Was Democracy in the Maldives 

Wednesday, Mar 28 2012

Blessed — or maybe cursed — with fortuitous timing, Jon Shenk's lionizing documentary of Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Republic of Maldives, the archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean consisting of 1,200 tiny islands, closely follows the charming president from 2008 to 2009, his first year in office. The film, a hopeful portrait of a crusader, is now inadvertently a record of a bygone era: Nasheed was forced to leave office Feb. 7, the result of a coup by loyalists to Nasheed's predecessor, the dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. As Nasheed wryly points out, the beaches where celebrities and aristos have romped were also — quite literally — the same spots where the torture sanctioned by Gayoom, who ruled from 1978 to 2008, occurred. And Nasheed should know: Born in 1967, he was imprisoned 12 times and tortured twice for his criticism of the autocrat's regime; he formed the Maldivian Democratic Party while in exile and returned to the capital, Malé, in 2005. The Island President uses as its throughline the months leading up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. Positioning himself as an eco-activist and declaring that his country will be the first to go carbon-neutral, Nasheed reveals his gifts for quippy doomsaying: "It won't be any good to have a democracy if we don't have a country." The thoughts Nasheed shared with Shenk post-Copenhagen now ring as foreboding: "Coming back to Maldives, you realize how impossible the whole situation is."

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Melissa Anderson

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