Benazir Bhutto was a remarkable figure in the modern history of the Middle East. After all, she was the democratically elected Prime Minister of a country that had previously sent women to jail when they were raped and looked down on women who drove cars or showed their faces in public. She was not simply a woman who happened to be a politician. Rather, her femininity and her feminism informed her political advocacy, her life, and ultimately her tragic death.
She was, to no surprise, a polarizing figure within her own country. Pro-democracy Pakistanis saw her as a beacon of hope for the country’s future and her election as a clean slate in place of a torrid history, while fundamentalists saw her as an emblem of Western decadence and a threat to the Islamic way of life. Benazir Bhutto, and all the implications associated with her name, is the subject of Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara’s documentary Bhutto.
Bhutto focuses primarily on the life and political leadership of Benazir, but the title is rather appropriate because, in order to tell her story, the story of those who preceded her must be told as well. After a pre-credits introductory teaser covering the day of Benazir’s assassination, Bhutto turns to the history of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the American-university-educated foreign minister of Pakistan who later established the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP). In 1971, he became President, and in 1973 (after a promulgation of the nation’s constitution), he became Prime Minister. By the mid-seventies his popularity waned and he was accused of masterminding the assassination of a political opponent. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in Pakistan, then had Zulfikar Ali arrested and later assassinated in 1979.
What followed was a military regime in Pakistan led by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. The nation was only nominally democratic as members of the PPP were often arrested and disqualified from contesting elections. Right wing Islamic law was reinstated (including many oppressive laws directed at women), Pakistan funded radical Islamic militants with United States money in order to fight against a Russia-occupied-Afghanistan, and Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was able to implement a nuclear technology program in the country (a program founded by Zulfikar Ali, which made him no friend to the US) in exchange for helping the US in this leg of the Cold War.
The Bhutto family, meanwhile, was in house arrest before fleeing to the UK. Upon her return to her home country in 1988, Benazir Bhutto won Pakistan’s first open election in more than a decade. Her tenure quickly brought with it an array of new freedoms for the Pakistani people. She improved the country’s health care and education system, allowed for peaceful assembly, stopped government censorship of journalism, and, last but not least, provided greater social and economic freedoms for Islamic women, vastly changing their perception of themselves and the perception of them by men in a historically uber-patriarchal culture. She was a true feminist in one of the most challenging corners of the world to be an independent woman. She wasn’t successful because she constructed her ministry as a man, but specifically because she embraced her femininity. As Bhutto herself said in a statement both obvious and potent, “It is important to be a woman.”
Of course, Bhutto immediately met opposition. She was not only a threat as a woman, but as a proponent of democracy in an Islamic country. All sides became suspicious of her (anybody from the US to the Pakistani government) and the PPP lacked an organized strategy beyond a successful democratic election. After the mujahideen gained power when Russia left Afghanistan, Bhutto’s political standing became ever more unstable and the Islamic fundamentalist suspicions of her grew. The film then follows these shifts of power through the rise of the mujahideen, the Sept. 11 attacks, the personal risks she took to combat the threat against democracy, and her inevitable assassination. The film positions the circumstances of Bhutto’s death profoundly and hopefully, as something as significant and as meaningful as her life, for it showed her willingness to die for her people.
Refreshingly, Bhutto avoids a voice-over narration to tell us what’s going on at any given moment. Instead, the film opts for an array of voices, including the volumes of print and moving image media available that allows the subjects of the documentary (living and dead) to tell their own stories alongside a variety of interviewed experts (journalists, politicians, and Bhutto family members; even Condoleeza Rice shows up unexpectedly to talk about, of all things, America’s abandonment of Pakistan).
This strategy works in both the film’s favor and disfavor. On the one hand, we get a variety of voices and media to tell this story. On the other hand, as my lengthy synopsis shows, the subjects of this documentary are incredibly complex and the film covers them at a hurried pace, so the multitude of voices occasionally become a hodgepodge of ambiguous partners in narration, losing their individuality and unique perspectives in favor of soundbites that give just enough information to move the film along until contrasts in their perspectives later become evident.
The history of Pakistan, and the history of an important individual who represented it, is a daunting subject to tackle. While bits and pieces of the country’s history may be familiar to some US audiences who pay attention to world news, the actual linear history of the country from the early 1970s to the present is a difficult beast to undertake. Bhutto’s solution to this problem is a fast pace, which is on one hand a welcome invitation that distinguishes Bhutto as a documentary film rather than a lengthy news piece, but on the other hand it becomes overwhelming at times and major topics as a result seem unnecessarily glossed over. This problem becomes apparent in the film’s opening credit sequence as animated graphics quickly dispel facts and figures about the state of Pakistan. Thankfully, the film never again reverts to such tactics, but it still stands that much of the history here is so vast that many aspects of it could be a documentary unto themselves (for instance, the mysterious airborne death of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq before Bhutto’s 1988 election).
At the end, however, Bhutto is a success. It is an urgent and important piece of frighteningly recent history, and I certainly came out of it knowing a great deal more than I did going in. Examining the recent histories of unstable governments can be a difficult task, and the film reasonably draws inference from information where there are gaps in certain knowledge. The film doesn’t always present Benazir Bhutto as a saint, and engages as much in examining her potential abuses of power (for which the commentators provide disparate points of view) as well as the ground she broke. It is a documentary with a perspective that is grounded in investigation rather than agenda. It tells us as much about Pakistan’s past as it does about its present, and the remarkable, and tragic, story of a woman at the center of it all.
On the Upside: An informed and informative documentary that acts as a quick primer for nearly 40 years of Pakistani history and presents an incredible, and incredibly complex, story of a unique political figure.
On the Downside: It occasionally suffers under its own weight.
On the Side: For another cinematic look at Pakistan’s US-funded role in Russia-occupied-Afghanistan, see Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War, which briefly features Gen. Zia-ul-Haq as a character.
Bhutto opens in New York & Los Angeles this weekend. You can see its trailer here.