Duane BaughmanJohnny o’Hara

USA, 2010

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto carved out a complex path, from her early days studying at Berkeley in the late ‘60s, where she honed her social activism, to witnessing the controversial downfall and assassination of her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto, to her house arrest and political imprisonment. Elected as the first female leader of an Islamic nation, she championed a democratic and educated Pakistan through key moments in the country’s turbulent history. Bhutto’s successes and failures were scrutinized by the public, the Islamic world, and within her family.

THE FILM BHUTTO is only to a certain extent about Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan. The film is really a history of Pakistan. But then, the history of Pakistan coincides with the life of Bhutto. She was born in 1953, only six years after the foundation of Pakistan under British rule in 1947 and only three years before it became an independent country under her father’s rule in 1956. Moreover, what seems to have been one of Pakistan’s central issues, the collision between modernism and traditionalism, also seems to have been central to Bhutto herself.

Raised in a feudal, progressive family, she was educated at top Western universities in the seventies, a time of burgeoning emancipation and anti-military protests. She was an advocate of equal rights and opened a women’s police station to underline this. But she was not a feminist. While Thatcher, Ghandi and Meir are known for their male strength, she saw the nurturing nature of women as an important contribution and asset. She married because she felt it necessary for her work as Prime Minister. She is presented as a devout Muslim. She performed the Umrah, a religious pilgrimage including rituals, for her father. Her scarf was always half-heartedly halfway covering her head. Towards the end, she put her life in God’s hands: “I am unaware of the details of the security arrangements but I think the biggest protection comes from God. And God willing, all will go well” she says just before her return to Pakistan in October 2007.

“Bhutto” 2010 directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara

THE DICHOTOMY between modernism and traditionalism has characterised Pakistan for a long time. According to Aziz Talbani, Islam was – through the so-called Objective Resolution and the Principles of State Policy (a kind of constitution) – a legitimate part of Pakistan’s political discourse. 1)Aziz Talbani, Pedagody, power, and discourse: Transformation of Islamic Education. Comparative Education Review, Feb. 1996, p. 66-82.  At the same time, the first rulers of the independent republic were modern, educated in the West, with more Western and liberal values than those of traditional Islam. The military has always been just as much a part of Pakistan politics as civilian politicians. Pakistan not only had to free itself from British rule, it also struggled for East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – and the struggle over Kashmir continues today. Failing to create economic welfare for the people, the western-style Bhutto sr. dynasty was overthrown by general Zia-ul-Hacq. He allied with the fundamentalists. After her father’s execution, Bhutto spent the rest of her life fighting the military, with democracy as remedy. In the film, the first thing she says after her election is: “I have avenged my father today”. It seems she lost herself in a never-ending battle for power.

“Bhutto” 2010 directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara

That brings us to the second theme: What did Bhutto really achieve during her time in office?  What was her political life really about? The film casually mentions that during her first term, she brought drinking water and electricity to the villages, she built schools and ended polio. In her second term we are only told she brought modernity through cell phones, fiber optics, CNN, and BBC.

The film does not give clues as to why so many Pakistanis kept believing in her. She seems to live in a vacuum, we never see her or hear about her in party meetings or other daily political activities. She travelled the world but did she know her people? Only when she sets foot on Pakistani soil do we see thousands of supporters. Where did they come from all of a sudden?

What is it that makes so many people admire her on the international stage too? What we see is a lady that fascinated many – much like Queen Noor of Jordan and Farah Diba, the wife of the late Persian Shah. These women all embody the mix of western education and sophistication and eastern cultural and religious roots. Is it this an exoticism that blinds people? According to Jonathan Foreman it is: he accuses the Anglophone media of a “blinding vulnerability to a certain kind of glamour”.2)Jonathan Foreman, The Real Bhutto. Against the myth-making. National Review January 28, 2008, p. 24-28

“Bhutto” 2010 directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara

THE FILM’S BUILDING blocks consist of a wide array of images and sounds: interviews, archive photos and film, graphics, music, sound effects, TV and audio clips. Interviewees include (former) friends, family members, allies, politicians, biographers, academics and journalists. It is,  a bombardment of expressions. The images, sometimes generic ones, support the storyline, and the sounds and music enhance the narrative.

This bombardment really leaves you exhausted after nearly two hours, but with very little answers. Although the film cleverly combines all the many different sources into a single narrative, (though at times very simplistic) it is in a way unsatisfying. It spoon-feeds facts and figures about Pakistan and Bhutto, in the style of a very detailed history lesson, but it does not give any real insight into Bhutto’s motivation, her politics or her strategies. Or do we really have to come to the sad conclusion that this is what it is? That there is nothing more to her?

In addition, the pace and the vast volume of information give little time for reflection, making it possible to get away with internal inconsistencies. One interviewee claims Bhutto did not shake hands with men, but we clearly see her do so when she visited the US Congress. What are we to make of this?

On April 15th, the UN released its inquiry report on the circumstances of Bhutto’s death. The commission concluded that the federal government, the Punjab government, the Rawalpindi police and Bhutto’s own party all failed to take adequate measures. Her death could have been prevented. Based on what we have seen of her, I doubt it would have made that much difference to Pakistan.


References   [ + ]

1. Aziz Talbani, Pedagody, power, and discourse: Transformation of Islamic Education. Comparative Education Review, Feb. 1996, p. 66-82.
2. Jonathan Foreman, The Real Bhutto. Against the myth-making. National Review January 28, 2008, p. 24-28
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