Duane Baughman, Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto, the two time Pakistani prime minister who in 2007 was assassinated just days after she returned from military imposed exile in Dubai to once again attempt to take control of the country, was the countries’ most significant civilian political figure of her generation. Using the tragic life and times of the Muslim world’s most dynamic and successful female politician as a lens through which to capture the larger political machinations and social upheaval that has led to the sixty-seven year old Pakistani state constantly being handed back and forth between an imperiled civilian government and a conservative military establishment, Bhutto is not light on substance. However glamorous and entitled this scion of one of the country’s richest feudal families was, it’s clear in Duane Baughman’s incisive, well-researched and ultimately moving documentary that Benazir Bhutto’s motives were primarily civic duty and national pride, even if those convictions compelled her to risk her own life for the cause of civilian rule in perhaps reckless ways.
The brainchild of political direct mail guru Duane Baughman, owner and founder of the political consulting firm The Baughman Company, an outfit which has worked on the campaigns of national political heavyweights Hilary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg, Bhutto was made with incredible access to the late Benazir’s family, including interviews with her sister Sanam, husband (and current Pakistani President) Asif Ali Zardari and her children. It also features perspectives on the woman from such political and media luminaries as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ambassador Peter Galbraith, Dr. Reza Aslan, her political rival Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Arriana Huffington. The film bowed at Sundance 2010 with co-directing credits shared by Fuel director Johnny O’Hara and Jessica Hernandez, but Baughman, who has taken the “a film by” credit for himself, now shares directing credit with O’Hara. We caught up with him on the eve of the film’s release, this Friday at New York’s Cinema Village.
Filmmaker: The film premiered at Sundance with two others, Johnny O’Hara and Jessica Hernandez listed as its directors. What was your role at the projects inception and how did it evolve through the film’s production, premiere and life in the marketplace to the point where you’re now listed as director?
Baughman: It hasn’t changed much. I started out as the person who was bankrolling the movie, I started out as the person who’s idea the film was, I started out as the person who had the connections to get the interviews to make the film I just wound up at the end, and just to correct you, I’m not the sole credited director, my co-director is also the writer Johnny O’Hara, who was a huge part of making this film a reality. I hired Johnny to help keep me from becoming too close to the project and help me keep the project on track creatively because their are so many intriguing stories to be told from within and without this family and the government of Pakistan. I needed somebody who could help from on high to help me keep the whole story straight and so that’s why Johnny was intricately involved in the film.
Filmmaker: You come from a political background.
Baughman: That right, I don’t come from a filmmaking background at all, I come from a political one. That’s always been the key motivator for me. In 1988 when I first heard along with the rest of the world about this woman in Pakistan who had broken the Islamic glass ceiling, I was intrigued as anybody else about how she did it and what the real story was behind it. I expected that within a year or a few years there would be a myriad of books, documentary films and even Hollywood feature films because she was incredibly attractive and her story was very appealing. I expected to learn the backstory from other sources. Twenty-two years later, that hadn’t happened. I wound up being the person who had the access to tell the story. I decided to exercise those connections in order to tell it because I thought it was intriguing enough to get audiences engaged. It wouldn’t have come together if I wasn’t as deeply involved in domestic and international politics as I am on a daily basis.
Filmmaker: You had the fully participation of Benazir’s immediate family. Did you worry that it would be difficult to make a balanced, nuanced portrayal of her and her political legacy?
Baughman: Of course. I woke up and went to bed with that fear everyday. It was the determining factor in whether or not I would continue with the film and whether or not I was going to be able to make it. Everyday that I got access and everyday that I was continually told yes, I kept waiting to be told no, so that I could fold up my tent and fold up my wallet and go home. That day never came. The Bhutto family was spectacularly agreeable and generous with their time. Sitting down with me, amazingly just three months after the loss of their mother and in Asif Zardari’s case their wife, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have that kind of super raw access to recollections that were still very fresh at that point absolutely made the film the kind of emotional powerhouse that some of the early reviewers have found so riveting.
Filmmaker: Although using animation, archival footage and voiceover for exposition is a well worn documentary trope, I thought the way you did it early in Bhutto was quite elegant.
