Notes from Sundance: American Promise

We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on their experience screening their Special Jury Award-winning, SFFS-supported film American Promise at Sundance.

So far the Sundance Film Festival has been a whirlwind of activity – from screening our film American Promise, to interacting with audience members, to attending parties, to meeting other filmmakers around the world, to talking with prospective investors. It is a very intense experience and although it is very exciting, it is also exhausting. The audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Many other people have told us they're touched and that the movie has given them a tremendous amount to think about as it relates to race, class, gender, educational opportunity and even parenting.

In the Q&A sessions following the screenings, we're fielding a lot of questions about the boys -- people are clearly rooting for them. Both young men are doing extremely well. Idris just completed his first semester at Occidental College. Like many college freshman he's finding it challenging, but he's growing, learning and starting to stand on his own two feet. Seun told the audience that his freshman experience was "no walk in the park." But he, too, is acclimating to his new environment and doing extremely well. Both the two of us and Seun's parents, Tony and Stacy Summers, are beaming with the knowledge that our sons have overcome tremendous obstacles that we did not anticipate and could not protect them from, and are now doing well in their lives.

People also comment a lot about our bravery, saying that we are exceptionally courageous to expose our family and some of our most difficult parenting days, as we have. We believe that building connections and creating community requires openness. That said, some people feel unsettled by our decision to film our boys. By nature documentaries about people reveal them to the world. The fact that we've exposed our own family puts us in a far better position to protect our son and Seun than the parents of, say, an impoverished child in another country whose story a filmmaker tells are in. If you were to run into either of our young men, he would tell you that he is proud to be part of the film and are grateful to have a role in spreading the word about ending the educational crisis facing Black males. The presence of the cameras made us all into a better people.  

Perhaps most significantly, many people have told us that while they don't want to minimize the issues facing African American boys, watching the movie made them realize that both our family and the Summers’ seem strikingly similar to their own. This is one of the most satisfying pieces of feedback we could possibly receive. Because in making American Promise, we bet on our belief that if we could expose the public to who Black boys really are so that their promise is no longer obscured by stereotypes, distortions, and negative media portrayals and people can actually see their humanity, perhaps the world will fear them less, care about them more, and join us in advocating for their wellbeing.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Prepping for Sundance

We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on the lead-up to their SFFS-supported film American Promise getting into Sundance. American Promise premieres today at Sundance.

Joe: When we received the phone call from Sundance, we were in the editing room agonizing over how we should end our film.  When the phone rang and we noticed the call was from the Sundance institute, I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up so I handed the phone over to Michèle.  For a moment, it was as if time stood still.  I could hear Michèle say “Hey Shari,” after that, even the sound in my head had been drowned down. I had anticipated this moment for years and the thought of hearing no was now impossible for me to come to terms with, only because of my temporary brain fix.  Suddenly, Michèle went airborne, jumping up and down, pumping her fist in the air.  Then the sound in my mind came back on.  She was screaming the word, “YES!” 

Michèle: Perhaps there was some fist pumping and jumping up and down, I don’t know, I think I was numb with elation.  I called my mother in Quebec to share the good news, she asked, “What film did you get in with?”  She was surprised that a festival as important as Sundance would accept a home movie.  Once all the phone calls to crew members were made the daunting nature of what we had to accomplish by January began to sink in.  Be careful what you wish for.

Joe: Preparing for Sundance has felt like running a marathon every day for thirty days.  We have day jobs and on top of a busy post-production schedule, we are creating a short for NYT Op-Docs and preparing for the Television Critics Association press conference in Pasadena, which just happens to be the same week as the Open of the Sundance Film Festival. We’ve also put preparations for our community engagement campaign into high gear.  The campaign is huge and we are so excited about its potential for change.  So, this means we’re now working on adrenaline and less than 5 hours of sleep a day until February.   

Michèle: We are set on taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself for the film and our campaign.  And in this day and age of new technologies, that means loads of blogging and social media opportunities to develop a following.   Our engagement campaign is a part of that build up to our premiere screening.  One small piece of that campaign will begin during our film festival tour. It’s unusual to organize a dedicated campaign for a film festival run, so we’re hoping we set a precedent for future documentary films. We came up with this idea because we wanted to harvest any good intention resulting from the screening of the film. Since film festivals draw a general audience, we needed something that anyone could do. 

