Week of 8.8.08
Transcript: Dinner With the President
The resulting film "Dinner With the President," sheds badly-needed light on America's front-line ally, and the man who ran Pakistan for nearly eight years: President Pervez Musharraf.
The documentary's directed by Pakistani filmmaker and journalist Sabiha Sumar, who hangs out with everybody she can find, from religious fundamentalists to partiers on a Pakistani beach to figure out what will bring stability and justice to the country.
BRANCACCIO: Ms. Sumar, thank you so much for coming this long way for this. I appreciate it.
SUMAR: Thank you, David.
BRANCACCIO: It's an incredible film. But, I have to ask you. We have this old phrase in U.S. politics: "As the state of Maine goes, so goes the nation." I guess you could argue as goes Pakistan, so goes, really, global security.
SUMAR: I think you're right because Pakistan is in such a strategic position today with China, Iran, India and Afghanistan as our neighbors. It puts us right where the action is.
BRANCACCIO: In this cauldron internally with all these competing interests groups, religious fundamentalists, other religious groups, a business class. I mean, it just go—goes on. A feudal system?
SUMAR: Uh-huh. A very complex system, really. But predominantly feudal. I mean, the business class hardly has any say. It has—there's not one political party in Pakistan, for example, that represents the interests of the business class, you—
BRANCACCIO: Very different from neighboring India, for instance, which has this burgeoning middle class.
SUMAR: Absolutely, and that's the major difference between India and Pakistan and why democracy has flourished to some extent in India as opposed to Pakistan.
BRANCACCIO: Now, at the center of your film is democracy. But, close beside this central idea of democracy is the guy who's been in power there for—not quite nine years. First General Musharraf, then President Musharraf comes to power in a coup. And—you actually get in to see him, don't you?
SUMAR: Yes, we do.
BRANCACCIO: You have dinner with him and his mom?
BRANCACCIO: How'd you pull that off?
SUMAR: Well, that was difficult, actually it took about six months. And—
BRANCACCIO: Hi, I'm a filmmaker, and I'd like to have, like, an intimate dinner with the chief executive.
SUMAR: That's right. It was really—it raised a few eyebrows and—it was kind of difficult to get through. But, I was just extremely persistent. I wanted a dinner interview and nothing less. And I think they—maybe eventually, they just got fed up of me turning up at their doorstep every—every weekend, week or, you know, asking the same question.
BRANCACCIO: So, Musharraf says, "Yes." You get in there. But, what's your point? Why do you really wanna sit down with him?
SUMAR: Well, I'm a filmmaker and not a journalist. So, for me, I imagine everything in scenes and how those scenes will tell me more about the character I want to talk to. And I thought a dinner would be intimate. It would be disarming. He could be more himself. His mother and wife will be there. So, this could be another kind of intimate situation sort of having a family set up.
BRANCACCIO: So, the subject at hand, democracy, I think a universal statement that virtually everybody agrees with is everybody loves freedom. But, when it comes to democracy, it's not quite that clear. I mean, d—democracy is a more controversial around the world. Particularly in your country.
SUMAR: Well, it's controversial because, you know, I think democracy is born of certain—certain struggle in society. And the way we understand democracy, say, from the French Revolution and the ideas of individual rights—they all belong to—a very strong bourgeois class. In Pakistan, we don't have a very developed, industrial base. It's really a feudal country.
And so, the idea of democracy is actually quite alien to Pakistan. So, when we talk about democracy and we talk about ballot box democracy, it's really about legitimizing feudal rule through the ballot box. Which is, in fact a very dangerous idea.
BRANCACCIO: That's exactly what Musharraf tells you as you're sitting there dining together. And he says, "Look, we are an agrarian country. We have these—this feudal legacy. We have—in many parts of the country, essentially, mobsters. Godfathers who have political power." He points out to you.
But—but, Musharraf goes out of his way in this dinner with you to make the case that he's not a military strongman. That ultimately, he is a champion of democracy. And particularly on the subject of empowering women. Listen to what he says.
CLIP: Musharraf: The women of Pakistan were never empowered. I thought all the women issues - violence against women etc.—which is in every developing country - so is in Pakistan. We can redeem, we can correct it if we were to politically empower the women so that they look after their own interests and they ensure their own interests. So we empower the women, we empower the minorities, the people, the masses, bringing them over... the bureaucrats...
SABIHA V.O.: I wonder: why is an army general interested in democracy?
BRANCACCIO: Well, let me put that question to ya. I mean, why would a—a man in his position—why would you take him seriously if he says he's interested in democracy?
