The new documentary Bhutto appears to be more a gift to those enamoured by Benazir Bhutto and the myth surrounding her, rather than a search for some semblance of truth. The documentary picks up on the Benazir-glorifying strands that have been circulating for decades, and weaves these into a tapestry that is biased in favour of the political and personal choices of Benazir Bhutto. There is a vast difference between the manner in which an icon such as Benazir is perceived in the West, particularly the US, and how she is seen in Pakistan. In Bhutto, the first visual account of Benazir’s entire life, we are privy to a tale that glamorises her elite background; this could indicate that the film is targeted at a US audience, which tends to be more welcoming of romanticised stories of public figures, having had practice with the Kennedys. For the majority of Pakistan, however, the privileged life of the Bhuttos only serves to emphasise the gulf between elites like them and the rest of the country.
In the beginning of Bhutto, the viewer is introduced as a naive young girl attending Harvard, then going on to Oxford and holidaying in the south of France. It makes absurd and incongruous the comment, ‘It is because of their sweat that you will be educated,’ made by Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and quoted by her in the documentary, as he refers to workers toiling in a field. From such origins, it does not seem possible that Benazir could truly understand the plight of the people of Pakistan. Her close friends reveal trifling things about her such as, ‘She loved having fun,’ or that she once sent out a party invitation with the words ‘Darling what would the party be without you’ inscribed in gold. Such a depiction does not stray much from previous ones constructed by Benazir herself, such as in her autobiography, Daughter of the East.
Bhutto covers the era of Benazir’s father’s time in office, and portrays his larger-than-life personality with anecdotes such as him quipping with US President John F Kennedy that if he were an American he would be in his place in the Oval Office. We also see him ripping a resolution in half at a UN Security Council meeting, saying, ‘Why do I need to waste my time here? I am going!’ The film follows India going nuclear in 1974, and we see a feisty Zulfikar vowing, ‘We will build the nuclear bomb even if we have to eat grass for 1000 years.’ The rise of General Zia ul-Haq is also chronicled. The irony is that Zia, who would eventually have Zulfikar killed, was chosen as the chief of army staff because he seemed unassuming. A classic clip in the documentary shows Zia, well before he eventually imposed martial law, saying, ‘We believe in freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom with consideration but not free for all!’ Another iconic moment comes when Benazir yells, ‘Jiye Bhutto!’ (Long live Bhutto) into a megaphone at her wedding.
Duane Baughman (producer) and Johnny O’Hara (director), US-based filmmakers, enumerate Benazir’s list of achievements but do not explore her personal politics. We do learn, however, that she had very little power and, in the eyes of some, could have been a mere puppet. This is not a novel view. Her success was short-lived because, in 1990, she was dismissed on corruption charges. In Bhutto we hear her blaming just about everyone for her downfall, including the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. While the filmmakers touch on corruption charges against Benazir, they do not even attempt to reach a conclusion. Rather, Benazir’s cronies are allowed to state such things as, ‘This was a smear campaign’, and Benazir herself denounces the charges against her as ‘accusations and … lies’. There is not much room for factual deduction; instead, viewers are left with what we always had – one party claiming there was corruption, the other claiming there was not.
Among some sections in Pakistan, there was a perception that Benazir’s husband overpowered her. Bhutto neither actively pushes this perception, nor does it refute it. In fact, it attempts to garner sympathy for the plight of Benazir and her husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, by clearly describing how his jail term (for corruption) affected their family life. Benazir describes how she used to tell her children, ‘Your baba is in the office’ when in fact he was in prison. While it is possible to empathise with the Bhuttos on a human level in such instances, a documentary on a figure such as Benazir has a responsibility eventually to delve deeper.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they do include Benazir’s most vocal detractor – her niece Fatima, who believes that Benazir ‘bears the moral responsibility of her brothers’ deaths.’ At the age of 27, Shahnawaz Bhutto died in his room while the rest of the Bhutto family were on holiday in France. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Although no one was brought to trial, the French authorities did suspect Shahnawaz’s wife, Rehana, of the murder. Murtaza Bhutto’s death is more clear-cut, in that he was clearly shot on the double carriage road outside of his residence in Clifton, Karachi, on his way back from a rally. The official statement claims his people opened fire on the police and they retaliated in self-defence. His daughter, Fatima, in her recent memoir, has delineated her carefully researched version of the events of that night, and for her there is no doubt that her father was murdered.