Joe: So, as we travel the festival circuit, we’re going to ask our audiences to help us raise $100,000 and 100 mentors for Big Brothers Big Sister’s Mentoring Brothers in Action program. The goal of this program is to recruit mentors, particularly men of color, and expand the organization’s capacity to serve more African American boys. We launched the campaign the week after Sundance announced our acceptance. 

Michèle: Idris and Seun are very excited for Sundance; they are eager to represent the film at such a prestigious event – and are certainly more relaxed about it than we are. Although Seun was initially a bit apprehensive about everything, he is getting more and more excited everyday. 

Joe: We decided to prepare the boys for press and interviews, our thought was that we did not want them to became overwhelmed in front of the camera.  That’s when both boys said almost in unison,  “we’ve been in front of a camera for 13 years. What’s another week.”  –  I guess the pressure is really on us.

My War, Part 2: The Glorious Beautiful Blue Sky Future

My War, Part 2: The Glorious Beautiful Blue Sky Future

by Mike Keegan

Editor's note: The Roxie not only is an integral part of the San Francisco film community, but has been closely involved with countless SFFS exhibitions, screenings, and festivals over the years. We asked Roxie programmer Mike Keegan to write about the importance of theatrical exhibition as they approach their Kickstarter fundraising deadline. Read Part 1 of his post here.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a groundswell of theaters across the country that have used this as an opportunity to reinvent the way they operate.  Super-focused programming is an important element, as is truly engaging with your audience, programming for that audience and that audience, in turn trusting the left turns you throw in there every once in a while.  Along the way, something really neat accidentally happened—in this hyper-connected, everything-on-demand age, regionalism snuck back in to movie going.  Cinefamily in LA, the Hollywood in Portland, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the 92YTribeca in Manhattan—there are a lot of titles we have in common, both old and new, but we also show a lot of stuff, both old and new, that are of interest only to our particular regions.  And I think that is AWESOME.

At the Roxie, we have a couple of unofficial (and official!) guiding principals, but the one I keep going back to is “the best/weirdest/coolest films of the past, present and future”, and it shows the continuum of our programming well.  Our repertory titles are largely deep cuts, b-sides and maligned-at-the-time shoulda-beens.  The new movies we show are from the same cloth–festival favorites, under-distributed or self-distributed, and currently maligned shoulda-beens.  The thing is, we love these movies and want you see them.

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My War, Part 1: The Ugly Side

My War, Part 1: The Ugly Side

by Mike Keegan

Editor's note: The Roxie not only is an integral part of the San Francisco film community, but has been closely involved with countless SFFS exhibitions, screenings, and festivals over the years. We asked Roxie programmer Mike Keegan to write about the importance of theatrical exhibition as they approach their Kickstarter fundraising deadline.

Cinema is dead, no one goes to the movies, film is dead, who actually goes to the movies, they don’t make ‘em like they used to, there’s nothing new under the sun—my gosh, don’t you just WRETCH at the thought of these phrases, either in a hundred and forty characters or time-wasting think pieces or overheard on BART or anywhere else under the sun.  Here’s the secret—and I’m preaching to the choir here—American independent cinema is going through an amazing renaissance at the moment.  Really!  It’s just ACCESS to these movies that’s the problem, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s easier than ever to make a movie.  You, dear reader, could conceivably write, direct, shoot, edit and upload a feature film with whatever device you’re currently reading this on.  Look here—iMovie for your iPhone is just $4.99 in the App Store.  So let’s try a little experiment—go make a movie.  I’ll wait here.  Go do it–it’ll be fun!  Good luck!

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The Act of Writing with One's Own Words

The Act of Writing with One's Own Words

by Sean Uyehara

There is the description of the thing and then there is the thing itself.

It’s difficult to write about the KinoTek programming stream without making it sound extra stuffy, alienating and art-world-y. That’s partly because KinoTek was established in 2006 by SFFS to engage, investigate and present the array of increasingly hybridized modes of media production, distribution and exhibition. The programming stream always incorporates moving image media and has presented live cinema, machinima, dance performance, theater, parametric and computational art and live music and film.

