THE BLOG
12/03/2010 04:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Benazir Bhutto: Saviour of Pakistan? New Biopic Released Today in the U.S.

It was the most exciting film I saw at the Doha-Tribeca film festival this October: Duane Baughman's Bhutto, a tribute to two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a documentary that makes its subject, already fascinating, a near goddess on earth. The camera zooms repeatedly on Benazir's poignant dark eyes, her regal forehead, her serene lips, to the point that the spectator may wonder if such beauty only comes once in human form. We hear her trembling voice on tape as she softly laments her weakness and hunger from behind the walls of solitary confinement (in the desert), where she was imprisoned during her first rule as Prime Minister. We obsess along with the filmmaker with the drive behind her uncanny determination to go back to bring democracy "to her people," after eight years of exile in Dubai, even though she knows she might (and would) be assassinated: shot down (or bombed?) in December 2007, two months after her return.

Baughman's is a portrait of a supremely devoted and majestic woman, honor-bound to uphold the legacy of her father, willing to sacrifice all for her party ("The People's Party") and determined to lead her country, despite what appears to be a Kennedy-like curse on her and her family: an assassinated father, two assassinated brothers, death threats and corruption charges, and exile. The film early draws comparisons between the glamorous star-crossed Kennedys and the Bhutto family, a comparison evidently apparent to others as well. Harvard University paired Benazir up with Kathleen Kennedy as dorm-mates her freshman year.

This film, opening tonight in New York, above all offers a rare chance to see clips of the rivetting Benazir, from 70s student at Harvard to Prime Minister to mature woman (and mother) in Dubai, when the signs of weariness just begin to touch her brow. It also offers a dramatic snapshot of Pakistani political history: from the rule of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father, executed for treason in 1979, through the political crisis with India, up to recent party struggles. We get to meet members of Bhutto's intimate family, her tear-stricken daughters speaking about the birthday present the mother had left for one, before her death, "as if knowing," and a teary gentle man, Asif Ali Zardari, her gentle bereaved husband, who nearly collapses with grief speaking about his departed wife.

It is also a chance for us to believe in heroes. This woman singlehandedly (the film suggests) did more for Pakistan than any other leader: building schools, ending censorship, creating women's police stations. "Democracy is the greatest revenge," she always said, when speaking about her obstacles and opponents.

It's all too good to be true.

In fact, is it true?

I left the film in a glamor-daze, thrilled not only with the emotional roller-coaster of this bio-op, but by the fact that this film -- heralding Bhutto's insistence that the Sharia law should not hold -- was screened in a theater where my fellow viewers were Qatari men in thawbs and women in burkas: a demonstration to the non-censuring openness of the Qatar government. I left the modern Villaggio mall where the film screened -- incidentally, a mall reproduction of Venice (replete with Venetian palaces doubling as Benettons) -- enchanted.

But the enchantment also belied some glaring holes. The film alludes to some "corruption charges" against the Bhutto family, which slide by so fast, they seem like a slew of petty propaganda, trumped up by nasty opponents. Preposterous. She is even accused by a hysterical niece of plotting the assassination of her own brother. The director inserts footage of the devastated teenage niece at her father's funeral; evidently, it is implied, the girl was permanently deranged by the trauma, hence her mad accusation of her aunt of Shakespearian horrors.

Yet a nagging suspicion remains, despite (and because of) the gloss. I myself began to wonder -- albeit still dazzled by Benazir's beauty -- what exactly did Benazir do for Pakistan? Was that truly desire to help the people I saw in her empassioned gaze -- or rather demagogic joy in being loved by a mass of millions of adoring fans? The film errs in having few clips that show the results of Benazir's rule: the schools, the changes in women's status, the economic progress. Nor do we have any interviews with the 130 million Pakistanis who actually live there. Instead, the film includes many interviews with her elite associates and family, especially Mark Siegel, her good friend and spokesman in the United States -- who turns out to be the producer of the film.

So I asked my Pakistani cab driver on return to New York.

"All corrupt," he said, and shrugged.

Seeking a more elaborate opinion, I turned to scholar Matthew Hull, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Michigan, who spent three years in Pakistan doing field research.

He immediately placed Benazir Bhutto in context, a context that challenges the image of a leader purely driven by idealism.

Benazir is from a class of people you have to go back to the 18th century to find the equivalent of in Britain, many of whom look at common people as not quite full persons. This is an elevated class of landowners in a most socially backward place. Huge landowners who controlled the political votes of those who work for them: they are even today called "feudals". They have traditionally been the ones running the country, along with the military and senior bureaucrats. Bhutto's father and husband come from this class.

It turns out that Bhutto's husband -- that sweet couch potato in the film (!), now president of Pakistan -- has been accused (but never convicted) of embezzling more than $100 million from Pakistan, and hiding funds in Switzerland. "He was known as Mr. 5% during Benazir's first term [referring to the five percent kickbacks he would skim on deals] and now is known as Mr. 10%." Zadari is spearheaded as behind scandalous deals with an aviation company, a gold bullion business and more. It is not clear how much Benazir knew - -or how involved she was.

