By Noma Faingold
When documentary film director Jon Shenk decides he needs to tell a story, it's always character driven, taking the same approach as many narrative feature film directors - only Shenk doesn't have a script, which is like working without a net.
"I try to put myself in a situation where I might have a high batting average and there's a contemporary story with a character who is about to go through something significant," says Shenk. "It's up to me to not mess it up.
"Observational documentary filmmaking is kind of like hunting," he adds. "You go into the forest. You see what's there and you hope you respond to what you see."
In his latest film, "The Island President," Shenk, was fortunate to get the dramatic character arc of Mohamed Nasheed. Shenk (also the cinematographer) and his crew closely followed the president of the Maldives in his first year as leader of a nation confronting the literal survival of his country and everyone in it.
After bringing democracy to a country ruled by a brutal dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for 30 years, Nasheed's immediate existential challenge was to keep one of the most low-lying countries (a group of 1,200 small islands off the Indian sub-continent) from being submerged in the near future, making them inhabitable.
Nasheed's story culminates in his trip to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, where, according to the film's production notes, he "proved to be an unusually shrewd and sophisticated politician who grasped that the only way he could stand up to the catastrophic issues of climate change facing his country would be to take the Maldives cause to the world stage."
Shenk, 43, and crew followed Nasheed for 80 days and shot more than 150 hours of material. Shenk wanted and got an all-access pass to Nasheed. "No film ever followed a head of state to such an extent behind the scenes," says Shenk. "It was a big ask."
According to Shenk, the media-savvy Nasheed was willing to be so exposed because he was hoping the crisis in the Maldives would get the international attention it desperately needed, particularly among American audiences.
"He put his trust in me," says Shenk, who crafted "The Island President" as a political thriller. "It's incredible to think about what his people are facing. The threat is really clear. If that environmental problem can't be solved, his people are going to be looking for a new homeland. There's nowhere to go. There's nowhere to run in the Maldives."
Nasheed may come off as a courageous, charismatic and inspiring leader in the film, but Shenk got a severe taste of life not imitating art shortly before the theatrical release of "The Island President." In February of this year, Nasheed, who was very popular with the Maldives population, resigned the presidency under the threat of violence in a coup d'etat perpetrated by security forces loyal to the former dictator.
The turn of events shocked Shenk and he continues to worry about Nasheed's safety, with whom he has kept in touch. "I think he's in danger. There is a history of people disappearing," says Shenk. "What protects him is his international notoriety. If something happens to him, it would be a huge personal loss and real setback for human rights."
The award-winning documentary director and cinematographer, who lives in the Inner Sunset with his wife, Bonni Cohen, a producer, and their two children, Abraham, 13, and Anadel, 9, grew up in Cincinnati. He earned a Bachelor's degree from Yale and a Master's in documentary filmmaking from Stanford. He was drawn to documentary film after seeing "The Thin Blue Line," the 1988 Errol Morris true crime ground breaker. "It was so exciting," he says. "It was like a feature film. It got my adrenaline going."
Shenk's directing credits include 2004 Independent Spirit Award winner, "Lost Boys of Sudan" and the 2007 Emmy-winning, "Blame Somebody Else." He was also the director of photography for the 2009 Academy Award-winning short, "Smile Pinki." The Presidio-based production company he founded, Actual Films, is thriving. Shenk and his collaborators get hired for a lot of high-profile commercial work and, because of his doc track record, Shenk has been sought to produce, direct or shoot a variety of documentary projects for such networks as PBS, the BBC, CBS, NBC and Bravo.
While Nasheed continues to lead a non-violent movement and the Democratic Party he founded in the Maldives in 2005, Shenk is prepping the educational version of "The Island President" for high schools and colleges. The theatrical release, still making the rounds at film festivals, is available on iTunes and will air on PBS next spring. Even though Nasheed is no longer president, Shenk insists, "The story of the film didn't change. It's a timeless David and Golith story."
Director Jon Shenk will appear at the screening of "The Island President" on opening night of the 2012 San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Sept. 19, 7:15 p.m., at the Roxie Theatre. Tickets are $10 and available online at www.thirdi.org/festival.