Lots of seemingly heady nerd potential. And, in truth, the majority of work out there that capitalizes on changes or combinations in technological and mediated platforms is (not surprisingly) soulless. But, I’ve worked hard to find and present work that is rigorous, provocative and engaging. Not all of it is for everyone. But, (hopefully) every project is for someone. And, who knows, maybe that someone is you.

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You Want To Start A Film Production Company? Why Not Make It A Non-profit?

You Want To Start A Film Production Company?  Why Not Make It A Non-profit?

by Chris Mason Johnson

I don’t have any statistics on this, but from what I can gather anecdotally, forming a non-profit to make a fictional feature film is a pretty rare thing, but it’s what I’ve done for my new (second) feature, Test, and it’s been a great experience. Mostly great. At first I did have to endure snarky questions from my non-filmmaking friends, along the lines of: “Aren’t you just admitting your film won’t make any money?” Well, no... (More on that later.) From my filmmaking friends the response was more of a blank stare, followed by: “I don’t know anyone else who’s done that.”

There are a lot of filmmakers out there who make one feature and then stop. They didn’t break through to that magical “next level,” and there’s no way they’re doing the same thing all over again. But for those of us who are determined to keep making films on a small scale, truly independently—and who actually enjoy it—it makes sense to explore new models in a distribution landscape that’s in the midst of its own creative destruction and reconfiguring.

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A Band Apart: Essential SF

A Band Apart: Essential SF

by Sean Uyehara
Photos by Michael Rauner

This past weekend, we presented the third annual Essential SF, the Film Society’s newest edition in our growing compendium of people, organizations and films that we consider “essential” to Bay Area film culture.

There’s a necessary arbitrariness to the selection each year, as there is no way that we can include every person, film, thing and idea that comprises the Bay Area film community (of course), and that’s not really the goal anyhow.  So, the Essential SF list isn’t exhaustive.

What it’s really aiming towards is the celebration of the social context we luckily have here for making, presenting and attending movies.

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Fear & Movies: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

Fear & Movies: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

By John Slattery

Having been overseas for three and a half years, I returned to the United States. When I came back, I came straight to San Francisco.

In the first few weeks people would ask, “So, where’d you move here from?” When I told them I’d just come from a year of teaching in Paris, 99% of their responses had a similar theme, which all fit into one category: I LOVE PARIS!

Often in the same conversations, their follow up question had to do with where I was before Paris. When I told them that I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco for two and a half years—they had a very different kind of response.

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Sometimes You Have To Change The Ending, Metaphors & All…

By Alejandro Adams

“If we do not reunite Sykes and Thornton, which shows that people do side together, that they do stick with each other...then perhaps we have destroyed everything we have been talking about in this picture.”

—Producer Phil Feldman in a letter to Sam Peckinpah regarding the final scene of The Wild Bunch*

It's not every day that a notorious bruiser of a director gets along with his producer. But it's equally rare that a producer respects a filmmaker and his vision to the degree illustrated by the note above—Feldman had even protested Peckinpah excising some of the film's more violent bits. Directors are usually the ones who get so far up the ass of their own work they can't see clearly. In a somewhat alarming inversion, Feldman was a producer exhibiting more concern for the integrity of the film than for the paying audience.**

I've started with an anecdote about a producer not only because this quasi-promotional outing is brought to you by Ted Hope's kind invitation but also because filmmaking is about relationships, sometimes just one relationship, and it can feel like the scene that reunites Sykes and Thornton. Or not.

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by Sean Uyehara

My friend Meredith Brody once teased me a bit for calling a movie “delicious.” It’s ironic because, in addition to being a cinephile, she is a bona fide restaurant and food critic—one of the best that San Francisco has seen, in this writer’s humble opinion. Anyhow, she understood what I meant, and even delighted in the turn of phrase a bit, but the phrase is open for a bit of ribbing.

I bring it up because it’s the term that first came to mind when thinking of the Taiwan Film Days entry Days We Stared at the Sun. Also, I wrote it in the program note SFFS put on the web: “Delicious melodrama.” The film is based on a wildly popular Taiwanese television series. It’s setting is high school; the typical high school that is rife with drug abuse, bullying, class differences, cliques, adolescent rage, big government scandals and the occasional homicide. Ah, to be young again.

