“The Island President” was awarded the Cadillac People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), one of the world’s five most prestigious films festivals.
The award was delivered in a uniquely democratic fashion, voted not by critics but by festival audience members who attended the screening. The film was one of 25 submissions in the documentary category.
Director Jon Shenk has previously won awards for his documentary films, notably “Lost Boys of Sudan” and “Smile Pinki”; the latter received an Oscar in 2009.
A government official who met Shenk during his time in the Maldives in 2009 said the government knew he was a successful director, and hoped for a positive response.
The official noted that the Maldives is known internationally for tourism and climate change, but hopes that this award will bring more awareness to areas such as North America.
State Minister for Tourism Mohamed Thoyyib called the documentary a “big achievement for the Maldives”, promoting the destination to audiences in North America who were previously unaware of the country’s “pristine, clear waters, white beaches, and beautiful fish.”
Thoyyib added that in spite of its title the documentary was not about President Mohamed Nasheed but rather about the issues facing the Maldivian people. The film raised awareness of global warming, portrayed and promoted “the unique ” Maldivian culture and language, and illustrated government transparency, said Thoyyib.
“No scene was created or scripted, some reviewers even noted that the film’s most unique aspect was that it shot real events on a level that had never before been achieved in the Maldives, or within other governments,” Thoyyib said.
Thoyyib noted that the Maldivian government had benefited a great deal from the film, but had not spent money on its production.
“There is a lot to be achieved directly and indirectly when something positive happens,” he said, adding that tourism revenue was likely to increase. “But this doesn’t solve the issue. The President will keep on raising his voice on global warming.”
Funding for the documentary was provided by the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, ITVS, Impact Partners, Sundance Documentary Fund, and Atlantic Philanthropies.
Minister of Tourism Dr Mariyam Zulfa said that the President had gained the attention and support of the international community before the film was produced. “The under water cabinet meeting that the President hosted in 2009 generated a lot of interest in the Maldives as an eco-destination,” she said.
Zulfa expects the film to have a positive impact on both tourism and eco-awareness. “Generating interest in the Maldives is always a good thing. We are adopting green standards and reducing waste, and are always open to new ideas from the international community,” she said.
The documentary was also screened at the exclusive Telluride Film Festival in Colorado earlier this month. Hollywood Reporter named “The Island President” one of the festival’s “Top 12 films to know”.
In the coming months, “The Island President” will be soliciting distributors for viewing in cinemas and on public television. The film already has a contract with the US’ Public Broadcasting Service, which had helped fund the project, and will be aired on US television next year.
A screening of the documentary is scheduled for the Maldives later this year.