Scales of Sovereignty

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Zeynep Devrim Gürsel

My starting position is that what makes a film ethnographic is neither the training, credentials nor even intentions of the filmmaker.  As anthropologists we can find the ethnographic in a film.  The Island President, a riveting 2012 documentary directed by Jon Shenk is an ethnography of the complexities of climate change politics and the way both politicians and media frame the issues involved.

An ethnography of climate change poses challenges ofcourse.  Isn’t the ethnos involved so large as to render the study impossible? Yet if the object of analysis is the politics of climate change, the ethnos in question is the small society made up of world leaders and tangentially the media that follows them.  Studying-up indeed!  The film’s chief informant, a marginal world leader but of great relevance on the topic of climate change, is the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.  A former journalist, Nasheed is constantly thinking of the media’s role in politics.  (Presumably this awareness underlay his decision to grant access to Shenk and his crew.)  Choosing a marginal character in the society of world leaders enabled Shenk, the director, to gain extraordinary access to this group.  This access not just to a world leader but to a world leader negotiating with all other world leaders on a global issue is remarkable.

Former President of the Maldives, Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed.  Photo: Chiara Gola

Former President of the Maldives, Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed. Photo: Chiara Gola


A politician usually gives access to a film crew when he or she is emphasizing transparency in governance (often during an election campaign.)  As the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Nasheed too is committed to transparency.  The access he grants allows a window not only on to his own cabinet meetings but, as the camera follows him to meeting with Indian officials in an attempt to rally their support for capping emissions and several international diplomatic meetings, the viewer glimpses the international politics of how climate change is discussed and the actions that do or do not follow.  When the Indian chief negotiator on climate change explains that while they do not for a minute question the validity of the scientist’s warnings about climate change, they feel India cannot cut down its emissions simply on a principle of equity – the right to develop even if they are later to the game than the West – it becomes clear that it is politics itself getting in the way of taking action to mitigate climate change.  What needs to be done is obvious to all but, as the Indian negotiator laments, “Can you sell it in your country?  I cannot sell it in my country.”

One of the film’s great strengths is showing how Nasheed responds to, interprets, anticipates and uses domestic and international media coverage.  Frequent shots of the infrastructure of media remind us that unlike the physical erosion plainly visible in the Maldives, the politics of climate change are always mediated.  The media representations and the politics of climate change are mutually constitutive.

Pres. Nasheed at Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009

Pres. Nasheed at Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009

Silences in The Island President  are just as telling as Nasheed’s strongly worded and frank speeches.  In several scenes throughout the film, we observe President Nasheed insightfully allowing another politician to frame their conversation in terms that mobilize it for a particular narrative serving his own interests.  An interchange with a British Member of Parliament begins with Nasheed stating “We view climate change in the context of democracy,” to which the MP replies enthusiastically, “Supporting democracy in an Islamic country, what’s more important than that?”  In other words what is captured on film is precisely the “friction” of competing political priorities and interests.   (Tsing 2004) The challenge of climate change is one of scale as the problem is quintessentially global, though the local consequences are unevenly distributed.

The Island President’s most provocative contribution to an anthropological discussion is the way in which scale is handled.  Should climate change be discussed in the context of human rights?  Yet isn’t existence a precondition for any human rights?  Put differently, is climate change a domestic or global problem?   Can there be an effective national response?  The Island President illustrates this powerfully by detailing the struggle for democracy given in the Maldives that led to the election of President Nasheed in 2008.  What at first seems a digression might just be the film’s most valuable contribution to the extant work on politics and climate change.   When Nasheed comes to power after twenty years of activism including repeated incarceration and torture, the greatest domestic issue he faces is global climate change. In fact, according to the history told by Paul Roberts, Nasheed’s British advisor on international media, when the 2004 tsunami wiped out over 50% of the Maldives’ GDP in an hour, the country needed foreign capital and had to agree to the mandate for political reform that accompanied financial aid.  In other words, weather events, and perhaps climate change itself, were central to bringing democracy to the Maldives.

Climate change forces a rethinking of sovereignty on many different scalesand The Island President problematizes the very notion of national sovereignty. During a radio interview in England Nasheed is asked, “You had a long struggle getting to power and now you are fighting climate change, you do like a battle don’t you?”  In other words, the interviewer sees democratic reform and climate change as two different political causes.  Whereas Nasheed is quick to reply, “It won’t be any good to have democracy if we don’t have a country.”  He then adds, “It’s a human right…We cannot not talk about our existence as a country.”  In a casual interview half way through the film he wearily voices his frustration, “There is impending disaster and yet people still speak of many other issues for example the Arab Israeli conflict.  What is the point of conflict when we’re all going to die anyway?”  The fundamental issue here is the nature and scale of sovereignty.  For many, whether they be individual news followers or United Nationas delegates, climate change, like the Arab Israeli conflict, is just one of many political issues competing for media attention and activist’s passion.  However, for the Maldives, climate change threatens the very possibility of sovereignty.

Shortly before the Copenhagen summit, Australian prime minister calls President Nasheed asking him to confront China .  Nasheed relays the conversation to his deputies: China is the largest emitor but they don’t want international monitoring of emissions because it compromises their sovereignty.  Yet they don’t want to be isolated either.  Clearly for all nations what is changing is not only the climate but the nature and scale of sovereignty.  In a radio address to a domestic audience recorded from New York during his visit to address the UN General Assembly, Nasheed states, “The Importance of the UN has never been made so clear.”  Indeed at issue is not merely recognizing a group’s political sovereignty or bid for nationhood, but its very right to exist at all.  If, as the 2012 Doha Climate Change Conference indicated, global consensus can in fact not be reached on the issue of climate change and several island nations continue to buy land abroad in anticipation of having to relocate entire populations, the nature of political sovereignty and its links to territory will be even further transformed.

Relevant anthropology texts:

AAA Climate Change Task Force:


Anthropology and Climate Change: from encounters to actions, co- edited by Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. 2009.

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel is a cultural anthropologist in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.  She is the director & co-producer of Coffee Futures (2009),   She received her PhD in Anthropology with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research focuses on how things become imaginable both for individuals and groups, and how forms in which the past and today are narrated are shaped by, and in turn shape, expectations of the future.  She is currently completing a manuscript, Image Brokers, on the production, distribution, and circulation of international news images.

Eye to Ethnography, aims to increase knowledge of and conversations about visual work in anthropological scholarship and teaching.  Jenny Chio and Zeynep Gürsel welcome suggestions on topics/themes to address, films/visual projects to review, and filmmakers/scholars to profile — email them at

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