So, what makes Days We Stared at the Sundelicious? What can I possibly mean? I don’t mean that rhetorically only. I actually have needed to go back and figure out why I would want to say that. (Thanks, Meredith.)

If I say a movie is delicious, it’s almost certainly going to be a melodrama. It’s going to be excessive, full of diffuse and pleasurable surprises. A taut movie can’t really be delicious. That sandwich was taut, yum? Naw, that sandwich was overloaded with secrets and unexpected textures and flavors. Maybe the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. That seems a bit more on track.

Here’s a strange thing I start to conclude from these cinegastronomical thoughts: as genres go, in general, it’s easier to justify liking a suspense film than a melodrama. And I wonder, is that true? I do in fact LOVE suspense films. Suspense is explicit in its pleasures. The tensions are conscious and on the table. As audience members, we want to know specific things—Who is the killer? Will he survive? Is she who she says she is? Does he even like pancakes? Okay, that last question is less common, but you get it: Suspense films address specific questions to audiences, tugging them along with a self-conscious playfulness.

With melodrama the pleasure is much more hazy. Excessive narration, excessive emotion, excess in general can overwhelm audiences with information that isn’t always apparently relevant. Manipulating the serial revelation of strange facts can sometimes feel like tricks: Okay, he’s her boss and her lover. Hold on he’s also her therapist… What?! And, he’s her brother? It’s a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime here. Arguing in favor of melodrama takes resolve. It requires saying you are giggling with the film not in contempt of it. Days We Stared at the Sun is like that, a kind of scaffolding of unlikely events, piling up begging to crash at any second, defiantly and incredibly refusing to give in to reason and gravity. It’s terrifically delicious.

P.S. If you want to see one of the most crazy, delicious films ever, you have to check out Sympathy for Delicious, directed by and co-starring Mark Ruffalo.

Sean Uyehara is a programmer at the San Francisco Film Society.

Fallen Climate Superstar: The Fight for Democracy and Survival in the Maldives

by Mark Hertsgaard

This essay, presented in conjunction with the screening of The Island President at Film Society Cinema, is part of the Film Society's Global Threats Film Series, made possible with support from the San Francisco-based Skoll Global Threats Fund.

He's been called "the Mandela of the Maldives." And like anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Nasheed began public life as a courageous democracy activist who was jailed for years by a repressive regime he eventually helped to overthrow.  Also like Mandela, Nasheed was a stunningly handsome, charismatic candidate who went on to win the first free and fair elections in his country's history.  To the outside world, however, this 44 year old Liverpool John Moore's University graduate and father of two has been best known as a crusader against climate change, a reputation he acquired by holding the world's first underwater cabinet meeting, in 2009, to dramatize the threat that rising seas pose to the Maldives, a scattering of 1,200 low-lying islands off the southwest tip of India that boast some of the most beautiful beaches and high-end resorts on earth.

Nasheed solidified his hero's status at the otherwise discouraging Copenhagen climate summit later that year, where I saw his star power first hand.  Covering the summit for Vanity Fair and The Nation, I interviewed the Maldivian president hours after he had addressed a large gathering of climate activists in downtown Copenhagen. Introduced by Bill McKibben, the author and activist who founded the grassroots group, Nasheed thrilled the crowd by doing what no other head of government had done: endorsing the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.  The 350 ppm target was derided as impossible, even naïve, by most of the negotiators at Copenhagen; after all, the concentration was already 387 ppm and climbing as global population and fossil fuel burning increased.  Nevertheless, more and more science indicated that returning to 350 ppm was necessary if humanity was to preserve a climate similar to that under which civilization has developed over the past ten thousand years.  After leading the crowd in a chant of "350, 350, 350," Nasheed exited the stage to thunderous applause, passing a sign that read, "You Are Our Global President."

The next day, I hurried along beside the president as he rushed from one meeting to the next inside the Bella Center, the vast conventional hall where the official negotiations were held.  We looked quite a pair, I'm told.  Nasheed stands no more than five feet, six inches and has the copper colored skin of his Indian Ocean ancestors; I'm six feet two and as pale and thin as our Danish hosts.  I had to bend my head low to hear his words as Nasheed said that the 350 ppm target might look unrealistic to some, but it was essential to the survival of his low-lying country and numerous others.  Indeed, Nasheed wanted the final agreement at Copenhagen to enshrine a temperature cap of 1.5 C, not the 2 C usually regarded as the "red line" for dangerous climate change.  "The idea is that people will agree not to murder others," he told me.  "Anything above 1.5 C and we [in the Maldives] have had it."

