Hot Docs review: Bhutto [2010, Duane Baughman]

Toronto – I SWEAR: Hotdocs was watching me. My accreditation with them came through mere 5 seconds after I began typing out this preview. It is actually a bit surreal and will probably set off some paranoid reflections. But as it stands now, I came away from this film with two mathematical notions. 1. The more you shout, the more people remember. 2. courage is probably independent of the reasons not to be (in fact it probably scales inversely to adversity).

Drawing early on from a comparison to the Kennedys, this focused biographical sketch of Benazir Bhutto started off with a rather distant perspective of a land-owning Pakistani family. By distant, I am supposing that the idea of owning and administering a track of land the size of Orange/LA county, CA with a population to match is not an upbringing that most average viewers (obviously me included) can resonate with. This is not to say that the Bhutto family was portrayed as arrogant – far from it. They were the (Harvard, Oxford, Berkeley, etc) educated elites of Pakistan. The aristocratic background, then, served to instill a sense of responsibility. Like the British lords and nobility, their success derives from the well-being of their subjects. This attitude was apparently carried over from aristocracy to democracy. The original, was Benazir’s father, Zalfikar. By introducing the his rise to power and eventual downfall in a coup de’tat orchestrated by his hand-picked general, Baughman set up the political landscape in which Benazir will operated for the next 29 years. The twice prime minister of Pakistan started off as a Harvard undergraduate during the peace and love hippie movement, which would not have prepared her for repeated family tragedies with her father and brothers (father, I mentioned, was executed by rivals; both brothers died of circumstances that literally reeks of backlash assassination). Through out this constant foreground of political wrangling, she started a family, raise 3 kids in exile while her husband was incarcerated in Pakistan for 11 years. With a strong woman at center stage, add to this hot steaming stew the fundamentalist movement, USSR and the US fighting through their proxies Iran/Iraq, Mujaheddin, Gulf war, the ever looming presence of India, nuclear bombs, Pakistani internal power struggles, 9/11, War in Afghanistan – this quickly turns into a jumbo mess that I wouldn’t touch with a pole the length of Long Beach. Big cohones to her for standing up for what she, and ultimately her family, believes in, knowing quite well that the outcome might be martyrdom.

The production value of the documentary is quite high – and this is most obvious in the introduction. It is a 5 minutes condensate from colonial period to the formation of Pakistan. Graphics showing buildings transforming into statistical dots on a rising excel chart, models of US C130 cargo planes dropping aid, tanks strolling down main streets, all helped to transfer a mindset to the viewer. It’s quite stark. The CG texts are particularly powerful reminders (for example, the literacy rate of men and women, the amount of foreign aid, the amount of military spending versus that on education). Throughout the narrative, of course, interviews from friends, family, media, and detractors/rivals are utilized to reinforce the image of Benazir Bhutto as a champion of Pakistani democracy. At points the film reminds us that politics is about power – but it’s the people who actually yield that power over to the elite. With her building schools, forming women police forces, and trying to spread polio cures, I can’t help but feel that she’s sculpted into a Frankenstein of Mother Teresa and Margret Thatcher. But there’s also a slight feeling of one-sided-ness to the interviews – her niece and the former president were the odd voice against her. Some may consider it bad taste to mock someone posthumously. That’s why the archival footage adds much more realism to the story. I wonder if it was difficult to obtain them, however. She was a prominent figurehead, especially in the Western sense. Had she not been educated and well-known in US/UK, those images would probably have been lost to state-run censorship/intelligentsia, making them more “precious”, which is often the prize for watching these documentaries. But that’s me being facetious – the point is that using these snippets like a paper mache, Baughman has managed to sculpt a likeness of Bhutto that many may agree on. For those of us on the other side of the globe, the images of seas of people at her campaign rallies serve as an admonishment of what we take to be our right.

Catch the documentary:
May 1st (Saturday) 6:15 pm @ Bloor Cinema.
May 4th (Tuesday) 11:00 am @ Isabel Bader Theater.

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs

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