Bhutto Review

Image From:  Huffington Post
If there's one movie about Pakistan that everyone should see, it's Bhutto, the recent documentary by Duane Baughman about the life and assassination of Pakistani former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.  The first female leader of Pakistan and the first woman to lead a Muslim state, Benazir Bhutto cut her political teeth during her father's tenure as Pakistani Prime Minister.  She herself served two abbreviated terms as Prime Minister and spent many years exiled in Dubai before returning to Pakistan in 2007 to run again for political office.  She was assassinated on December 27 of 2007.

The documentary interviews her family, her friends, her allies, and her enemies while Benazir's voice, captured on tape 15 years previously, narrates the course of her life.  The effect is haunting and I left the movie theatre struck by several different things.  The first was the strange sense of inevitability about her rise to power.  Her family was a political family.  Although she was a woman, she was clearly her father's daughter and the child most obviously suited to a life in politics.  The Bhuttos were often likened to the Kennedys, and it's clear that being a part of a political family in Pakistan had all the advantages and disadvantages of being a political family.  Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ultimately overthrown and executed by a military dictator, Muhammad Zia-ul-Huq, in 1979.   The death of her father profoundly impacted Benazir and the rest of her family.  They spent years in and out of house arrest, and Benazir herself spent six months imprisoned by Zia-ul-Huq in Sukkur Jail, not known for its pleasant conditions.

The second thing I was struck by was the incurable optimism and belief in democracy that Benazir held. Partly this perspective came out of her education at Harvard and Oxford during the late 60s and mid 70s.  But partly I believe Benazir had few other philosophical options.  In the face of a rising military dictatorship in Pakistan and the growing threat of Islamic extremism, she had to choose an alternative.  And that alternative, optimism and democracy, happened to play well in the west during the time she was exiled on charges of corruption.  I found it interesting that the corruption charges were largely glossed over in the documentary- the film maker's explanation was that everyone in Pakistan who has enemies is charged with corruption.  Honestly I don't know enough one way or another to weigh in- but I'd like to see a fuller treatment of the issue.

The third, and most significant, thing I learned from the documentary is how tenuous democratic rule is in Pakistan.  Although Benazir Bhutto was popularly elected, it is clear that the country's power rested with the military.  Even as Prime Minister there was little she could do that the military didn't authorize.  She was an incredibly charismatic and motivating figure- the scenes of her working up crowds at enormous political rallies were stunning- yet her power was mainly figural.   Perhaps, given more time or  more power or more influence, she could have made a difference.

But perhaps she couldn't have.  A menacing shot of the outside of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, as well as a rather vehement statement from former ruler General Pervez Musharraf defending himself from connection with her death, points to the deeper truth of the matter.  The military, for all intents and purposes, runs Pakistan.  And Musharraf, despite his protests, is largely believed to have been a part of her assassination.

Pakistan clearly needs to turn away from military rule and a place a much greater emphasis on education, on health care, on ordinary Pakistanis.  Benazir Bhutto, despite her short time in office, made strides in those directions.  And despite her short tenure and abbreviated return to Pakistan, she offered something different.  The criticisms of Musharraf and her niece Fatima Bhutto (a fascinating character I need to learn more about) aside, she was an important figure who represented a possibility for a different future.  Perhaps it's a future that her widower Asif Ali Zardari, the current President of Pakistan, can realize, although he seems to be a bit overwhelmed at the moment.  And perhaps it's a future that could be helped by Kerry-Lugar Bill, which provides $7.5 billion dollars of non-military aid to Pakistan, a first in US-Pakistani relations.  Goodness knows it's about time the US actually helped Pakistanis instead of arming the Taliban or propping up military dictators.  Duane Baughman cites the Kerry-Lugar Bill as one of Benazir Bhutto's greatest legacies.  And perhaps that's the best legacy one could hope to have: changing a seemingly intractable relationship based solely on strategic US interest to one in which the daily lives of ordinary Pakistanis are actually improved.  If so, Benazir Bhutto has left the world with a greater awareness of her country, her people, her politics, and sense of responsibility to the rest of the world.

Huffington Post Article