And then it happened.  We emerged from the restricted area of the Bella Center into the public zone where activists and other members of civil society had their booths, conducted briefings and ate meals.  Seated on the floor, a gaggle of young people suddenly took notice of Nasheed heading toward them.  Instantly, their eyes widened, their faces took on a rapturous glow and they leaped to their feet, clapping and shouting, "Thank you, Mr. President."  Their cheers alerted others and in seconds Nasheed was surrounded by scores of adoring activists, whooping and hollering and snapping photos on their cell phones as the president smiled and continued towards his next meeting.  It was real rock star adulation, unlike what I saw any other government official receive at the Copenhagen summit.

Now, barely two years later—and just in time for the release of a fine new documentary about him, The Island President—Nasheed has been forcibly removed from office by a military coup.  Although initial news reports were confusing, it now seems clear that when Nasheed resigned as president of the Maldives on February 7, he did so under extreme duress, compelled by military officials and others loyal to the former dictatorship, who warned that Nasheed and many others would die if he did not step down immediately.

The plotters themselves have admitted as much.  "I said [to Nasheed], if you did not resign there were only two options," Umar Naseer, the vice president of the People's Progressive Party of Maldives, told a televised public rally in the capital city of Male' on February 12.  "Firstly, resign with bloodshed. Next, resign peacefully. And [I told him] one of these two would happen today."  (For more on the coup and its aftermath, watch this gripping account, featuring interviews with Naseer, Nasheed and other key figures and reported by Australian SBS One TV's Mark Davis.)

Mohammed Nasheed thus brings together two of the towering issues of our time:  human rights and climate change.  Indeed, his example shows that the two cannot be separated from one another.  "What is the point of winning our freedom, Nasheed has asked, "if we lose our country to climate change?"  After the coup that deposed him, one might add a corollary:  what are the odds of saving The Maldives and other nations from climate change if people are not free to assemble, speak out and pressure those in authority to do what is necessary?

Both sides of Nasheed's political activism—the fight for human rights and the crusade for planetary survival—are compellingly presented by director Jon Shenk in The Island President.  With the face of a model and the courage of a street fighter, Nasheed makes for a charismatic star of the film, and the documentary is unabashedly but not unprofessionally partial to his point of the view.  The portrayal of the Copenhagen Accord, the agreement eventually reached at the summit, is an especially rosy one, considering that the emissions reductions it prescribed were purely voluntary and the accord was not actually adopted by the assembled nations.

Before parsing that argument, however, it's important to say that The Island President is far from a political tract.  Having apparently been granted all but total access, the filmmakers offer an extraordinarily intimate look at Nasheed the man, one of the most intimate visual portraits I have encountered of a sitting head of government.  We see Nasheed, for example, return to his hotel room after a long day of urging negotiators in Copenhagen to be bold, watch him lie down on his bed, remove his socks and fall asleep.  We see his wife, speaking to camera, recalling the difficult days when Nasheed was leading mass civil disobedience rallies against the dictatorship of former president Maumoon Gayoom, activity which led him to be jailed repeatedly and tortured twice.  His wife feared for the family's safety as well but felt powerless to curb her husband's non-violent activism.  "I suppose I could have left him," she says, "but he would have done it anyway." 

Above all, The Island President reveals how much of a head of state's time is consumed by empty ceremonial activities and how motivated many of Nasheed's counterparts appear to be by ego and small-minded concerns.  At a meeting of the world's small island states where Nasheed was urging a united, and tougher, stance in the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations, we see one fellow head of state gush through an interpreter that he appreciated Nasheed's "beautiful words," then turn brusquely away when Nasheed sought to engage him in further conversation.  At a luncheon meeting with the Environment Minister of India, the region's big power and a rising source of greenhouse gas emissions, Nasheed is repeatedly interrupted and lectured by the minister for his "unhelpful" suggestions that India—and not just the rich industrial nations—should limit its emissions.  In a nice bit of editing, the filmmakers cut back and forth from the minister's bullying to the bovine faces of his aides, stuffing their mouths with food as the fate of the Maldives (and other nations immediately threatened by climate change impacts) is discarded.

