The South Asia Channel

Bringing Benazir Bhutto’s story to film

On December 27, the world will observe the third anniversary of the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country. The story of Benazir’s life includes hijackings, corruption allegations, unsolved murders, and countless conspiracies. In deciding to translate her life to film, we believed that a fair, even-handed ...

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

On December 27, the world will observe the third anniversary of the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country.

The story of Benazir’s life includes hijackings, corruption allegations, unsolved murders, and countless conspiracies. In deciding to translate her life to film, we believed that a fair, even-handed appraisal of Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan would provoke the ire of both her critics as well as her supporters. We were right. With a subject as controversial as Benazir Bhutto, we would be more concerned if the reactions were polite and restrained.

Convincing Benazir’s political rival General Pervez Musharraf to appear on film was not easy. The effort took a respectful letter, followed by a bottle of Chivas Regal and Cuban cigars delivered to his hotel suite in Philadelphia, where he was speaking on a tour of the U.S. to rehabilitate his image. With much flattery and a bit of arm-twisting, we were able to elicit a short interview and took the opportunity to ask some tough questions. Gen. Musharraf’s appearance in the film provoked a surprise visit from his son Bilal the following year at the Sundance Film Festival. Following a screening, he stood at the back of a packed theater, veins bulging in anger, and accused us of smearing his father’s good name to build up Benazir. The audience was stunned and fell completely silent. We suggested to Musharraf that it wasn’t so much the film but history and public opinion that takes a dim view of military dictators.

A series of serendipitous events contributed to the making of Bhutto. While filming the convent where Benazir was educated, we unexpectedly stumbled upon her teacher, an elderly nun who charmingly described Benazir’s rarely examined early years. When Karachi’s chaotic streets prevented our film crew from reaching the airport to catch the only daily flight to Benazir’s mausoleum in Sukkor, we were saved at the last minute by a phone call from President Zardari, who held our plane — and its agitated Sindhi passengers — on the tarmac for over an hour until we were safely aboard. Most importantly, we discovered never before heard microcassette tapes of hours of interviews with Benazir recorded by writer Linda Bird Franke decades before and forgotten in an attic in New England. As a result, Benazir narrates her own life throughout the film, speaking intimately about the emotional toll of a life lived in the public eye and the sacrifices that come with the Bhutto name.

After traveling to Pakistan and conducting dozens of interviews we uncovered the woman behind Benazir Bhutto’s public persona. Just three months after her assassination, our film crew joined her children and widower (and current President of Pakistan) Asif Ali Zardari at their home in Dubai. Although Benazir’s life was punctuated by high-stakes diplomacy and dramatic tragedy, her children spoke less of her accomplishments on the world stage and more about private moments spent away from the microphones and cameras. Through a fog of grief, they described a mother who cherished meals around the dining room table with her children, a passionate friend who inspired others with her fearlessness. Watching and hearing this family tell its own tragic story gives viewers uncommon insight into the unimaginable decision that Benazir Bhutto made in 2007: to return to her country, despite the foreknowledge that her enemies were relentlessly committed to silencing her voice.

Three years after Benazir’s assassination, everyday life in Pakistan remains precarious. We think of this every time we remember the Islamabad Marriot’s gentle and thoughtful staff, who looked after us while we filmed on location in Pakistan. At some point during our transatlantic flight back to the U.S., the Marriot was the target of a massive suicide bombing, killing 54 people on the final day of Ramadan, among them friends we had made — waiters, bell men, concierges, and security guards. Our film however, takes an optimistic viewpoint about the future of Pakistan. While the film covers the missteps of U.S. foreign policy in the region, the Obama administration has recognized that the only way to earn the trust of the people of Pakistan is by developing a true partnership with the entire society, not simply the military. This is the spirit of the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which delivers $7.5 billion of civilian aid to Pakistan for schools, health care and electricity. This is a first for the United States where Pakistan is concerned, and a critical step towards ensuring a stable, democratic, and economically prosperous Pakistan.

Benazir was a rare and gifted leader who bridged religions, genders, and continents. She inspired millions of women to stand up against oppression and reject illegitimate restrictions on what they could achieve and who they could become. She built the first women’s police department in Pakistan, establishing for the first time a safe space where their legal grievances would be heard. She opened up the country to the international media, empowering Pakistan’s domestic media to be more vigilant. When she was told that Pakistan’s ruthless military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq-who had imprisoned and tortured her since seizing power and hung her father a decade earlier-had admitted that the worst mistake of his life was allowing Benazir to survive prison, she calmly and matter-of-factly replied, "He’s right." This is the Benazir that we endeavored to capture in Bhutto.

Agree or not with her politics, her story helps us better understand her country, how we got here, and why our relationship with South Asia is inextricably tied to the future of Pakistan.

Duane Baughman is the director of Bhutto, and the founder of the San Francisco-based Yellow Pad Productions, and the owner of the national political direct mail firm, The Baughman Company. Mark Siegel is the producer of Bhutto. He is a partner at Locke Lord Strategies and the former Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee. He was Benazir Bhutto’s friend and speech writer for 25 years and co-authored with Benazir Bhutto, "Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West," shortly before her death.

Bhutto is playing in theaters across the country and will premiere in Washington, DC and Boston, MA on Friday, December 17. To learn more about the film or watch the Bhutto Trailer, visit the Bhutto website or join the Bhutto Facebook Group

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