"Dinner with the President"
Militarism on the menu, with a side order of theocracy
When Pakistani film-maker Sabiha Sumar sits down for dinner with the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, we watch her take several sips of water from a glass. There's no alcohol in sight. It doesn't augur well for the dinner, or for the documentary we are about to watch.
The dinner took place in 2005. A couple of years after he overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif, in a military coup in 1999, General Musharraf had appointed himself President. When Sumar had her meeting with the President, he hadn't yet suspended the Constitution, or jailed the Chief Justice, or clamped down on the media. He appeared to have lost his marbles, but he hadn't yet lost his office. All this was to happen later.
In the opening sequence of the documentary, a conflict is staged. Armed policemen, blowing whistles, are running to a confrontation on
But Sumar demurs. In the past, she says, she might have agreed. But now she wonders whether General Musharraf isn't necessary for democracy's survival in the country. So, the conflict that we had earlier witnessed, between the fundamentalists and the protesting women, is displaced. We are left with the film-maker's narrower dilemma. Musharraf, or the mullahs?
It is fairly easy to choose the lesser of the two evils, but why should the Pakistanis be left with this difficult choice in the first place. This fact is never adequately addressed and gives a diffused look to the film.
Nevertheless, Sumar has shown herself to be a skillful film-maker over the past, and here she teams up with Sri Lankan Satha Sathananthan to present a portrait of a nation in turmoil. At one point in the film, Sumar goes through the Khyber Pass to the
Other interviews in the film are not as revealing. There's little that is surprising in what the General tells the film-makers, almost as if he were giving a speech on the state of his union. The film includes a follow-up interview with the President a year after the dinner. On that occasion, he claims that "there is total democracy in
Before I close, I should add that the dinner with the President is not the only dinner that we get to witness in the film. We are in front of a hut where a woman is making rotis or flat bread over a fire. A voice asks her to name the President of the country. She can't. Later, toward the end of the film, we are back outside the hut. The sun is setting and a kerosene lamp is being lit because there is no electricity in the huts. The woman's husband returns, bearing an axe in his hand. The family settles down for dinner. They are sitting on a mat on the ground. The bread that the woman had earlier made is on a metal plate between them. Before taking his first bite, the man gently inquires of the people behind the camera, "Will you have dinner with us?" When I heard his question, I quickly wished that the film-makers had said yes. Then we might have got to watch a better film.
But I was wrong. I had forgotten that the film-makers had shown little evidence of imagining lives and conditions very different from their own. All that they deemed fit to ask the peasant as he began to eat pieces of bread was this: "If you were President of Pakistan what would you do?" The question was incomprehensible, and after a pause, the man asked for the question to be repeated. In reply, he could only say, "We're really poor people. That's difficult." He talked about the need for rain, and the patience that God had given them.
And then the film ended. It is difficult to know for sure but one is left to surmise that in a country where there's such deep deprivation, one cannot expect democracy to grow. One has to make do with an enlightened dictatorship. Let's celebrate a man who is in uniform because he at least lets women in his house sit with their heads uncovered! If that indeed is the film's argument, it is a dangerous one. It surrenders the claims of democracy for too little and without even a struggle.
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