The documentary also eavesdrops on Nasheed's discussion with aides and thereby reveals, among other things, that all of them are astute enough to realize that, as a tiny nation of no particular geopolitical significance, their best hope for influencing the larger world's response to the climate crisis is to take the moral high road and to be creative, even outlandish, in publicizing their predicament.  Hence the underwater cabinet meeting Nasheed convened six weeks before Copenhagen, which generated positive media coverage the world over.  Hence as well Nasheed's announcement two weeks later that The Maldives would become "climate neutral" by 2010, the first nation in the world to do so.  (Thus we see Nasheed climb atop the roof of the presidential house to help install solar panels—one means of shifting the nation from oil to solar power.  Plans called for off-setting remaining fossil fuel consumption by subsidizing an equivalent amount of tree-planting and other climate friendly actions at home and abroad.)  Nor was Nasheed shy about pricking the conscience of the outside world.  "We know that the Maldives going carbon neutral will not save us from annihilation," Nasheed says during a pre-Copenhagen trip to London to urge British politicians and voters to take more aggressive action against climate change.  "But at least we will die having done the right thing."

What's remarkable, and in retrospect poignant, is that Nasheed appears to have harbored genuine hope that the Copenhagen climate summit would produce a real breakthrough.  Truth is, a lot of us felt that way, and not just for sentimental reasons.  The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States the year before had removed one colossal obstacle:  the George W. Bush administration, which had been actively hostile to mandatory emissions reductions during its eight years in power.  By contrast, Obama had singled out "a planet in peril" during his victory speech on Election Night 2008 as one of the three major crises he would confront in the White House.  A few weeks later, his inclusion of billions of dollars for energy efficiency and renewable energy in his economic stimulus package indicated he intended to follow through on that pledge.  What's more, it appeared that the US and China, the world's two climate change superpowers, might at last be transcending their stand-off over who should cut emissions first and by how much. As I reported in Vanity Fair a month before Copenhagen, Obama had sanctioned months of back-channel negotiations with top Chinese officials that now had culminated in an agreement that both nations would reduce emissions. 

Of course, it didn't work out that way in Copenhagen. Obama arrived at the end of the summit and, clearly suffering from jet lag, gave one of the worst speeches of his career.  His tone was flat and bordered on lecturing, while his content was almost insulting to an international audience.  For while Obama declared that the US would promise to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020, international observers recognized that this number was based on blatantly moving the goalposts. For decades, the international community had measured emissions reductions from a baseline of 1990. By that standard, the US was really offering a mere 4 percent reduction; only by substituting a baseline of 2005 could the Obama administration arrive at its 17 percent figure. It was like promising to kick a 50 yard field goal from the 20 yard line.

None of this is mentioned in The Island President, which instead lays the blame for Copenhagen's shortcomings mainly on China.  Not without reason, it must be said.  China dragged its feet throughout the summit, resisting calls to accept even long-term limits to its emissions and pressuring poor nations to toe its diplomatic line or risk the loss of development aid. Ed Milliband, the climate secretary of Great Britain, later wrote in The Guardian that China had sabotaged the summit.  In a late night meeting in the summit's final hours attended by the heads of government or state from the world's biggest polluters, Milliband wrote, China had refused to accept what Obama and European leaders saw as a grand compromise:  the rich industrial nations would cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 while the world as a whole—including China and other emerging economies—would cut emissions by 50 percent by 2050. The problem was, this formula would have imposed larger per capita emissions cuts on China, India and other developing nations than it imposed on the rich industrial nations whose past emissions had caused global warming in the first place.  This, China would never accept.

