The Bhutto family has been demonized in their home nation of Pakistan and given a bad name elsewhere, from the progressive Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, elected Prime Minister to the socialist democratic Benazir Bhutto. They bucked the traditional mores of Pakistan and hoped for a progressive future, and paid dearly for this vision. The sober documentary Bhutto borders on hagiography, but it is difficult to regard Benazir impartially. Considering the risks taken by a progressive woman in a country where women are a notch below livestock, her ascendance to the seat of Prime Minister would be akin to Rick Perry fully funding Planned Parenthood. Nations that make their greatest strides forward as economic powers have a strong and educated middle class, while overpopulated backwaters tend to ensure their population is poorly educated and unable to resist autocratic rule. Pakistan is the latter, and the Bhutto family imagined a near future where it became the former. Politics tends to corrupt and destroy the best in humanity, and so it was with their aspirations. This documentary has the strength of acknowledging their failures as well as their successes; just as clear is the investment that is placed in keeping people as ignorant as possible. Benazir’s death was guaranteed – for a woman to speak of democracy, or speak at all, was a threat to the established order.
This expertly made film has a propulsive energy that gets across some fun facts about Pakistan while examining the tragic story of the Bhutto family:
Pakistan has the 6th largest population in the world.
Population is 97% Muslim, second largest in the world.
Four military coups in 63 years.
73% of the people earn less than $2 per day.
Literacy rate 67% male, 42% female.
Annual military budget: $8 billion.
1000 honor killings a year reported.
40,000 Madrassas (religious fanatic training camps)
473 girls’ schools destroyed by extremists
80-100 nuclear warheads total.
The last fact is amusing, in that there is a range rather than a precise number. This is the setting of our Tragedy. When Benazir was born in 1953, none of her family visited her mother in the hospital, instead mourning the birth of a girl to the family. Her father was less than concerned about this low expectation; as a charismatic representative of Pakistan at the United Nations, he was known for progressive ideas. He strove to eliminate the feudal system and nurture the growth of a middle class, erasing gender constraints and ignorance. He won the Prime Minister seat campaigning for democracy, universal education, and eradicating the poverty that hit the rural areas hardest. He was Benazir’s greatest teacher, and she learned the value of negotiation. He became lost fighting against India and pushing for a nuclear arsenal, losing his Western allies; he appeased the rising power of the mullahs by giving into their extreme demands, losing the support of moderates. General Zia led a military coup that seized control to the delight of the West, imprisoning Zulfikar on trumped up charges, and hanging him. Now, most reasonable people would get their reasonable asses out of this hellhole and enjoy life. Benazir met this challenge head-on, believing that “Democracy is the greatest revenge”. The story of her crusade makes for fantastic drama: to clear her father’s name, survive cruel imprisonment, and eventually chance to campaign for Prime Minster and win that seat three fucking times. All of this under a campaign to smear her name, demonize the work of her father, and the establishment of Sharia law with public hangings and banned freedom of speech.
Bhutto reviews in uncomfortable detail the international entanglements that helped seal her fate; for a nation so interested in democracy, the United States supported with zeal military fanatics that helped kill its greatest champion. This remains relevant today, as the billions in US aid to Pakistan was funneled into the ISI, a paramilitary service that works both sides of the War on Terror and continues to arm and empower extremists. Musharraf is given some screen time as well, hugely popular in the United States despite giving his full support to fanatics, the ISI, and assisting in Benazir’s assassination. At the same time, the film gives some time to her brief tenure in power, utterly compromised by a resistant government and a President that opposed her every move. She brought some moderation to gender politics, electricity and water to rural areas, and pushed to eradicate polio in her country. In reality, she accomplished very little, expending what little power she had defending against attacks by the ISI and her own government. Even so, she kept coming back again and again until her enemies gave up resisting her ambitions and just killed her.
Even today, little seems to have changed, but there are some reasons for encouragement. After he collaborated in her execution, Musharraf ordered the streets scrubbed clean of any evidence, which ended any positive public opinion about his autocratic rule; an independent commission determined that Musharraf was culpable. A warrant was issued for his arrest, he abdicated to London, but has vowed to return to reclaim Pakistan in 2012. That a military dictator could be deposed by a vanquished enemy is scant cause for hope, but in a place as mired in traditional backwardness as Pakistan, that can be hope enough.