Richard Berge is a San Francisco -based film producer, writer and director with numerous credits in documentary film. Credits include “The Rape of Europa” which was nominated for an Emmy award and Documentary Screen Play award by the Writers Guild of America, and won the Audience Choice Award at the RiverRun International Film Festival. He is currently teaching at Berkley Journalism School.
Berge co-produced “The Island President” with Bonni Cohen and director Jon Shenk.
Eleanor Johnstone: How did you obtain permission to film?
Richard Berge: We contacted the press office in early 2009, after reading about Nasheed in the New York Times and different publications that were following him, and asked if they would be interested in having a film shot here about the President’s first year in office. We were hoping that it would lead to a natural climax at Copenhagen. At first, the press office was intrigued but said they couldn’t make a decision until they met us. So we took a risk and flew out here with the sound guy and thought we would maybe just check the place out. But we met with the President and five minutes later he said, “It sounds pretty interesting, I guess I’ll just have to trust you guys.” And next thing we knew, we were filming him on his trip to England to speak to Parliament.
EJ: It sounds like you had an interest in the environmental issue from the beginning. Did the young democracy aspect fall into place as you went?
RB: We always look for these story arcs that will make for an interesting frame. The Copenhagen thing a couple years ago was pretty hyped – that’s part of the reason why it was seen not to be a success. So we wanted to see how it would play out. And it turned out that the President became instrumental in that.
The film was kind of a one-two punch, in a way. In retrospect, the whole democracy thing and 2008 election seems like a precursor to the Arab Spring of earlier this year. It turned out we were there at the right time to follow this. So this transition to democracy after a 30 year rule by the former leader was definitely something that intrigued us. And the human rights issue, and spreading democracy in this part of the world was something that was interesting.
But when upon his election President Nasheed announced he would try to find a new homeland, we thought, “Wow, what a bold statement. Not sure that’s the wisest thing to say.” I think the government backpedaled a little after that, but it was intriguing. Here was a guy who clearly was going to speak his mind, and who was going to make a place for this small country on a large stage. So we saw this democracy-human rights angle in combination with this climate change issue a way to humanise the climate issue. You know, it’s such an abstract, intangible thing. And here’s this country that offers a way for people to understand what it means.
EJ: You said the President was quick to accept your proposal. How did he react to your close following and filming?
RB: I think he thought it was going to be a ’60 Minutes’ type piece. As in, we would interview him and then get some shots of him around the city, doing his thing, and then we would go away. I think he didn’t understand what we wanted.
You know, he walks from his house to the President’s Office. So we would go over in the morning and hang out outside the door, and then when he would walk to the office we would try and talk to him and say, “Mr President, this is what we’re trying to do, we need to be in your meetings.” We sort of slowly explained to him that what we were trying to do was not a news story, but a Victorian novel with one character we were following who was trying to overcome obstacles that would lead to a climax of some kind.
The access issue was a constant thing. But at the same time, I don’t think there is any other country that would have let us do what we did. It’s only because it’s a small country with a confident leader who was committed to being transparent. But even then, we were struggling all the way through. And not just because of him. Going to the UN? They don’t like cameras in there. Going to the World Bank, going to Copenhagen, it was tough.
EJ: Did the President or his administration back you up?
RB: To a point. They would allows us in there, but they were there to do business and if we were disrupting that business they weren’t going to let us stay in. They didn’t want us to interfere with their primary goals. Often we had to make the case that our presence wouldn’t interfere. The President wasn’t going to make it for us, and we had to make it to his counterparts, and his cabinet. He may have made the case behind the scenes, I don’t know. But I didn’t hear him say it to anyone.
EJ: Was there any controversial footage that had to be edited out, that either your team or the government said couldn’t be shown to the public?
RB: You have to understand that we shot about 200 hours of footage to make a 100 minute film. The President did not see any of that footage before he watched the film at the Toronto Film Festival. So that tells you a lot about how transparent he is. We didn’t take anything out. There was nobody saying “you can’t have this-or-that in the film.” So it’s pretty remarkable.
I can’t think of anything off hand that was controversial that’s not in there.
EJ: Why were you interested in following Nasheed?
RB: From what we had read in newspaper accounts he seemed like this really inspiring, motivated true believer in democracy, willing to put his own life and family on the line. And he seemed to speak truthfully from his heart and mind. He seemed like a leader that we wish our president [Barack Obama] would be more like. You may not agree with him, but he tells you what he believes. And so just for that reason he seemed very charismatic and inspiring, but also a rigorous thinker. When we were with him privately he was very down to earth, very funny, joked in the elevator, teased us. He just seemed like a very appealing person.
EJ: If he hadn’t had that appeal, would the movie have been as successful as it currently is? Would it have been done at all?
