Last night I had the good fortune to see the new documentary Bhutto at a public screening hosted by National Geographic. I have been looking forward to the film since I first heard about it a few weeks ago. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.
Bhutto was presented to a packed house. Talking to the people at the ticket counter, I learned that the the theatre sat 400, and they had over 700 people request tickets. I was glad I requested mine early.
While some of the crowd were average people curious to learn more about both Benazir Bhutto and her country, Pakistan, the audience also included a number of elite journalists and representatives of the American government. As such, the screening served both as a means to educate an American audience perhaps unfamiliar with the former Pakistani Prime Minister, as well a time for her American friends and colleagues to remember her life and contributions to democracy in the world.
Far from a funereal atmosphere, though, the event was above all a celebration of Benazir Bhutto’s life and her message. As secret service stood watch in the wings, the front rows were filled with representatives from the State Department, Department of Defense, and the White House – all of whom had come to pay their respects to the life and legacy of Benazir Bhutto.
The film was introduced by representatives of National Geographic and PBS (Bhutto will be shown on the PBS series Independent Lens on March 11, 2011), but the highlight of the opening were remarks by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who described to the audience her experience meeting Benazir Bhutto when she addressed a joint session of Congress in 1989, and what a moving and inspirational example Bhutto served for her personally.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi Speaks About Benazir Bhutto
Beginning with Benazir Bhutto’s childhood and the influential political career of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bhutto follows the intellectual and political development of an amazing historical figure. Regardless of one’s personal political sympathies, Benazir Bhutto represents a leader who overcame incredible odds to not only become the first woman elected to lead an Islamic state, but a source of hope and pride for a nation beleaguered by decades of political turmoil. As such, the film introduces audiences who may not have a deep familiarity with this legendary figure to a precocious daughter, an intellectual student, a passionate leader, a devoted mother, and a woman who willingly sacrificed everything for the greater good of her nation.
A great credit to the filmmakers was the way they presented a balanced view of the Pakistani leader. Going into the screening, I was fully prepared for a political hagiography. But what I saw was nothing of the sort. The director gave significant time to critics of Benazir Bhutto, including Gen. Musharraf and a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif, a major political opponent. The film neither avoids her deepest critics, nor the various accusations that those critics made against her. This balance allows for a more complete view of this complex leader of a turbulent nation. That Benazir Bhutto may have made mistakes is not disputed – the film even includes recordings of her admitting as much. But Benazir Bhutto never claimed to be perfect – she only asked that her mistakes be judged in the context of her intent: to bring democracy to her nation.
Early in the film, someone refers to the Bhuttos as the ‘Kennedys of Pakistan’. As the final credits rolled, I could not help but to recall Richard Reeves’ brilliant biography of President Kennedy. There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story that Jackie Kennedy once told her children of Reeves’ work, “If you want to know your father, he is in this book.” As I left the theatre last night, I could not help but think that I had met Benazir Bhutto in this film.
Tariq Ali says in the film that, “the whole story of the Bhuttos has strong elements of a Greek tragedy.” The Bhuttos’ story does, in fact, include tragic elements. I defy anyone to sit through this film without finding tears coming to his or her eyes. But one need not walk away from this film feeling downtrodden. At the conclusion of the presentation, audience members talked among each other of the powerful impact Benazir Bhutto continues to have as a symbol of courage and the promise of a democratic world.
Though Benazir Bhutto’s life ended in tragedy, her story is, in many ways, one that has yet to end. In Pakistan’s democratic movement, Benazir Bhutto lives on. And when the end to this story is finally written, God willing, Benazir Bhutto’s dream will have been realized and Pakistan will be the modern democracy she always knew it could be.
At the end of the film it was clear to the entire audience – citizen and government representative alike – that in murdering Benazir Bhutto, her killers amplified her message, strengthened the resolve of her allies, and brought her dream of a democratic Pakistan that much closer to reality. Bhutto‘s tag line is true: “You can’t murder a legacy.”
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