SUMAR: Well, that's interesting. Because that's really the question that spurred the film on, you know? It's—it's really about what is different about Pakistan during Musharraf and what is different about his vision for Pakistan? So—from what I understood, you know, there has been a triumvirate which has been dealing with Pakistani politics all along. It's the feudals, the army and the Mullahs together.
But, then, before 9/11—just soon after Musharraf took over, he started banning Jihadi organizations.
He clearly saw the growth of Islamic extremism as a huge threat to the Pakistan Army, itself, and to the entire nation. And I think that is when this triumvirate began to grow distant so that the feudals and the Mullahs remained together. And the army separated. And so, you know, you have a completely different balance of power at play right now. And that's why I think he's interested in democracy.
Because that's the only way that people will actually reject Islamic extremism and the Pakistan Army will be able to fight extremism.
BRANCACCIO: It's interesting. Musharraf's image in the West is varied. There are some people who find him very charming. But, there are others who just see him as a dictator. A—a—who's—you know, who—who's at the beck and call of the United States. Do you see that as a misperception?
SUMAR: I do, really. I—I think that he—is a very democratic-minded person even though he is uniform. That really doesn't make any difference to me because I think his policies, his actions really show him to be very democratic minded.
BRANCACCIO: Well, here's the thing, Sabiha, in the film, the President, himself—Mu—Musharraf is trying to make the case, look, people who think I'm a dictator have me wrong. And what he offers as proof is look, we have a Supreme Court. I don't make the rules. I can't just hang anybody. There's a legal authority that's higher than me. But, after you get the interview, what does he do late last year? He suspends that Supreme Court for a while?
SUMAR: Yes, I think that was a huge mistake that he made. And—but, you know, everybody's human. And you can make mistakes. And I'm sure he regrets it. I think that—we also have to see this whole—crisis of the judiciary in the context of the fact that in Pakistan, the judiciary is really not as independent as you would imagine a judiciary in America, say.
You know, it's still very feudal minded. And it was very much against the modernization that Musharraf was—was un—you know, was—was part of. But, really, as a representative of the army, he represented more modern values than the judiciary did in Pakistan. That's really hard for people to stomach and hard to understand, I think.
BRANCACCIO: Why is it important for the world to understand Pakistan better?
SUMAR: What I hope to get to you is the difficulties of bringing democracy to a country like Pakistan. Where if you understand democracy to be—the right of individuals to decide what they want to do, the right to freedom—it's really not understood in the same way in Pakistan.
The traditional set up is very different. And—you know, the lack of education and poverty—makes it so much difficult to bring in a democratic set up. So, you wouldn't wanna bring in democracy from outside. But, you would want to encourage it to grow from within.
BRANCACCIO: And you do put yourself out there in the film. You go to the Northwest Frontier Province and hang out with some long-distance truck drivers. And—they say that they vote for religious politicians.
But, you press them in the film. And one of the drivers, quite touchingly, I think, points out that he believes that it's about education and the difficulty of a poor person and a poor family like his to get education.
CLIP: DRIVER #1: You had the power to get education, to learn English. If you can't pay 20 rupees to learn English, there's no way. These are all poor people!
DRIVER #2: We look at you and wish we could be like you... that our children, brothers and sisters be educated, so they're not forced to do the work we do.
BRANCACCIO: What did that mean to you when he said that to you?
SUMAR: I think that really—was a very poignant moment—a very heavy moment in the film. And it really brought home to me the reality of my people. That, you know, it's really about not having access to basic—necessities. And education is a necessity. So, if you're going to deny people a basic right to education, you really can't hope to bring them away from Islamic extremism or any other form of extremism, you know? You really have to concentrate on these very—basic human values.
BRANCACCIO: So, you—you—you—you take the question around the country and very different from the truck drivers are the rich kids on the beach. I mean, they have fancy cars. They bring a disc jockey to play tunes. And—some of them—not all of the young folks. But, some of them are very, very happy with having a guy who occasionally wears a military uniform run their country. Let's take a look.
CLIP: GIRL #1: It's the army that protects the nation. It's the army that has done the coup, that has taken over, that has been the dictator, and we can all see how well the dictatorship has done for the country. We have the freedom to do what we want and that we have the confidence in him that he will better our nation.
BRANCACCIO: So—I tried to understand this. In the face of the threat of religious extremism, if that's what democracy brings, these kids are obviously doing well. Or their parents are doing well. Are essentially embracing Musharraf. It's not a contradiction?
