He’s got a lot of stamina.
— Zarin Musharrafuddin
“How do I start a discussion with a president who is targeted both by liberals and Islamic extremists, who is criticized for not taking a strong stand against the Islamists and also for being too close to the United States?” In 2005, as Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar prepares for her dinner with then President Pervez Musharraf, she is keenly aware of the contradictions he represents. Born of numerous lively discussions with friends and colleagues, her opening question is pointed and perplexing, alluding not only to Musharraf’s complicated position, but also to the nation’s identificatory quandary.
Dinner with the President: A Nation’s Journey is more precisely Sumar’s journey, undertaken with Sri Lankan co-director Satha Sathananthan. Filmed before Benazir Bhutto’s short-lived return to Pakistan, the film ends with an epigraph noting Musharraf’s 2008 resignation as president. It cuts between two meetings with Musharraf (a 2005 multi-course dinner with his wife Sehba and mother Zarin, and an interview in 2006), and several encounters with Pakistani citizens in remote villages and on urban streets. Sumar’s interviewees address a range of concerns — from poverty to militarism to education — but the film finds a particular, recurring focus in the question of women’s rights. It opens with a demonstration in Lahore, as one group marches in support of the “new dawn” women embody and another marches in support of “the rule of the Koran.”
The national army provides a mutual point of contention, a point too neatly embodied by Musharraf. At the time of his interviews with Sumar, the prime minister (1999-2001) and president (2001-2008) was also, as he had been since the 1999 military coup that removed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Chief of Army Staff. As the documentary recounts, Musharraf promised Pakistanis in 1999, “Your armed forces have never, shall never, let you down… We shall ensure the integrity and sovereignty of our country to the last drop of our blood.” Rhetorical flourish aside, Musharraf here spoke to oppositions his government would struggle to reconcile in the years to come, between dictatorship and democracy, as well as religion and secularism. Always, he notes in his conversation with Sumar, Pakistan remains at the center of a volatile region, where west and east meet.
While the dinner provides arresting visuals — white tablecloth, uniformed servers — the film intercuts Sumar’s other exchanges, for instance, with Maasi, a villager preparing rotis on a dirt floor. As she has for Musharraf, Sumar introduces this interview with a question: “How am I going to talk democracy to someone who doesn’t even have clean drinking water? Where landless peasants support the landlord in return for a hut and basic food?” Maasi keeps her eyes down as she responds to the inquiries, patting and rolling her dough. Asked if she knows the name of the president, she smiles, “I know it, but I can’t recall it now.”
But if business in Islamabad seems far removed from Maasi’s day-to-day existence, the film submits that connections are crucial. Musharraf argues that Pakistan’s “agrarian society” is essentially feudal, with “bosses” entrenched at local levels. “Firstly,” he says of his government’s plans for democratizing the nation, “We thought, we must empower the people.” Second, he says, “I thought, all the women issues, violence against women, etc., these are issues in all the developing countries. We can redeem, we can correct it, if we politically empower the women so that they can look after their own interests. So we empower the women, we empower the minorities, the people, the masses. We need them over the bureaucrats.” Sumar nods, lifting her crystal water glass. “I wonder,” she says in voiceover, “Why is an army general interested in democracy?”
Though she never finds an answer regarding Musharraf, she does go on to explore the resistance of other, less “empowered” men, to the concept of women’s equality. In the North-West Frontier Province, Sumar questions members of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition between religious-political parties opposed to Musharraf’s relationship with the U.S., she hears a strict Islamist insistence that “women should give more attention to their homes.” She hears another version of this position from men in a tribal area on the Afghanistan border (as she notes this is called “the Free Zone,” the film shows an armed checkpoint). Here tribal chiefs share their ideas of democracy; they debate whether includes the process of leaders’ decision-making (without input from other tribal members), and whether it is possible for women to participate. While the men at this lunch table appear to admire Sumar’s education and ideas, they reject her reading of the Koran as “wrong.” Muslim women must keep their heads covered, say several men. When she points out that Musharraf’s wife and mother do not cover their heads, the men grow restless and leave the table. “They are free Muslims, they are modern Muslims,” the men say by way of explanation, not “traditional.”
Sumar journeys as well to a beach resort, where she finds young people partying, a scene featuring beers, cigarettes, and a DJ. “Although America is not my favorite nation,” one young woman says, “Musharraf has to be America’s friend in order for us to survive.” A male compatriot describes their specific sort of “survival”: “We’re making more money, we’re living it up,” he smiles, adding that Musharraf is “not really killing the mullahs, but he should.” This group recognizes their privilege. A woman says, “We are maybe five percent of this country that party and have water to drink and food to eat. The rest of our country suffers. And they suffer because they believe in democracy for so long, even tough democracy. It’s blinding.”
The film concludes, unsurprisingly, that Pakistan has no easy route toward democracy. If Musharraf offers one vision, through “empowering” women, Maasi’s husband Chacha suggests another, similarly abstract précis. Seated on a mat for his dinner, he observes the difficulties of poverty. “If God wills it,” he declares, “We can be better off. But if He doesn’t, we can’t. The Giver is God. Allah is everywhere. He’s here, He’s there, He’s everywhere. You see?” What you see, Dinner with the president suggests, depends on where you sit.