Baughman: I don’t take any real pride of authorship; I think the most sincere form of flattery is to flat out steal something. In the case of the beginning of our film, which I think is one of the most effective parts of the film, you can’t tell the story of Pakistan, especially to Western audiences, and expect them to understand the story of the Bhutto’s and their relationship to the country without explaining that the country was born out of conflict and partition. I was dumbstruck about how to explain the complex, complicated, political and legal maneuvering that was necessary to separate East Pakistan from West Pakistan for example. One day I was taking a break from the film and I got engrossed in watching a movie called The Kingdom. It’s a Jamie Foxx movie that’s about Saudi Arabia and how Saudi Arabia had been a key player long before it became a major oil center in this region. I watched how they told the entire 1,000 year history of this country and region long before the opening credits were done. I was really impressed with how they did it, I watched the movie, I waited until the credits were over and then I waited to see who did the graphic design on the opening scenes and it was a big, expensive Hollywood company, I hired them and I got them to do mine.
Filmmaker: Given some of the major players in Pakistani politics and U.S.-Pakistani diplomacy that you had access to such as Secretary Rice or General Musharraf, did you face in conditions for their participation that limited what you could ask them? For example General Musharraf is accused in your film of being a party to Bhutto’s assassination, but the interview doesn’t have a what one could call an accusatory tone.
Baughman: In the film, Musharraf is very clearly accused by us of being responsible for Benazir’s death and directly rebuts it and says any suggestions that I was involved or had anything to do with it I take very seriously and will object to, so the actual answer to your question is no, it was the first question I asked and it was also a question around the edges that I asked over and over again. We turned on the camera and let him speak. He is certainly a political creature who is on a mission to rehabilitate his career and he’s very good at delivering his own message just as Fatima Bhutto is and other people who’ve made a cottage industry out of wanting to protect their own legacies or to pull down Benazir’s. I figured that the best way to handle something like that was turn on the camera, let it roll and try to put in a point/counterpoint throughout the film and then let the audience decide. I couldn’t think of anything worse than leaving one explosive charge unanswered. I’d like to think that we succeeded.
Also at the end of the film, one of the cards that’s been changed because history continues to march on, is that the UN investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto came out on April 10th with their report and pointed a definitive finger at Pervez Musharraf’s administration and in very uncharacteristic and accusatory words, held him responsible for her death. So of course we didn’t have the opportunity to throw that back at the general, but we did ask the question of him directly and he did answer it directly to his credit.
Filmmaker: Among the U.S. diplomatic cables intercepted and released by Wikileaks this past week was a document asserting Saudi King Abdullah’s dislike for and lack of trust in President Zardari. Do you think that his governing coalition is any stronger than the previous efforts at democracy in Pakistan? Will he survive in what seems to be a country eternally divided among conservative, often rural theocrats who prefer religious, authoritarian, military rule and the more urbane, internationalist vision of the country that is represented by the Bhuttos?
Baughman: I have much less concern about an overwhelmingly civilian elected government being able to maintain power in a country of 180 million people than I do a very dominant military marching in an taking power yet again. In Pakistan’s sixty-six year history, military dictators have pretty much come and gone on a ten year cycle. For example, the recent devastating flood would have in the past been a clear cut if not necessarily good reason for the military to step in and provide aid and then take authority from civilian institutions on a more permanent basis. The civilian government under President Zardari has done an admirable job of working with the military to ensure that civilian government not just survive but thrive under what are incredibly difficult circumstances. President Zardari is in the third year of a five year term. If he serves out the rest of his term, he will be the first civilian elected president to every do so in Pakistan’s young history. The momentum for democracy will be so strong at that point that I suspect it will be very difficult for Pakistan to ever go about to a military dictatorship.
Filmmaker: Do you think he’ll be able to reckon with the Islamists in this tribal areas in any significant sort of way when they have the support of many within the Pakistani intelligence services?
Baughman: Absolutely. That was of the significant points we made in the film. One of his first official actions was to order an offensive, not a defensive maneuver, but an offensive into what was the former northwestern frontier province to take on the Taliban and that was simply a mimic of what Benazir Bhutto promised to do in her first months in office. Zardari picked up that mantle and to his credit followed through with it. I think he’s been successful. I don’t think in any shape or form has it just been lip service, I think he’s been sincere. It’s a matter of life and death for that civilian government and the people of Pakistan. The Bhutto’s have always put their lives on the line for the sake of their country as the film details and I think Zardari is no exception. It’s very easy to look from outside and say that not enough is being done, but when you’re basically fighting against your neighbors in what is a civil war and has been a civil war for decades, the difficulty of what they face on a daily basis begins to come into view for people from the west. I spent two months their trying to understand better the cultural, educational and political differences and in a respectful way show as much through their eyes as I possibly could.