SUMAR: No, it isn't because, you know, these are the people who benefited a lot during Musharraf's time. Because you see the contradiction, really, in Pakistan is—and I know that it's really hard for people to understand. Is that democratically elected governments have often succumbed to the pressure from Islamic extremists and sort of gone under that—that pressure. And adopted a very religious agenda. And abandoned their own secular—ideology.
BRANCACCIO: Well, su—Musharraf when he's ticking off the challenges to democracy in Pakistan, among the things he certainly mentions is that previous prime ministers democratically elected have not always done the right thing.
SUMAR: Right. So, this is one of the very wrong things to my mind that they have actually taken on a religious agenda. And so, for the young people, it was a lot of freedom during Musharraf's time. They had the right—as they say, "The right to party. The right to be who they are. And not fear anything." I think it's really important to remember that, you know, this film was—that I made was also made during Musharraf's tenure.
And the kind of scenes that I imagined for my film were really encouraged by the fact that I had the freedom to imagine these scenes. Today, if you ask me to go back to the tribal areas, I think I'd be very hesitant. I know that I don't have the backing of the government today for that. Because, today, the government is actually working together with Islamic extremists. And they're not really against Islamic extremists.
BRANCACCIO: You're saying, "The proof is in the pudding. I—" you're able to make this film when he was in power. Now, that he's being moved to the side, you think it's getting worse for freedom of expression.
SUMAR: Absolutely, it is—it is.
BRANCACCIO: Another part of the film, you go through the Khyber and you get to the famous or sometimes infamous tribal areas. The free zone near Afghanistan. And you worked out a way to get yourself invited to a kind of congress of tribal—
BRANCACCIO:—leaders of elders. The jirga it's called. And you have fascinating debates over—who adjudicates disputes within Islam. But, you also talk about your main theme, democracy, and some of these leaders try to make the case to you that democracy? Up here? We've got plenty of democracy.
CLIP: SUMAR: What do you think of the democracy that Musharraf wants to bring here?
ELDER: Democracy is dead. Democracy means the will of the majority. So in our tribal areas we have the best democracy. Our leaders get together, and whatever is approved by the majority becomes the law. So the best democracy exists in the tribal areas. It isn't in the rest of the country. Not in America, not in Arabia. Nowhere else.
BRANCACCIO: But, very interestingly, there's a lot of people who are calling for change. And sort of a debate breaks out. One guy sort of comes up to you and doesn't quite whisper it. But, says as people are leaving, "You know, it's only five or seven guys who are promoting the system. There's really 10,000 other people who would like change." That must have been really eye opening for you.
SUMAR: It was. And I think that that's very—and that's why I left it in the film. It's because if I had been to the tribal areas in an earlier time, there would have been just one voice, you know? It wouldn't have been possible to find contradictions because—and, again, it's because Musharraf strengthened the liberal minds of people. And strengthened the fact that people could question what was going on in the country. And allowed them to rethink the values that had been inculcated over the years of jihad.
That people in the tribal areas are able to say, "Well, maybe this is not right, you know?" And this is for the first time that it happened. But, I think that it was too—too small a beginning. And after the elections, and after the coming of the democratically elected government, we have a—a situation where we've gone two steps back—
BRANCACCIO: Just the elections earlier this year you're talking about?
SUMAR: Yes, because, you know, it was too small a beginning. And already, we're in a position where so much—encouragement is being given to Islamic extremists by politicians saying, "Let's have a dialogue. Let's not fight." They're really emboldened by this because they know that politicians can't survive without their support.
BRANCACCIO: If we flew to Islamabad today and worked our way up to the tribal areas, you don't think it would be the same vibe?
SUMAR: No, I don't think that people would be—ready to disagree with their elders as you saw them do in my film. Because they know that the State is not behind them. They know that the Islamic extremists are really—backed and supported by the government of the day. And so, they should really shut up and go away, which is a very sad thing to lose, you know? It's very sad for me to know that we've already lost that.
BRANCACCIO: And at some level you're saying, "Well, look what democracy did 'cause of the democratic elections. But, it causes a shift in Pakistan and a direction that you don't think is good for society."
SUMAR: Exactly, you see that's why democracy is so dangerous for Pakistan. I mean, we can't use it as an idea that works everywhere across the board. It just doesn't. I mean—so—in fact, there's a car bumper sticker which says "If you—if you're not good to Americans, they'll bring democracy to you." And, you know, I—I mean, it's very telling of what's going on, really.
BRANCACCIO: So, what's a better guide. If the goal shouldn't just be democracy around the world or in Pakistan, what should be the gauge or the guide? It should be moves within a society to empower more people? Or what should we use instead of democracy?