Fatima also says that, during Benazir’s second term, ‘the corruption was more extensive and grander.’ She also points out that her aunt did not attempt to repeal the most reviled law in Pakistan, the Hudood Ordinance, a religious law (subsequently changed via the Women’s Protection Bill passed under Pervez Musharraf’s regime) that, among other things, prevented female rape victims from accessing justice unless they produced four witnesses. Sadia Abbas, a scholar at Rutgers University who is featured in the documentary, says she believes that Benazir was by no means a feminist, and chose to court religious support in order to stay in office. Had she attempted to tackle this ordinance, she would have displeased religious factions that saw her as ‘a threat to Islam itself’. It certainly seems as though the pressure was greater on her as a woman to repeal this law, and that Abbas and Benazir’s niece are perhaps referring to frustration that Benazir did not make this a priority.
Regardless of her feminist convictions, political ambition clearly took precedence over personal ideals. One of her achievements, we are told, was that she was the impetus behind setting up separate women’s police stations in Pakistan; there is no mention, however, that she was outspoken against abortion. More egregious is the relatively diminished exploration of corruption issues. In 1996, Benazir was ousted for a second time on corruption charges. While Bhutto does reference the seminal New York Times article that blew the lid off the corruption case against the Bhuttos and Zardari, the latter is not directly questioned about such charges, despite being interviewed. Mark Siegel, Benazir’s US spokesperson, is even allowed to claim that, when Benazir went into exile, lecturing across the world, she ‘did not seem like a woman who had unlimited sources of income’.
Life of vengeance
Since Benazir’s assassination in December 2007, there has been much discussion about the extent of her commitment to Pakistan. In the documentary, Siegel says, ‘She really believed she was on a holy mission to bring democracy back to the country.’ But Bhutto fails to convince the viewer that Benazir truly cared for the country she was attempting to run, beyond protecting the glamour of her image and lineage. Instead, the image that emerges is of a daughter who has been gravely damaged by her father’s violent death, and her entire life thereafter seems to be a mission of vengeance. The day she was sworn in as prime minister for the first time, she said, ‘I have avenged my father’s death today.’
The second half of Bhutto devolves into a soft ‘lifetime’ story, cutting frequently to clips of Benazir’s naturally distraught children. Overall, there is no room for gritty truths, as the filmmakers attempt to manifest their own idea of the ‘truth’ of Benazir – namely, that she was a martyr and a figure worthy of a Greek tragedy (in the words of writer Tariq Aziz). If we allow ourselves to be led solely by this interpretation, then apart from the critical words of Fatima Bhutto, a viewer could believe that Benazir was, for the most part, a victim. We hear her say of her tenure, ‘We were in office, not in power,’ which to a degree may well be true, but the extent of the corruption charges actually speaks of great power, albeit in the wrong hands. This is not to say that there is no precedent in Pakistani politics of convenient allegations being made at a convenient time, but this documentary makes no real effort to provide proof that Benazir’s government was in fact entirely blame free.
Creating a posthumous documentary is no easy task. The filmmakers have extensively utilised ‘never before heard’ audio recordings of Benazir, resulting in an eeriness that culminates at the very end of the documentary. At that point, two sound bites are used at the exact moment of Benazir’s assassination: ‘I feel the love of people and feel invincible’ and ‘I felt lighter and lighter, as if my soul or spirit was elevated.’ Both refer to her experience of public speaking, but the second is clearly haunting. This power notwithstanding, it is hard not to feel that Bhutto could have been made weightier had it actually included sections of Benazir’s speeches, rather than cherry-picked snippets from them. Towards the end, another voiceover tells us that ‘the Sufi does not fear death’, but rather welcomes it. This sudden and deliberate use of the word ‘Sufi’ at the finale is noteworthy: with no earlier reference to Sufism either in Benazir’s own words or otherwise, this is a calculated move to add to the martyr status being bestowed on the central figure.
~ Sascha Akhtar is a columnist, reviewer and author who lives in London.