Friday, May 06, 2011

Modern Hagiography: Bhutto

The new term for it is “doubling,” but it really amounts to old fashioned hypocrisy. This label has been specifically applied to Pakistan for making a show of cooperating with the war on terror, while giving terrorists material support behind the scenes. Twice elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto positioned herself as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, yet her two tenures in office were rather a mixed bag. While circumspectly acknowledging criticism, filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara elevate the iconic Pakistani leader to secular sainthood (despite here Islamic fundamentalism) in their documentary profile simply titled Bhutto (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on Independent Lens.

Bhutto was a daughter of privilege in a society that affords few rights to women. Her father, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, was like a character out of an Allen Drury novel. Respected as a wily diplomat in the west, Bhutto père parlayed his wealth and prestige into the Pakistani presidency, but his hubris and over-reaching prompted a military coup, a not infrequent event in Pakistan’s short history. Eventually, his daughter would consider her election as the best revenge for her father’s execution. Beyond that, just what her administrations represented remains open to debate.

To her defenders, like her American political consultant and co-author, Mark Siegel, she was a lone voice warning the west of the intolerance brewing in fundamentalist madrassas, who was assassinated for her efforts. Yet, as the film admits, she did nothing to repeal or ameliorate her country’s harsh Sharia-based restrictions on women. Granted, the on-screen commentators are most surely correct such reforms would never have passed the hard-line. Yet, what does it say about the prospects for human rights and democracy in Pakistan that she would not even try?

Repeatedly compared to the Kennedys, Bhutto faced a political family feud when her brother Murtaza politically challenged her relative moderation. After raising some Cain, he would conveniently die in a hazy police incident. Yet, perhaps the most troubling aspects of Bhutto’s periods in office were the corruption charges detailed by John F. Burns in a New York Times piece evocatively titled “House of Graft.” According to the piece her husband, Asif Ali Zardari was then known as “Mr. Ten Percent.” He is now called Mr. President. Unfortunately, Bhutto the film largely waives off such allegations, though Burns still stands behind the piece in his on-camera interviews, pointing out nobody ever substantively contradicted any of his reporting. Yet, the hagiography proceeds apace.

Many aptly compare the Bhutto family story to Greek tragedy. One can easily argue she was the most progressive leader with any hope of reorienting her persistently insular country. Yet, simply wishing away her negatives does viewers a disservice, particularly in light of the controversy following Seal Team Six’s Bin Laden trash removal operation. Most would agree Pakistan has been a devilishly difficult country to formulate policy towards. Each decision involves downsides. Indeed, more context and perspective is always helpful. Informative but imperfect, Bhutto airs this Tuesday (5/10) as part of the current season of Independent Lens on most PBS outlets nationwide.