RB: Making these sorts of movies takes a lot of effort. Especially fund raising – I can’t emphasise how much work it takes to raise the money for these kind of things. We got seed money from ITVS, an affiliate of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to get going. But then we had to go to charitable foundations to get money, and it was touch and go the whole time. If Nasheed hadn’t been charismatic, if we couldn’t see that there would be something interesting happening, we wouldn’t have invested the time and energy in the project. But he seemed like the guy who was going to put a face on climate change. And I think we made the right decision.
EJ: As you may know, there has been some political reactions to the film in the Maldives. The opposition party has been terming it a propagandist film for the President’s benefit at the cost of domestic issues. What kind of impact do you think the film could have domestically?
RB: It’s about marketing Nasheed – and it’s a movie he never saw? Imagine a PR firm or advertising firm that would put something out that the subject had never seen before it went to public. It doesn’t make sense, right?
From what I know, I can imagine the opposition is not going to like it. I don’t know how badly they’re not going to like it. But I hope they can see it as a portrait of the country. I mean, there’s a man who’s a main character, but every story has characters. It’s a lot about the Maldivian people and the beauty of the country. In most of the places we’ve shown it, such as the United States, a lot of the audience has never heard about the Maldives. They don’t know where it is.
The movie has put the Maldives on the map for those few audiences who have seen it so far. People have come up to us saying, “That’s a place where I want to go now. It looks like a beautiful place, with interesting people to meet.” So from a cultural level, and maybe from an economic and tourism level, I can see a benefit. Here’s a movie that’s going to show for the first time in theaters across the States – we just signed a deal on Friday – and this is going to released theatrically in Dhivehi with English subtitles. I mean, that’s a good thing for the Maldives.
EJ: Did you get much opposition to the film?
RB: People have been very supportive. The only pushback is that foundations that give money for this kind fo thing don’t hav ea lot of money to give, and they don’t like to give it to films. They like to give it to direct programs, active on the ground. So it’s a really hard sell. That’s why I chuckle when you say this is being seen as propaganda. We wouldn’t have spent as many months as we did trying to raise money for this if it was going to be propaganda. It’s just too hard to do, there are easier ways to make a living, you know? We did this because it is a passionate story to tell.
EJ: How many people do you expect will see the film, in the Maldives and world wide?
RB: Eventually, everbody in the Maldives can see it. We’re showing it briefly now because we want to give that opportunity, but soon I’m sure it’ll be on television here and available on DVD. And in the States, when it shows on television I’m sure it’ll be seen by millions of people in the States at least, but we’re also going to broadcast in European countries, Australia, Japan hopefully, India, so this could have a very potent impact on the climate discussion.
We’re hoping the timing will be good in the States especially. Obama just delayed the decision on the XL pipeline, and so that signals to a lot of people that the climate might become an issue in the election this coming year. And I also like the fact that we have this charismatic leader in a film that will be shown in the States. Maybe people, these Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party people will say, “Why can’t we have somebody like this guy?”
EJ: So you’re saying the film could promote not a person but a type of leader.
RB: A type of leader around the world! I mean obviously we can’t have Mohamed Nasheed as our president, but maybe he can inspire other people to have the openness, transparency and honesty in discussing problems.
EJ: You mentioned that the film could affect elections on the environmental platform. How effective will the film be for the environmental campaign in general?
RB: I don’t know how it will affect elections here, but we went into this hoping that we could have in impact on the discussion of climate change in the United States. We got money from the Ford Foundation, from the MacArthur Foundation, from Sundance Institute, and what we were saying is, Al Gore’s film was great. It put climate change on the map for people. But it still left the issue an abstract, intangible thing. We knew it was an impending catastrophe in the future, possibly. But people still couldn’t relate to it on a personal level. So we said “We need to set out a movie somehow that makes this, brings this home for people in a human way, in a way people can relate to in a story. And I think we found a person that can carry that story.”
EJ: You’ve worked on a number of films in different areas of the world. How do you maintain a relationship to the place and the issue post-production, and post-release? Where does the Maldives fall in your future?
RB: Well, I wish it was closer to home. This was a life changing experience. To be able to embed ourselves with a president and his government, to see how these leaders make decisions and how they try to have an impact, this tiny country, how they try to have some kind of influence in the world–it’s fascinating. Being able to travel with them to England, to Copenhagen, to India, and see how they relate to those leaders, I’ve never done that before. And I feel like that was a real privilege.
I brought my wife and daughter on this trip because I used to go home from the shoots full of passion, and I wanted them to see what I was so passionate about. So hopefully, we can figure out a way to keep in touch with our friends here.
EJ: Has the work here impacted any professional plans you have for the future?
RB: I don’t know, part of the plan for “The Island President” isn’t just to put it on television. We’re going to have an outreach program that will educate people on panels and at schools, and use this a way to get people thinking more and more about climate change. Not just as it affects the Maldives but as it affects their communities in the United States and other places, and how they can start acting locally.
“The Island President” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received the People’s Choice award. The film will premier locally this week at Dharubaaruge at 20:00 on Wednesday evening. Tickets have been sold out.
Another screening will be held at Athena Cinema at 20:30 on Thursday evening. As of Monday evening, only four tickets remained.