Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto takes a call from her home in Dubai in 2004, as seen in 'Bhutto,' a Duane Baughman film.

Politics, Sacrifice Define 'Bhutto,' Director

Michael Fox January 5, 2011

Duane Baughman maintains that he’s a one-time director who was presented with a rare opportunity and grabbed it. He didn’t catch the filmmaking bug along the way, he insists, and he has no intention of quitting his lucrative day job as an in-demand Democratic political consultant specializing in direct mail. And yet Baughman is plainly savoring the festival success and theatrical release of Bhutto, his feature-length documentary about assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. So it’s understandable if he leaves the door ajar in case lightning strikes again.

Bhutto opens Friday at the Clay, half a block from its director’s Pacific Heights home and not much further from the Peet’s where Baughman wrote the outline for the film, and at the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Baughman will be at the Friday and Saturday evening shows at the Clay, and at the 5:00 p.m. Sunday screening at the Shattuck, and the 7:00 p.m. Sunday screening at the Smith Rafael.

With clients like former Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, domestic politics comprises 99 percent of Baughman’s business. Consider that Bloomberg spent $300 million on three races in the last decade, and you have an idea just how good business is—even in a sagging economy and when every pundit and trend-spotter says that print is dead.

“They’re dead wrong,” Baughman declared. “I used print media to fund my moving picture. Political mail is a recession-proof business, and I think it will be as long as I live.”

The last one percent of Baughman’s income derives from international clients, and he was one of a group of U.S. consultants primed to work with Bhutto when she was shot to death on December 27, 2007.

“My firm was being vetted to help Benazir get a third term,” Baughman recalled. “I began the process of putting the film together literally two hours after she was killed. Three months after she was killed I was sitting in what used to be her living room speaking with her kids and [her husband and current President] Asif Ali Zardari.”

Bhutto, which premiered at Sundance in 2010, would not have been possible without that kind of privileged access to the family, the director emphasizes.

“Even filmmakers with Oscars couldn’t have penetrated the wall of mistrust that is embedded in the mindset of Pakistani politics,” Baughman said. “You’re talking about a feudal system, and the Bhutto family comes with an entourage that’s been around as long as the family has been in power. They don’t have a revolving door of trust and people. So I was lucky enough to be at the table when important decisions were being made.”

Benazir Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was a forward-thinking proponent of gender equality. When he was executed in 1979 after a military coup, his daughter set her sights on fulfilling his legacy. Benazir held the Prime Minister post from 1988-90 and 1993-96, and had returned from eight years in exile when she was killed.

“As someone fresh out of college [in the late ’80s] with a political interest, I became fascinated with her,” Baughman remembered. “She’s a character straight out of central casting. She’s beautiful and looks more Hollywood than many Hollywood actresses.” Bhutto seemed like an obvious subject for a film, and Baughman kept waiting for it to be made. “Twenty-two years later, ironically, it ended up being me who made the movie,” he said.

Baughman embarked on Bhutto in early 2008, a daunting decision given that it was an election year in the U.S. and Hillary Clinton had retained his services.

“I was doing the presidential campaign during Western hours and I was doing the film during South Asian hours,” he said. “It was one of the most difficult and professionally challenging periods of my life, but neither would wait. History rarely does.”

Since Clinton was aiming to match Bhutto’s feat of becoming the first female leader of her country, did Baughman ever pitch the candidate the idea of a documentary about her campaign?

“I never did,” he responded unhesitatingly. “I was knee deep in the hoopla. I was buried. I didn’t see, frankly, how I was going to finish the one film I was working on. I’m a first-timer and I was fortunate just to try to keep it together.”

Luck was a small component, one gathers, next to Baughman’s perseverance and financial resources.

“This was an amazing but incredibly time-consuming and expensive process,” he says. “But to maintain my own independence it had to be that way. I was blessed to be able to chase after what others might have considered [spending] bad dollars. Because I [paid a] very expensive learner’s fee—instead of a documentary that costs $1.5 million, it’ll cost $3 million, and I’ll be lucky if I see a penny of it. But I don’t regret a thing. This could have been an empty experience if I hadn’t stuck to my guns and stuck to my bank account, and basically purchased my independence.”

Baughman made Bhutto because he had access, not because he had an agenda. One might think that would have made things easier, but not so.
“Look, this is completely uncharted territory,” he explained. “There’s never been a Western film made about Pakistan. This movie defines an issue, a topic, a country and a religion for the first time for a Western audience, and I take that responsibility extremely seriously. I was compelled to have to fight for that independence, and a lot of that came about by, for example, spending more time talking to Pakistani political intelligentsia than standard Western talking heads who have [already] given us their lay of the land. I think it’s a brand new perspective, I think it’s a fair perspective and a fair portrayal.”

Asked what he learned from his documentary experience, Baughman replied, “You never end up making the movie you set out to make, and everything changes ten times in the process of it.” And yet, he’d said two minutes prior, “If I’m presented with another great opportunity to make some great startling change, I’ll be more than willing to open my wallet up again and do it again.”

Notes from the Underground
Catching up on year-end news, Connie Field’s Have You Heard From Johannesburg won the 2010 International Documentary Association award for Limited Series. Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith’s Presumed Guilty and Laura Poitras’ The Oath shared the IDA Humanitas Award. S.F. State grad student Oscar Bucher won the IDA/David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award for Waiting For a Train: The Toshio Hirano Story, with U.C. Berkeley’s Bagassi Koura receiving honorable mention for The Stinking Ship. Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz’s Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? received honorable mention for the IDA Pare Lorentz Award. … Thomas Gladysz, director of S.F.’s Louise Brooks Society, appears at the Village Voice Bookshop in Paris on January 13 to talk about The Diary of a Lost Girl. Gladysz penned a lengthy introduction to the new edition of Margaret Boheme’s 1905 novel. … The renowned Australian director Peter Weir visits the Rafael Film Center on January 18 to introduce and discuss his latest, The Way Back. … Tiffany Shlain’s Connected screens January 27 at the Sundance Kabuki—the same week it premieres at Park City—as part of the one-day, nine-city Sundance Film Festival USA.

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