And I, watching the film, had worried for Benazir how she had supported herself and two daughters, on no income, while in Dubai for eight years! The film never mentions her wealth. Nor that her husband bought a five million dollar Tudor estate in England.

A more vehement view came from a Pakistani CEO, who knew (and supported) the Bhuttos and wrote me by email from Karachi. I quote him anonymously:

God bless her soul, Benazir was not a "saint bringing democracy" to Pakistan. She was a strong power seeker who had a conniving husband and looked the other way while he gave a new dimension to the word corruption. Within her own power, there has never been an election (her son is already Chairperson of the party! no elections here): the Bhuttos rule by divine right. And before you think I am a Bhutto hater, please know I supported them -- father and daughter -- in spite of the fact that they are, were and will always be feudals, only because both represented a chance of bringing real democracy to Pakistan, and giving its wretched and poor people some hope.

"Neither did." he concluded.

I then turned to the man considered the leading political writer in Pakistan -- Ahmed Rashid -- former revolutionary, now a journalist who has written numerous books on Central Asia and the Taliban.

He kindly agreed to speak by phone.

Yes, she did very little: She and her family enriched herself, although the corruption charges were never proved in a court of law, for either her or her husband. But the People's Party is the only consistently anti-military party: anti-Fundamentalism, anti-extremism. It is broadly secular. It has been protective of Pakistan's minorities. None of the political parties have been able to sustain this kind of agenda for the last 20 years. What remains for the people from Benazir is this legacy of a liberal secular state anti-fundamentalist, anti-army. This is Benazir Bhutto's legacy.

He enumerated Benazir's specific contributions, in a way I wish the film had done as well:

She delivered more in her second rule, in the 1990s, despite the severe restrictions. She resisted military control. She tried to make peace with India in 1989. She delivered on education, minorities. Now we have been through this terrible Islamic period. Now there is enormous disillusionment with Zadari. She resisted the military examples, the confrontationist role with India. He has buckled under: there is widespread corruption in the government which he has done nothing to correct or address. Rather, he has shown appeasement to the extremist groups. The army itself would like to appease these groups rather than take them on. And now the military has taken 30 percent of the budget. Zadari has not been able to stop it.

He reiterated a point that Professor Matthew Hull had also made, that Benazir was most important as a symbol: a symbol of resistance to military rule and extreme fundamentalism.

----

The film inspires the obsession to know, to be concerned with Pakistan, to learn more (much more) about the Bhuttos. It also made me curious: Who was this American director who decided to make this indie biopic on a foreign prime minister?

I had a chance to find out, in the lounge of the Pierre, a Taj hotel in Manhattan.

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It turns out that Duane Baughman was not an eager graduate student, as I had initially suspected, making this documentary on a budget. He, porting a "Genius" baseball cap, orange omega watch and a state-of-the-art blackberry, was a self-made millionaire -- a democratic political consultant who had made his fortune in politics.

How? Doing campaigns for Bloomberg (his big break) and Hillary Clinton. Founder of the successful Baughman Company, he was in New York that week to broadcast his opinions on the recent congressional elections.

Bhutto was his one and only film. He had no experience in filmmaking. He had never worked on a film. How on earth did he--a creator of political campaigns for twenty-five years, seemingly a different art from making movies-- ever think of directing a film?

"I went to Sundance for six years and saw lots of films and thought I had the money, I could make one myself."

But why Benazir?

"I've always been fascinated with Benazir Bhutto, how the images of Pakistan -- the situation of women, the freedom of expression -- are contradicted by the fact that they had a woman, a beautiful woman, a movie star woman, leading it, since 1988."

But he also noted that "nothing would have happened without Mark Siegel, Bhutto's closest friend. He is an American political consultant and lobbyist I know, the former executive director of the Democratic National committee."

"In 2007, before Bhutto was killed," he continued. "Mark Siegel was putting together a team that would help her get re-elected."

Siegel is also the one who led Baughman to never-before-heard micro-cassette tapes of Bhutto speaking as a young girl, stored in somebody's attic on the east coast -- one of the highlights of this film, that makes, in itself, the film a must-see.

"I was the first to listen to these tapes: to hear Benazir speaking about where she was born. Or when she says: 'I can feel my body rise. My body will go with the martyrs... "

Baughman's own trajectory as a non-college graduate who made his millions -- and political connections -- on his own gave me an insight into why the film, following this ethos, has an American dream narrative trajectory as well. Benazir too fights all odds:

What I learned about Benazir is that she was driven to accomplish things at any cost, living up to the responsibility that she inherited, and then one day she woke and found herself as this global role model, as the first Muslim woman ever to lead a country. Look, here is a woman breaking a glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton in America could not.

'Her legacy," he added "Is also about saving 130 million people."

Did she actually save them? I asked.

He laughed. "Perception is 90 percent of politics. The strength of symbolism is very important. Look, if your seat is on fire, you would rather hear someone who tells you they are going to deal with it, than not."

Giving me a lesson in politics, he added: " It doesn't ultimately matter if they do."

"Bhutto" opens tonight in New York at Cinema Village.