Independent Lens “Bhutto”

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A portrait of one of the most fascinating and complex figures of our time, Bhutto is the epic tale of the life and tragic death of Benazir Bhutto, who broke the Islamic glass ceiling as the first woman leader of a Muslim country.  Beloved by the people of her native Pakistan, she was reviled by the nation's military establishment and male-dominated ruling class.  More than two years after her death from a suicide bomber, Benazir remains a divisive figure, a symbolic metaphor for the fight between terrorism and moderation.  That struggle continues today in Pakistan, the world's most strategically important country and the Muslim world's sole nuclear power.  Directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara, Bhutto airs on Independent Lens Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10 p.m. on Eight, Arizona PBS.  

Born on June 21, 1953, into a wealthy landowning family which later became Pakistan's dominant political dynasty, Benazir Bhutto lived a life of Shakespearean proportions.  Her family, often referred to as the “Kennedys of Pakistan,” had a painful legacy of triumph and tragedy played out on an international stage. Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, her father and the first democratically elected president of Pakistan, was executed by his own handpicked Army chief.  Her two beloved brothers died mysteriously at the hands of others: Shanahwaz was poisoned in France and Murtaza was gunned down in a shootout on a Pakistani street. Both murders remain unsolved.

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Benazir made history as the first woman leader of a Muslim country, yet she was wed in a traditional arranged marriage to then-Karachi playboy Asif Ali Zardari.  With an eye on a foreign service career, Benazir's life changed forever when her father chose her to carry his political mantle, over the family's eldest son.  In the late 1970s, when Zulifikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown and hanged in a “judicial assassination,” Benazir swore to avenge her father and restore democracy — or die trying. 

Director/producer Duane Baughman points out how Benazir's relationship with her father — and his subsequent execution — transformed her.   “At that point she was an unstoppable force.   Her life's purpose became avenging her father's dream for the people of Pakistan and that started and ended with democracy,” said Baughman.   “The fact that she was a young woman in the Muslim world staring down the same dictator who hanged her father only makes the story that much more riveting.”

Benazir's first election victory came under the banner of her martyred father's popular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 1988. From her first moment in office as prime minister, Benazir's life and reign of power were marked by contradictions and questions.  She wrestled with a male-dominated society and an entrenched military establishment, a struggle that continued throughout her life.  Her first government was removed in a military-backed coup in 1990.  She rose again in 1993 but was toppled by the power elite in 1996.  She entered an eight-year, self-imposed exile in London, New York, and Dubai. 

In 2007, with Pakistan roiling in turmoil and under the thumb of yet another military dictator, Benazir was called back as the country's best hope for democracy.   The very night of her triumphant return, a double-suicide bombing assassination attempt killed 170 of her supporters.   “We will continue to meet the public,” she said defiantly, after narrowly escaping harm.   “We will not be deterred.”

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007. She transcended politics, but left a legacy of simmering controversy and undeniable courage that will be debated for years to come.

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