Documentary tracing the life and career of iconic Muslim leader of Pakistan’s post-Soviet generation.

Bhutto directed by Duan Baughman and Johnny O’Hara

Benazir Bhutto

On Dec. 27th, 2007, Benazir Bhutto, the first woman in history to lead a Muslim nation, was assassinated at a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rally in Rawalpindi. The documentary Bhutto chronicles the decades-long events leading up to that still unsolved killing and its immediate aftermath. It’s a tangled tale, with much that remains murky, but the co-directors Duane Baughman and Johnny O’ Hara have done a fairly good job of elucidating the issues, or at least clarifying the confusions.

It’s fitting that Benazir Bhutto should be the centerpiece of a major movie, since during her lifetime she had the glamorized aura of a movie star. Like a number of other high-profile figures in the political arena –most conspicuously the UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad in 2003 and was the subject last year of a powerful documentary, Sergio– Benazir Bhutto was both historically significant and personally charismatic.

This is also true of her extended family clan, which has often been referred to as the “Pakistani Kennedys.” The Kennedy reference is double-edged: it summons up not only a vast political legacy but family tragedy as well.

Before the film’s opening credits have even finished, we are already hit with a rapid-fire history of Pakistan dating from the 1947 partition onward. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, the first democratically elected president of Pakistan, occupies much of the film’s beginning section. His execution in 1979 under the regime of Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who staged a military coup two years before, sets the stage for Benazir’s ascension as her father’s hand-picked favorite to succeed him. She speaks repeatedly in the movie, through audio and video footage, of how her father’s death vigil prepared her for a political career.

Benazir, who was educated at Harvard and Oxford, goes into self-imposed exile in the West in 1984 after years of house arrest. Returning to Pakistan a year later to face down General Zia, she becomes, at 35, prime minister in 1988. (Two years later she gives birth while in office, another first for a female world leader).

Twenty months after her election she is dismissed on corruption charges. In 1993, at a time when the PPP captured most of the parliamentary seats, she returns in triumph for a second term as prime minister. Within three years she is ousted once again on charges of corruption. At the time of the Rawalpindi rally she was moting yet another political comeback.

All of this dizzying back and forth is punctuated by persistent violence, including the killing of two of Benazir’s brothers. In an interview, Fatima, the daughter of one of the brothers, blames Benazir’s husband Alif Zardari, now president of Pakistan, with having engineered her father’s murder.

What are we to make of such charges? Although the film directors make a pretense of even-handedness, the overall tone of Bhutto is somewhat hero-worshippy. (One of the film’s producers, Mark Siegel, was a close friend of Benazir and co-authored her final book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West.) The corruption charges that dogged Benazir’s trail are never deeply delved into, despite the fact that reporters such as the New York Times’s John F. Burns, who wrote extensively on the matter, are interviewed on camera.

What emerges from the film, nonetheless, is a portrait of a remarkable woman who, despite the charges leveled against her, both real and trumped-up, instituted social reforms in Pakistan against great odds. That she became a martyr was surely not her intention and yet, given the entwined history of her family and her country, her martydom seems in retrospect inevitable. 

– Peter Rainer


Benazir Bhutto

Photo by Lichfield/Getty Images