Word of Mouth: Two political films, two very different codas

The world moves at the speed of life. Hollywood, not quite as fast. The discrepancy is usually not an issue, but in the case of two politically minded films coming to theaters this month — the documentary “The Island President” and the feature “The Lady” — the gap between real time and movie time has lent the movies two very different postscripts.

“The Island President” from director Jon Shenk (“Lost Boys of Sudan”) follows Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, as he fights to stop or at least slow global warming; if it’s left unchecked, scientists predict, his low-lying island nation will be submerged by the end of the century. The movie played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in September, but in February — before “The Island President” could be released in the U.S. theatrically — Nasheed was forced out of office in what he and his supporters called a coup.

Shenk has added a coda to the film addressing the plight of his subject, but he didn’t otherwise edit the documentary following the recent developments. Although Nasheed’s new status has given him a lot more time to promote “The Island President” — he’s chatted in recent days with David Letterman and Jon Stewart — his ouster means that the movie now ends with as much of an ellipsis as an exclamation point.


“It’s hard to separate the film from the man. So it’s inevitable that people will ask the question, ‘Does this make you feel anything different about him? Does it add to the story?’” Shenk said of Nasheed’s removal from office.

“I feel there’s some distraction, instead of having the typical discussion about how the film was made and reviewers liking or not liking it. It feels both distracting and it gives it a sense of immediacy that for certain people might make it feel more exciting.”

Said Meyer Gottlieb, whose Samuel Goldwyn Co. is distributing “The Island President”: “What’s happened to Nasheed makes him far more visible. From a press perspective, he’s a much more interesting figure now.”

“The Island President,” which arrives in L.A. theaters Friday, is not the only new film whose story line has been somewhat eclipsed by current political events.

Director Luc Besson’s “The Lady,” a narrative feature about Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, comes out in limited release April 13 in Los Angeles, following a brief Oscar qualifying run in December. The film, which is largely focused on Suu Kyi’s 15 years of house arrest under the nation’s military rule, was shot in early 2011 and completed soon after the 66-year-old was freed but before she declared her candidacy for last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Suu Kyi’s party captured a vast majority of the 45 seats up for grabs, including the one she contested.

Like Shenk, Besson says he intends to add a postscript to his film, so that audiences are apprised of her election. More fundamentally, the French director said the voting results change the experience of watching “The Lady.”

“At the end of the movie now, you can breathe — and smile — knowing that she’s in good shape,” Besson said. “You know there is kind of a happy ending.”

But Besson says Suu Kyi’s successful run for parliament should not be construed as the story’s final chapter. “The real ending will be in three years, when I hope she will present herself and be elected president,” he said.

The election is generating a separate wave of publicity for “The Lady.” On Monday in Washington, D.C., the Motion Picture Assn. of America will host a screening and panel discussion of “The Lady” with Besson, star Michelle Yeoh and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As for “The Island President,” viewers will likely find Nasheed a compelling figure, regardless of where they stand on the issue of climate change. Imprisoned and tortured under the Maldives’ former dictator, Nasheed led a 20-year democracy movement that culminated with his being elected president in 2008 at age 41.

The Maldives, in the Indian Ocean about 250 miles southwest of India, comprise 1,200 coral islands, of which only about 200 are occupied; the average elevation is just a few feet above sea level.

As Nasheed sees it, a rise in ocean levels will leave his countrymen under water very soon. With singular focus, Nasheed in his first year in office plots a strategy not only to make his nation carbon neutral but also to persuade the world’s superpowers to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases. By the calculations of his staff, if carbon emissions are not reduced within the next seven years, the Maldives will be wiped from the Earth in no more than 70 years.

Nasheed takes his cause to 2009’s Copenhagen Climate Summit, where the president tries to bring China, India and the United States into his eco-friendly fold, as Shenk and his crew watch intimately.

“It’s unprecedented that a head of state would allow a film crew this kind of access,” Shenk said. But Nasheed knows that the media are a critical ally in both his climate campaign and his effort to restore democracy in the Maldives. In his recent media appearances, Nasheed has been talking as much about rising ocean levels as his removal from office.

He said in an interview that his ouster makes his global warming concerns “feel real — something in the present — not something in the future” and proves that democracy in both his native country in places such as China is critical to bring about change. “We need to have democracy to be able to articulate these issues,” Nasheed said. “The leadership [in the Maldives] has no moral authority to talk about these issues.”

Just as the recent elections in Burma dramatize the fruits of Suu Kyi’s democracy labors in “The Lady,” Shenk believes the political turmoil in the Maldives underscores Nasheed’s against-all-odds determination.

“Ultimately, the film is about a guy who is a real warrior for truth and justice and has been all his life,” Shenk said. “He’s always had setbacks. And this one, unfortunately, is a big one.”