Intelligent, determined, articulate, beautiful and heir to post-WWII Pakistan's greatest political dynasty, Banazir Bhutto was her region's Eva Peron. Like Evita, she moved the masses in a male-dominated political culture, not only because of her fierce patriotism and the force of her ideas but also because her life played out as a blend of both grand opera and soap opera. And like Evita, she now has a dramatic and somewhat romanticized testament worthy of both her own charisma and her compromised legacy, thanks to Bhutto, the new documentary by Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara. American audiences are notoriously disinterested in movies with geopolitical themes, but this is a strong effort with a riveting protagonist. A small, selective release pattern could easily find success with documentary enthusiasts and the Pakistani immigrant Diaspora before Bhutto finds its true audience in cable TV sales and on DVD.
Bred to lead by her father, who was the first democratically elected president of Pakistan, Bhutto was both the product and perhaps the last defender of an experiment with Western-style democracy that flowered intermittently and all too briefly in the post-colonial East and Middle East. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she witnessed the feminist revolt of the early 1970s first hand, only to return to a country where the burqa and the veil still ruled much of the street. "You can see the world through that black veil," we hear her say, "and it's not a clear world. It's a grayish, muted world"—clearly not the kind of place such a vivid personality wanted to live in, or was willing to let others see.
When her father was toppled and then executed by the first of Pakistan's modern juntas, Bhutto became head of his party and also experienced the first in s series of family political tragedies that would ultimately out-Kennedy the Kennedys. Her youngest brother was poisoned, her oldest brother (and rival) died in a hail of bullets and she herself spent years imprisoned by the family's military nemesis, General Zia, who kept her in solitary confinement for so long she briefly lost the power of speech. Even more tragically for Pakistan, Zia was a devout Islamist who introduced draconian and sadistic "reforms" oppressive to women and others, transforming Pakistan and its nuclear armed military and security forces into a Sharia driven theocracy. All the more incredible that Bhutto was elected Pakistan's prime minister twice and was poised to win a third term when she herself was assassinated while campaigning in 2007.
Bhutto's story is an epic one, and Baughman and O'Hara prove up to the task. The historical footage of Bhutto, her family and the massive displays of love and support she generated from average Pakistanis lend a sense of scale commensurate to the drama of public events. The interviews conducted for Bhutto—including a long and emotional one with Bhutto's widowed husband—are thoughtful and frequently moving. There's great debate over Bhutto's actual legacy; there were scandals, and her achievements were hemmed in by the defacto power of Pakistan's omnivorous military machine. Baughman and O'Hara elide some of the more controversial opinions on their subject, as when they mention and even show a picture of an 8,000 word New York Times article alleging financial fraud without ever coming down on one side or the other of the article's assertions. What Bhutto captures brilliantly though is its subject's vibrancy, her intellect and her political clarity.
It's mentioned in passing that when Bhutto returned from expulsion to begin her second term in office and saw the impact of America's decision to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan by funneling billions through Pakistan into the hands of the Muslim fundamentalists of the Mujahadeen, she confronted the sitting American president. "Mr President," she is reported to have said, "I fear we have created a Frankenstein." Since Bhutto was in prison and in exile when Zia and America implemented the policies that helped create al Qaeda, that "we" was a generosity. Bhutto herself is gone now. But the Frankenstein she mentioned is walking still, and the democratic millennium she gave voice to in her troubled part of the world has never seemed more out of reach.
Distributor: Film Movement
Directors: Duane Baughman, Johnny O'Hara
Screenwriter: Johnny O'Hara
Producers: Duane Baughman, Arleen Sorkin, Mark Siegel
Running time: 115 min.
Release date: December 3 NY/LA