By Ghazi Salahuddin, The News, 5/18/2008
A hectic journey to a faraway place that extends to more than a week can hardly protect you from the sorrows of Pakistan, particularly when you are a newsman and addicted to keeping in touch with every day’s events. And this is certainly not a time when you can find yourself at peace with the emerging twists in what has become a political thriller.
Still, my visit to Johannesburg — also called Joburg for the benefit of headline writers — had its compelling distractions. I was attending this year’s International Public Television (Input) conference that showcased an extensive selection — over 100 programmes from 40 countries — of what is meant to be television in public interest. The idea was to present and discuss some innovative, challenging and provocative television productions from across the world.
Since I have recently been nominated the national coordinator of Input for Pakistan, I had this regret that there had not been enough time to present any Pakistani entries for this year’s selection. But imagine my surprise when I found, after arriving in Joburg, that a documentary from France was titled: ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. It did raise my spirits a bit and I waited to see what treatment was given to a 104-minute portrayal of the 60 years of Pakistan.
An important feature of Input is that no programme is screened unless its producer or director or someone closely associated with its production is present to join a discussion with the audience composed of media professionals, independent filmmakers, and critics. Incidentally, this scheme of discussing a programme after its screening was also followed in the two mini-Inputs held in Karachi last year and early this year with a joint collaboration of Geo Television and Goethe Institut. This is how I got involved in Input, courtesy Petra Raymond, the outgoing director of the Institut in Karachi.
Hence, Christine Camdessus was present when ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ was screened on May 7. Let me quickly state that I found the documentary to be an objective and insightful journey through Pakistan’s 60 years of otherwise very complex history. That it looked like a text-book lesson on Pakistan was very intentional. The motive for its production, as Christine Camdessus explained, was to provide a wider perspective on Pakistan’s genesis and evolution at a time when the country is so prominently featured in international headlines.
I do not have the space here to seriously review ‘Pakistan Zindabad’, with its emphasis that the creation of Pakistan was an important moment in history that is not fully understood. People interviewed for the documentary included such experts as Stephen Cohen, Ian Talbot, Steve Coll, Ayesha Jalal and Hassan Abbas. Besides, all the usual suspects were there —Roedad Khan, Hussain Haqqani, Aslam Beg, Hamid Gul, Sartaj Aziz, Jahangir Karamat, and so many more.
Some CIA operatives who were involved in Ziaul Haq’s jihad in Afghanistan were very candid in their remarks. I was a little amused by the attention devoted to the rich Texas socialite Joanne Herring, Zia’s friend. She found it necessary to say that she was never alone with Zia. This was the woman who figured in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ and her role was played by Julia Roberts. Incidentally, Aslam Beg, while criticising Ayub for his war plans in 1965, made this statement: “We could have won the war”.
Because the documentary was to be timed with the sixtieth anniversary of Pakistan’s creation, the Pakistan that has come into being after the lawyers’ movement and after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and the February elections was, of course, not reflected in the documentary. The only major Pakistani leader interviewed was Benazir and the presenter explained that they had decided not to interview Musharraf or Nawaz Sharif. Benazir’s interview was taken when the documentary was almost complete.
Christine Camdessus was evidently very touched by Benazir’s assassination and said she was anxious to make a documentary on Benazir. The homework she has already done on Pakistan makes her the right person to interpret the apparently final phase of the Bhutto phenomenon for a world audience.
This reference to the documentary on Pakistan unfortunately allows little space to recount the overwhelming experience of Input 2008. When I look at what they call the ‘Input bible’, the book that lists the programmes, I can tick off more than a dozen presentations that I would want to talk about. One option would be to detect reflections of the current global political situation, ranging from terrorism and Islamic extremism to the Iraq war and the conflict between Israel and the Arabs.
On the first day of the week-long screenings was the Danish entry titled: ‘Two Men, Twelve Drawings’. It related to the rise of Islamophobia in Denmark after the publication of the blasphemous cartoons and covered two leaders of the Muslim community, one representing the liberal point of view and the other belonging to the conservative school of thought — and the two could not even be persuaded to meet each other.
Naturally, Input 2008 also became a Pan African affair and its main theme was ‘Back to the Beginning’. A seminar held on the sidelines of the conference was related to ‘Slavery, Memory & Story’. Indeed, the theme of slavery, with reference to the African experience, echoed throughout the week. There was a sizeable participation from South African filmmakers and their contribution to discussions on different programmes was quite impressive.
For me, the inaugural dinner in itself was an astounding encounter. Not only that the South African hosts surprised us with their lavish and colourful hospitality, the presence of Harry Belafonte, the popular singer of the sixties and the ‘King of Calypso’, made a lot of difference. Now 81 and a United Nations goodwill ambassador, Belafonte was also the keynote speaker at the launch, later in the week, of the Human Bondage Project — a global joint venture to produce within the next five years various documentaries, feature films and drama series on slavery.
Again, I am tempted to dwell on Belafonte, one of the most successful recording artists of all time. There was that song that I could never fully understand but it rings in my years: “Day O, Day O, daylight come and he wanna go home”. I cannot also forget his ‘Jamaican farewell’. Son of a Jamaican father, he was born in Harlem and had created headlines in early 2006 when he called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world”.
Ah, the Joburg interlude, though it has left me with a hoard of memories, was brief and here I am back in the midst of confusion that Asif Zardari’s team has created on the issue of the restoration of the November 2 judiciary. Meanwhile, there is Salman Taseer — virtually a bugle that signals the coming Battle of Punjab. And this will be more than a television show.
The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@ hotmail.com