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Bhutto Soap Opera Makes for a Compelling Film

The murders, intrigues and expanses of Pakistan's first female prime minister seem made for the big screen, and a new documentary is a game first step in that direction.
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The events surrounding Benazir Bhutto's life play out like some particularly lurid, R-rated action flick. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic father and Pakistani prime minister, is overthrown by a rival, jailed and executed (the rival, Gen. Zia Ul Haq, later dies in a mysterious plane explosion). One of Benazir's brothers is poisoned, killer unknown. Another brother is murdered in a confrontation with police, allegedly without provocation. Bhutto's husband is accused of corruption, jailed for years, but never convicted of any crime. Bhutto herself is in and out of jail, in and out of exile, serves two terms as her country's prime minister, and is finally assassinated in 2007, assailant unclear.

Glamor! Guns! Corruption and political chicanery! It's all coming soon to a theater near you in Bhutto,  a documentary debuting Dec. 3 in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a national rollout and a showing on PBS' "Independent Lens" series on May 10. This film is rated PI for Political Instability, and is not recommended for small children, or those who think Pakistan will be a fully functioning state anytime soon.

"You can't tell the story of Pakistan without telling the story of the Bhuttos," says Duane Baughman, Bhutto co-director with Johnny O'Hara. "It is a country in its infancy, still, to this day, and it's defined by its earliest holders of power, and its most influential families. The Bhuttos were one of the largest landowners, and they tried to lead the country in a democratic way."

Founded in the chaos of a 1947 partition that created the mutually antagonistic states of Pakistan and India, a nuclear-armed nation which has had four military coups in its history, Bhutto's homeland is beset with almost every negative imaginable: high illiteracy, poor medical care, tribalism, feudalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and a shadowy state security apparatus that seems to be a government within the government.

"Leaders are few and far between in Pakistan, and they don't last long," Baughman says. "In Pakistan, politics is a blood sport."

Into this arena stepped the Western-educated (Harvard and Oxford), charismatic and glamorous Benazir Bhutto, who, influenced by the feminist and anti-war movements of the 1960s, decided to follow in her father's footsteps and try to bring democracy to her country. Elected prime minister in 1988 at the tender age of 35, Bhutto later admitted that she had no real plan for governance, and 20 months later, after being accused of corruption, was deposed on the order of then-President Gulam Ishaq Khan.

Accusations of corruption were, in fact, to trail Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, throughout their careers. Asif, known as "Mr. 10 Percent," referring to the corruption charges leveled against him, was even jailed for 11 years, but never convicted of any crime.

"There are a lot of accusations and accepted stories" regarding the Bhuttos and corruption, Baughman says. "But neither he nor she was ever convicted of corruption. The film presents the facts, doesn't sugar coat anything, and I think the best judge is the audience. She was worth, on her own, hundreds of millions of dollars, she was born into it. I don't understand what she would need to steal."

No matter what her ethical lapses, if any, Bhutto, which is a dense but fascinating mashup of talking heads, newsreel footage and informational graphics, makes a strong case for Benazir as a progressive influence in a highly conservative Muslim culture.

"On a deep level, simply breaking the Islamic glass ceiling, to become prime minister, a feat that hasn't been accomplished in America," is a major plus, Baughman says. "It stands head and shoulders above some substantial legislative accomplishments. It put a moderate face on Islam and Pakistan, it sent a hopeful message to Pakistani girls and women. And on the legislative side, eradicating polio, building schools, bringing CNN and the BBC and the Internet to Pakistan, and the women's police stations [stations manned by female police so women could report crimes], just reinforces the largeness of having been the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country."

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But Bhutto, whose exhortative speaking style at mass rallies gives an indication of why she had such wide-ranging mass appeal, had too many enemies in high places. Foremost among these, according to the film, was dictator Pervez Musharraf. In late 2007, with Musharraf's regime weakening for various reasons, Bhutto decided to return home after eight years in exile, but was promptly assassinated after a campaign rally. Al-Qaeda initially claimed it was responsible, but Baughman's film points a finger at Musharraf, who allegedly did not provide sufficient security for Bhutto. In addition, the crime scene was washed clean within hours of the incident, so that there was no opportunity to collect forensic evidence.

"I think there was a reason Musharraf decided not to give basic security protections, and why they hosed away all forensic evidence four hours later," Baughman says. "Recently, there have been headlines saying the Taliban was the actual trigger organization responsible for the death of Benazir. To me, it has always been evident that it takes two — one to allow it to happen, and the other to pull the trigger."

No matter who was responsible, Bhutto argues that Benazir's death was one of those lost historic opportunities, when Pakistan had a chance to emerge from chaos and feudalism into the semblance of a modern state. Still, Baughman argues that the recent severe flooding in the country, in which the military's relief efforts proved more competent than the civilian government's, is proof that Bhutto did not die in vain.

"Her death made a huge difference," he says. "It propelled people's desire and hunger for democracy forward. What she represented was represented in the form of a strong message being sent to the military and the ISI [state security], that said we want self-determination and we're going to exercise this right. That message was so strong; the will of the people to support democratic government was what prevented the military from moving in and taking control during the recent flooding disaster. They were providing 90 percent of the relief, and if they were going to move in, this was the time."