SUMAR: Well, I don't think that America should use anything, really. I mean, I don't see any role for America in trying to bring values of freedom or—individual rights to any other country because it's just not your business to do that. It's for each country to decide for itself how it wants to find its own way towards more freedom. And I think that's a process, and every country has to go through that process.
There's no way that you can jump to C without going through B. So, I don't see any way out of this.
BRANCACCIO: You have the truck drivers. You have the tribal areas. You have the elite. You have the President, himself, at the time—Musharraf. But, you also go to the south of Pakistan to—I guess it's a village. And there's some people really living in feudal conditions, wouldn't you say? I mean, they—they have no land. They serve a—a landlord.
SUMAR: It is a feudal system.
BRANCACCIO: Let's take a look at them.
CLIP: Maasi, do you know who the President of Pakistan is? You know his name?
MAASI: I don't know
SATHA: Have you ever seen him?
MAASI: I can't remember
SATHA: But you remember his name?
MAASI: I know it but I can't recall it now.
BRANCACCIO: She can't recall even the name of the President of Pakistan at the time. I mean, her reality is completely divorced from the reality in Islamabad.
SUMAR: Absolutely, and this is the dis—distance, you know, between the rural areas, which is the majority of where—Pakistanis live and big cities like Islamabad or Karachi where people might be more educated
On the day of the elections, I want back to my farmer woman and her husband in rural Sindh. And I asked them—who they would vote for. And they turned around and said—"Well, we just have to go and follow what our elders tell us to do in this village. So, a truck will come, pick us up, take us to the polling booth. And we'll be told where to stamp the ballot paper."
BRANCACCIO: And she didn't seem all that excited about this?
SUMAR: She was completely deadpan. It was more like a waste of time. And for her, it was like two hours gone out of her day in which, you know, she has a 100 things to do from collecting water to making food to whatever else.
And—and—my next question—and I felt absolutely stupid asking her this. But, I thought I should anyways. And I said, "But, do you expect anything to change after you cast your vote? And we have a democratically elected government in place?" And that was completely like Greek to her. Like, why should it make any difference? Nobody has ever made a difference to my life. It just goes on like this.
BRANCACCIO: And so, you walk away from that experience thinking what? That if democracy's really gonna ever function, the first thing that has to happen is that village has to be lifted up first.
SUMAR: Absolutely, I mean, there has to be education. The biggest threat to democracy is poverty and illiteracy, you know? And these are two things that have to be fought very aggressively. And the government today has no plans for that. So, that's what's very sad.
BRANCACCIO: You've got this country where supposedly Osama Bin Laden is living near a Northern mountain. You've got the rise of religious extremism. You have the Taliban just in from Afghanistan spoiling for a fight. And you're saying that politically it's kind 'a going nowhere. It sounds dangerous.
SUMAR: It is very dangerous. At the moment, it is very dangerous. And I think that—if we don't stop talking about democracy and how democracy should come and in—you know, if American interference doesn't stop in that part of the world, it could really grow out of hand.
BRANCACCIO: So, PS, a lot of Americans are clearly watching this. Would that be one of your prescriptions for just an American? Which is get out of the way?
SUMAR: Well, I would say, you know, there is no real understanding of what's going on that part of the world. So, you've got to stop ex—you know, sending your ideas out without thinking about how they would apply in my country.
BRANCACCIO: So, perhaps a better guide for judging the direction of a country like Pakistan is how democratic are its institutions. But, to what extent are all its people being lifted up? How are women doing? How are minorities doing? How are poor people doing? Maybe not—when you watch your film, it seems to be an argument that gets to that. That maybe democracy isn't the gold standard?
SUMAR: Uh-huh. Well, it isn't. And also how much the middleclass is growing. Because the backbone of any dem—democracy is the middleclass. And Pakistan hardly has a d—has a middleclass, you see? So, you have to see whether the policies are going to encourage the growth of the middleclass. Whether the policies are going to cut at the roots of feudalism.
Whether the policies will introduce education as—as compulsory across—across the board. Whether there's going to be any program to—alleviate poverty.
Well, all these policies would lead to a just and more egalitarian system.
BRANCACCIO: Sabiha Sumar, thank you very much.
SUMAR: Thank you, David.
BRANCACCIO: The film, "Dinner with the President: A Nation's Journey", will be on Independent Lens on PBS in the fall. We'll tip you off with details closer to the time.
Want to see more of the film we just talked about? It's just a click away. Watch an extended clip from "Dinner With the President" on our website.
And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.