Watching Z in Pakistan

Screenshot from Z (France, 1969)

Z is “no more about Greece than The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria,” said Roger Ebert, in 1969.  Ebert spotted parallels with the United States and South Vietnam, and last night, in the industrial city of Faisalabad, I spotted more than a few with Pakistan.  Indeed, the legendary drama feels timeless in its portrayal of political crises, and elites willing to undermine democracy.

Z follows the story of a leftist political rally in an unnamed European city. The assembly is officially tolerated, but unofficially subjected to censorship and repression. The most dramatic scenes of the film feature the city’s elites enjoying a Russian ballet, while fascist thugs are hired to harass the dissidents, and assassinate their charismatic leader.

Z ends with a chase scene, as a principled and politically-neutral magistrate uncovers the true nature of a murder. Protests and unrest gather steam across the country, and following the release of his findings, the military declares martial law.

Z’s portrayal of barely hidden alliances between violent street criminals and an authoritarian state resonate strongly with Pakistani sensibilities. Much of the country’s history since the 1968 – 1969 movement against Ayub Khan has been defined by such dynamics, which from 1973 – 1977 slowly brought General Zia ul-Haq to power with his imposed doctrine of Islamization.

In Z, the Chief of Police tells high-ranking members of the armed forces that the population needs to be “cured” of “a disease of ‘isms.’” Zia could have delivered the same statement, leading to the theocratic excesses and savage militancy that defines Pakistan today.

The most striking part of Z is this first scene. After an agricultural slideshow about herbicides, the Chief of Police is introduced to discuss the need for ideological herbicide. A “disease of ‘isms’” is infecting the country, which is described as a collection of communism, anarchism, socialism, and the like. The Chief of Police says bluntly that “an ideological disease is like mildew and requires preventative measures,” proceeding to outline strategies for counterinsurgency.

It is intriguing to see how little has changed since Z’s 1969 release. Pakistan continues to maintain uneasy relationships with religious militants, and reactionary scholars, as a continuation of the “preventative measures” that it has been implementing since the 1970s. The Cold War may be over, but the concern about ‘isms’ continues to affect every section of Pakistani society, from its economic policies, to its official culture, to the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee that just met to announce the date of Eid al-Fitr.

Of course, this is less alarming than current rhetorical trends in Europe, which have become enamored with a meme of “contagions” emanating from Greece. Initially, the “contagion” was strictly financial, and required global preventative measures to protect against the Greek economy. However, the real threat was always implicitly political. Now, in the midst of continued uncertainty about Greece’s future, the phrase “political contagion” has become more popular.

Costas-Gavras could have written the reports himself, with Greece being rhetorically described as Patient Zero in a pandemic of anti-austerity politics that risks infecting the rest of the continent. No friend of the left, European Council President Donald Tusk essentially said as much, when he warned of a political situation similar to that of 1968, stopping short of using the phrase “ideological mildew.”

Greece could once again be similar to Pakistan, in that the need to confront political contagions forces elites to throw out their official loyalty to democracy and liberal parliamentary republicanism. As Zia’s supporters realized in the 1970s, democracy does not allow for elites to fully institute the containment and extermination strategies necessary to “cure” a population of ideological mildew.

The Chief of Police cries out that his country is a democracy at the beginning of the film, however by its conclusion, he is perfectly willing to throw out the official line in favour of authoritarianism. This rhetoric of “contagions” makes it seem increasingly likely that democracy will be considered as laughable in the European Union as it is in Pakistan, thrown out in a second if circumstances call for it.


Photograph courtesy of Konstantine Costas-Gavras and Cinema V.

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