FILMS > 10 DOCUMENTARIES > Dinner with the President

About this film:
Producer:   Sachithenandam Sathananthan
Director:   Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan
Editor:   Albert Elings, Eugenie Jansen, Calle Overberg
Duration:   post-production
Country:   Pakistan

Are dictators ever good? - Join the debate

It’s pretty easy to hate General Pervez Musharraf, who staged a military coup in Pakistan in 2001. Or is it? Since he took office he has been described both as a military dictator and as a moderate and fairly progressive leader. Indeed, President Musharraf’s government lacks the legitimacy that stems from popular approval because he was not democratically elected. But, since he took power, Pakistan has experienced moderate economic growth. Similarly, in other parts of the world, non-elected leaders such as Deng Xiaoping in China have enabled immense economic growth and stability through dictatorship. Even if they are not democratically elected, these leaders might still be acting in the best interest of a country and its citizens. By what do we measure a good leader? Are dictators ever good?


What are the implications for democracy in Pakistan when secular political parties have succumbed to the Islamic agenda? What does it mean when the army appears to be the only force able to contain the opponents of democracy, the armed Islamists? President Musharraf agrees to explore this apparent contradiction over dinner at his official residence, the Army House. As the discussion moves in and out of the different worlds in Pakistan a complex tapestry emerges revealing a society unique yet universal. The filmmaker talks to diverse individuals, from labourers to intellectuals, from street vendors to religious right wing political party members, and from journalists to industrialists. What is their idea of democracy in Pakistan? What is their idea of President Musharraf’s vision of a modern Pakistan? Dinner With the President questions the role a military leader can play in guiding a state towards modern democracy.


Born in Karachi, SABIHA SUMAR studied Filmmaking and Political Science at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and then read History and Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. Who Will Cast the First Stone (1988) was her first film (for Channel Four Television, UK). It won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and was also screened at In Visible Colors, Vancouver. She has gone on to direct many other films including Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters 2003), a feature film which received the Silver Grand Balloon for Second Best Film at the 3 Continents Festival, France, and the the Golden Leopard for Best Film at the Locarno International Film Festival. In 2003 she also documented her personal journey through the Islamisation process in Pakistan in Hawa Kay Naam (For a Place Under the Heavens). Both these films were produced by co-director SACHITHANANDAM SATHANANTHAN, who holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK, and has previously produced Where Peacocks Dance (1992), Of Mothers, Mice And Saints (1994), and Suicide Warriors (1996).


In 1999 elected president Nawaz Sharif was ousted by a military coup led by Army General Musharraf. Since then Musharraf has led the country. In 2001 he was inaugurated as president of Pakistan. Musharraf argues that he is facilitating democracy, but to what extent is democracy possible in a country where only about half the country is literate and large factions of society are living in abject poverty, ruled in accordance to a mix of tribal and religious laws?

Political History
Pakistan was created in 1947, after an independence struggle led by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, and is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. For the past 60 years Pakistani politics have been defined partially by religion, and have always had close ties to the military. During this time Pakistan has experienced several wars, has seen the rise of an extensive refugee community from Afghanistan, and the government has seen four military coups. The latest coup was in 1999 when, then Army General Musharraf returned from a trip to Sri Lanka and was refused entry into the country and informed that he had been removed from his post. Musharraf led the coup which effectively ousted then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, then took office and informally instated martial law, with consent from the courts and large sections of the parliament. He has promised to bring democracy to Pakistan.

The Political Scene
The Pakistani government is a federal republic. It has a semi-presidential system where the president is the head of state and the prime minister, elected by the people, is the head of government. The legislative power is vested in the parliament and the executive power rests with the president and his cabinet. In 1999 Musharraf took office. He argued that he was protecting the country from political turmoil and protecting democracy. Musharraf has held national elections for local government in 2001 and won a vote of confidence from the Electoral College of Pakistan in 2004. The 2001 elections were heavily boycotted and supposedly rigged. Musharraf argues that he is facilitating development, and protecting the country from the rise of religious extremism. Nonetheless, in the past years the religious party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, also known as the MMA, has gained power winning an absolute majority in the 2001 regional elections to gain control of the North-Western Province.

World Relevance
It can be argued that Musharraf from the very beginning faced an impossible situation. Stuck between the military, the religious extremists and the U.S. war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, governing Pakistan was never going to be an easy task. Musharraf was originally backed by the U.S. and has supported the war on terrorism. However, as the war on terrorism has become unpopular, religious parties in Pakistan have gained momentum. Meanwhile, Pakistan needs the aid from the U.S. to sustain its military control and for socio-economic development. So as with many countries in the world it has come down to a balancing act between doing what is necessary to receive aid and please the public. Frequently these goals have turned out to be contradictory, leading Why Democracy? to ask, who is in control when money talks?

Looking Ahead
Since the movie was made the federal cabinet has mandated elections, which are tentatively scheduled for early October 2007. Currently an intense debate between the political candidates and parties is taking place. According to the PakTribune, the combined opposition will not participate in the 2007 elections if they are held under the supervision of a president who is also head of the army.

The most influential political parties in Pakistan are the Pakistan Peoples Party, the MMA and the Pakistan Muslim League, which is divided into two factions, the PML-Q and the PML-N. The PML-Q was formed by Musharraf in 2001 and is composed mainly of former members of the older PML-N party. The Pakistan’s Peoples Party, or PPP, is lead by Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the original founder of the party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Benazir Bhutto has been charged with corruption and is living in exile. According to the PakTribune, Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf have engaged in negotiations, possibly allowing Benazir Bhutto to return from exile and run in the upcoming elections.

Use the html code supplied above to embed this film in your web site.

Dinner with the President online:
Pakistan’s most popular English Language newspaper.

Story of Pakistan
A comprehensive history of Pakistan, including timelines.

President of Pakistan
President Musharraf’s official government website

BBC Country Profile: Pakistan
Learn more about Pakistan and the political and economic context for the movie

Judge Row Prompts Pakistan Democracy Questions - BBC News, M Ilyas Kahn

President Musharraf's Limited Options -Barbara Plett, BBC News

Bloody Cartoons
Freedom of expression is a democratic principle: does this mean ‘limitless freedom’, and at what cost...
More Info
Campaign! The Kawasaki Candidate
A first-time reluctant candidate gets to grips with what it takes to win an election for the Japanese Prime Minister’s Liberal Democratic Party...
More Info
Egypt: We Are Watching You
After 24 years of leadership under President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Egypt is a nation on the brink of change...
More Info
For God, Tsar and the Fatherland
Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the phrase ‘managed democracy’ describes the state of Russian politics...
More Info
In Search of Gandhi
What kind of democracy does India have today?
More Info
Iron Ladies of Liberia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first ever freely elected female head of state in Africa. How does she lead Liberia...
More Info
Looking for the Revolution
Ché Guevara died in Bolivia trying to bring revolution to South America. Forty years later...
More Info
Please Vote for Me
In an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China, eight-year old children compete for the position of Class Monitor...
More Info
Taxi to the Dark Side
The US government has developed what appears to be a policy of using torture while at the same time...
More Info

Fearless Interactive Media