The Island President does not show this pivotal meeting, presumably because Nasheed—the filmmakers' ticket inside—was not invited to attend it.  But Nasheed did support the proposal.  Indeed, so desperate was he for some kind of deal that he also endorsed the much weaker alternative the big powers subsequently settled on.  This, the briefly ballyhooed Copenhagen Accord, was a far cry from what science said was needed to save civilization, much less to save The Maldives.  Contrary to early news reports, the accord did not pledge to limit temperature rise to 2 C over pre-industrial levels; it merely "recognize[d] the scientific view" that the increase should be kept to 2 C.  Nor did the accord do much to bring this result about.  It neither enumerated nor prescribed binding limits on emissions; it only committed both developed and developing nations to "take action" to "achiev[e] the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible…."  Adding insult to injury, the big powers presented the accord to the rest of the governments in Copenhagen in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.  No surprise, then, that the full summit explicitly declined to approve the Copenhagen Accord, voting instead merely to "take note" of it.

Nevertheless, near the end of The Island President we see Nasheed smiling as he telephones his mother while being driven to the airport to return home.  In the translation at the bottom of the screen, he tells her with evident pleasure that the meeting has yielded an agreement.  Fair enough.  He was exhausted, and most boys, even grown ones, like to impress their mothers with their accomplishments.  But neither science nor politics has been kind to Nasheed's upbeat assessment in the years since. 

The world's greenhouse gas emissions rose to record levels in 2010, despite the overhang of widespread economic stagnation.  Ice sheets continued melting. Record floods left 14 million people homeless in Pakistan and record heat in Russia led the government to halt grain exports, spooking global markets and giving rise to price spikes that helped provoke food riots in a dozen countries.  The year 2011 brought even more extreme weather, with Texas suffering the worst one-year drought in its history and the hottest summer in the entire nation's history, even as Governor Rick Perry, like all Republican presidential candidates, continued to insist there was no such thing as man-made global warming. 

And in an ominous foreshadowing of the Maldives' potential fate, in March 2012 the government of Kiribati announced it was planning to evacuate its inhabitants before rising seas completely inundated the island nation.  Like the Maldives, Kiribati is a string of low-lying tropical islands, but located in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Anote Tong, the president of Kirabati, told the (London) Telegraph he was attempting to buy 5,000 acres of land on Fiji where his countrymen could resettle, adding that the international community should provide financial aid to deal with "the needs of countries like Kiribati."

Meanwhile, the two international climate negotiations that followed the Copenhagen summit—in 2010 in Cancun, Mexico, and in 2011 in Durban, South Africa—made little more progress than Copenhagen had, and for the same basic reason:  neither the US nor China was willing to reduce its emissions anytime soon.  Astonishingly, the agreement reached in Durban—no country would be obliged to cut emissions until 2020—will, if left unchanged, guarantee the world will fail to limit temperature rise to 2 C, the level even the Copenhagen Accord acknowledged would cause "dangerous" climate change.

And so, for the sake of humanity and especially the two billion people around the world under the age of 30 who will spend their lives coping with climate change, the Durban agreement must not stand.  It must be superseded by an agreement that respects science and the planet that makes our civilization possible. As I wrote in The Nation at the time,

The disaster in Durban makes it clearer than ever that politicians will not save us from the fast-approaching train wreck of irreversible climate change. Salvation must come instead from the bottom up: from extending the victories citizen activism has already won, including the defeat of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in the United States. If people of good will want to halt this train before it’s too late, we can’t leave it to the engineers. More and more of us will have to invade the engineer’s compartment, take over the controls of the train ourselves and steer a path back to life.

Few have been more steadfast and creative in the fight against climate change than Mohammed Nasheed.  Which makes the brutal coup that deposed him all the more deplorable.  All of us, not just the citizens of The Maldives, need leaders like Nasheed on the global scene, pushing the limits of what is supposedly realistic, taking risks and above all inspiring people to rise up and demand real change before it is too late.  Despair is a constant temptation in the climate fight, but Nasheed, like Mandela before him, has no patience for such self-defeatism.  As he affirms at the end of The Island President, referring directly to the Maldives' struggle against sea level rise but more broadly to all humanity's challenge, "We can't just disappear.  We have to survive.  And we have to do whatever it takes to make that real."


The Island President
screening and this essay are presented as part of the Film Society’s Global Threats Film Series, made possible with support from the San Francisco–based Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Mark Hertsgaard has covered climate change since 1989 for outlets ranging from The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Time to NPR, L'espresso and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent.  A Fellow of the New America Foundation, he is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, released in paperback this month.

© 2012 Mark Hertsgaard