"Dinner with the President"

Independent Lens

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.


Dinner with President Musharraf

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 Lahore's streets. A mixed-sex marathon, organized by human-rights activists, is being opposed by the bearded members of a fundamentalist Islamic alliance. The fundamentalists are shouting "American bitches! Down! Down!" (The subtitle, a bit misleadingly, translates the insult as "American dogs! Down! Down!" For the record, on May 14, 2005, the Pakistan army had opposed the marathon. Participants had been beaten-up and arrested. A week later, after protests, the race took place successfully. Over 700 runners participated; 200 of them were women.) Sumar is seen interviewing the women who are marching against the fundamentalist mullahs. The protesting women see no difference between the religious fanatics and the military. Indeed, they tell the film-maker, "We are against the army and their allies, the mullahs. We want to make it clear. Without the army, the mullahs cannot rule this country. They are the ones who are keeping the army in power."


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 North-West Frontier Province and interviews Pathan truck-drivers. We have just watched the footage of posters where the faces of women have been blackened by the strict adherents of Sharia law. Sumar begins to berate the truck-drivers for the abject role that women play in their society. Why don't they let their women out of the house? But this isn't going to be a one-way exchange. The documentary takes a new turn when the bearded men tell Sumar that they are poor and illiterate people. He says to the visiting film-maker, "You had the power to get education, to learn English." He is reminding her of her privilege. Another bearded truck driver, also hirsute and grim, very calmly tells Sumar, "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."


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 Pakistan." Neither Sumar nor Sathananthan challenge Musharraf. They remain rather awed by him--no harsh beratings for the dictator. That is reserved only for the less powerful, bearded men. I watched such meetings in the film, and during the long arguments about the role of Islam and women, I began to crave, if not alcohol, then at least something a little less predictable and righteous. Like the remark that Naseer, Hanif Kureishi's character in My Beautiful Laundrette, had made to explain why he could not go back to Pakistan: ''That country has been sodomized by religion... It is beginning to interfere with the making of money.''


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.












Independent Lens "Dinner with the President" web site

Video Preview


Post a comment

Ground rules for posting comments:

  1. No profanity or personal attacks.
  2. Please comment on the subject of the blog post itself.
  3. If you do not follow these rules, we will remove your post. Keep it civil, folks!