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A president—and a film?—at sea

Bay Area husband-and-wife documentarians Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen (Lost Boys of Sudan, The Rape of Europa) don’t see themselves as activist filmmakers, but real life sometimes has a way of forcing its own agenda.

     The duo’s stunning new documentary, The Island President, chronicles year one in office for Mohamed Nasheed (above), the first-ever democratically elected president of the Maldives, who has waged a tireless global fight to keep his country from being literally annihilated by climate change. If the sea continues to rise at its current rate, many of the nation’s 1,200 tiny islands will be completely submerged within 100 years. (In one of the film’s most viscerally effective scenes, Nasheed stages a cabinet meeting underwater.)

     But on February 7, Nasheed was ousted in a bloodless coup led by allies of the dictator he defeated in the 2008 election—which makes the film’s environmental content seem like a bit of a side issue. Whether intended as such or not, The Island President is now poised to serve as a rallying point for Nasheed’s supporters abroad. “There’s a fine line between storytelling and activism,” says Shenk, and he tries not to cross it, he explains. Even so, he and Cohen managed to move up their local April release date to March 30 so they could get the film in front of “as many NGOs, activists, and press people as possible.”

     Unfortunately, the film’s star may not be touring on its behalf. “He himself can’t leave the country right now,” Shenk says. “He’s afraid that if he does, he’ll never be allowed back in.”