Pras on World Films: BHUTTO

The ambitious documentary featured at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival is taking a dual-track approach to delve into the fascinating life of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s assassinated former prime minister. As much a history of modern Pakistan as a portrait of the political dynasty that periodically led the country over two decades, “Bhutto” offers a complex and sometimes confounding perspective on its titular family. Benazir Bhutto had a life that makes fiction pale by comparison. Writer Tariq Ali says, characterizing the tale of her charismatic but cursed family, “the whole story has strong elements of a Greek tragedy”. “Bhutto”  – the involving documentary on her life conveys, Benazir was a formidable personality all by herself. The first woman to head a Muslim state, twice Pakistan’s prime minister, assassinated Dec. 27, 2007, when she returned from exile to try for a third term, Benazir was rarely less than remarkable.

Bhutto’s sense of mission and her personal courage, as she returned again and again to try and democratize a nation whose military leaders blithely murdered their opposition, are beyond dispute. Like her adored father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected head of state (and the creator of its nuclear program), she struggled to bring basic services to a country mired in poverty, illiteracy and chronic conflict across its volatile borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran — to say nothing of its ambivalent dependency on a United States worried to death by the Taliban, al-Qaida and the enriched uranium in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals.

About Bhutto’s failings and mistakes, however, the film is discreet to the point of squeamishness. Luckily, this magnificently complicated woman’s contradictions tumble out anyway. Almost despite itself, the movie offers a riveting melodrama about a daddy’s girl born into a close but feuding Western-educated dynasty known both for its populist politics and its champagne tastes. (The Bhuttos were thought of — admiringly, Baughman implies, though given the straits in which most Pakistanis live, one wonders — as the Kennedys of Pakistan.)

From grieving family and friends (inevitably, Arianna Huffington was a pal at Oxford), we learn of a serious-minded young woman freed from her burqa by Dad while still in her teens. At Harvard, where she roomed with Kathleen Kennedy, she absorbed feminism and leftist politics.

Yet later she willingly submitted to an arranged marriage with a Karachi playboy-entrepreneur, Asif Ali Zardari, who has been Pakistan’s president since the fall of Pervez Musharraf in 2008. She prayed to Allah in public, yet worked hard to bring schooling to girls in an Islamic state vehemently opposed to rights for women.

Bhutto inherited her father’s charm, charisma and elegant tailoring, as well as his preference for backroom wheeler-dealing. Remarkably, her father chose Benazir over her two brothers as his successor, and her political career eerily echoed his, zigzagging between triumph, prison, exile and return to repeated rapturous welcomes from adoring masses.

Bookended by footage of the sniper fire and suicide bombing that killed her, Bhutto faithfully follows the hectic arcs of her life and death. Though “Bhutto” doesn’t shy away from the controversies surrounding its subject, it is very much on Benazir’s side. Directors Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara interview Benazir’s sister, her three children and her widower, Pakistan’s current President Asif Ali Zardari, and makes extensive use of audiotapes, never before aired publicly, that journalist Linda Bird Francke made with Benazir while working with her on her autobiography, “Daughter of Destiny.” It also interviews Benazir’s niece Fatima, the daughter of her murdered brother Murtaza and a woman who offers a withering critique of her assassinated aunt also accuses widower Zardari, who had the nickname of “Mr. Ten Percent” because of alleged corruption during his wife’s first term, of continued dishonesty and worse.

As recounted in her memoir “Songs of Blood and Sword”, Fatima Bhutto recalls the days.  In 1979, as Pakistan’s first-elected president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, languished in the death cells of Rawalpindi Prison, deposed, enfeebled, his teeth rotting and his daily meal spiked with “shards of glass”, he penned a letter to his sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, suggesting his will was not yet been broken: “If you do not avenge my murder, you are not my sons”. Bhutto’s command, rather like the King of Denmark’s ghostly visitation upon Hamlet, sparked a ferocious, murderous family feud in the four decades following his execution. The fight shows no sign of ending, especially now, after this book virtually accuses the current Pakistani president, Asif Zardari, of sanctioning Murtaza’s murder, with his late wife, Benazir Bhutto (Fatima’s aunt) as accomplice. The Bhutto brothers die trying to clear their father’s name, as the founder and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Following their exile from Pakistan after launching an ‘armed struggle’ against Zia, Shahnawaz was found poisoned in Cannes, aged 26, while Murtaza was killed in a police shoot-out, on his return to Pakistan, aged 42. Benazir, their eldest sister, served two terms as prime minister before her assassination, at 54.

Interestingly, the movie gives a startling degree of face time to its own co-producer, Mark Siegel, a political consultant and close friend of Bhutto who co-authored a book with her.The director, Duane Baughman was also a political consultant, helped get Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton elected.

For those that followed Benazir Bhutto’s political career and her times in Pakistan, listen to the haunting victory song (written to celebrate her ascension to the office of Prime Minister of Pakistan) that played all over the Indian subcontinent, and went on to become a huge hit.

Directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara; written by Mr. O’Hara; music by Mader, Herb Graham Jr., Stewart Copeland and Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari; produced by Mr. Baughman, Mark Siegel and Arleen Sorkin; released by First Run Features. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is not rated.