In the fall of 2007, an inquiry changed everything for Duane Baughman -- made him become a filmmaker; made him fly around the world to Pakistan; made him explore the life of a Muslim woman he had admired from afar. A San Francisco political consultant, Baughman was approached by a Washington political advisor to work on the campaign of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistan prime minister who was returning from exile to run for her old position. Weeks later, Bhutto was assassinated, ending Baughman's initial assignment, but leading to a new one: Directing the documentary Bhutto, which is opening theatrically in San Francisco and Berkeley on Friday.
The film is well-made and researched, and highly acclaimed ("thorough and involving" said the Los Angeles Times) -- a dramatic window into Bhutto's life and Pakistan's history. Baughman's involvement is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that happens to people like Baughman: People who aren't afraid to try a new career on a whim; people who have the money to invest in a project they suddenly believe in.
"Ninety percent of life for those who choose to live it the way I do is about having opportunities to do something that nobody else can do," Baughman, 47, says in an interview. "The opportunity rolled up to my feet to make this film."
Baughman spent $2.5 million on Bhutto; money generated from his company, which uses innovative mail campaigns to help elect candidates. Hillary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg have been among Baughman's high-profile clients. Mark Siegel, a partner at a Washington, D.C. firm that did lobbying work for the government of Pakistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was the person who contacted Baughman for help in the fall of 2007. Baughman, who has lived in San Francisco for 22 years ("this is the best place on Earth and I will never leave"), planned to bring his election-style razzmatazz to Pakistan -- to do such things as sky-writing messages and screening video images of Bhutto on the sides of buses.
Bhutto was the first woman prime minister to lead a Muslim country in the modern era. She was beautiful, Harvard- and Oxford-educated, the political heir to a family whose fortunes and tragedies rival those of the Kennedys, and a woman who faced long odds in reforming a country that has always been on the edge of chaos. Bhutto's story demanded to be told on film. For years, Baughman had been a cinephile, annually attending the Sundance festival and soaking in all the documentaries there. But he had never picked up a professional video camera before making Bhutto, which he also produced. He hired a co-director and writer, Johnny O'Hara, but Bhutto is his vision.
"It wasn't whether or not I'd ever held a camera before; it was whether or not I could get to the people (like Bhutto's family members) that no other Westerner could get to," Baughman says. "That was 95 percent of the struggle."
The struggle was aided immeasurably by Siegel, who was one of Bhutto's closest U.S. confidants. Siegel, a former deputy assistant to President Jimmy Carter, had co-authored Bhutto's book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, and was co-producer of Bhutto. Within weeks of Bhutto's murder, Baughman and his crew were in Dubai interviewing Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and his two daughters with Benazir, Bakhtawar and Asifa. Their then-fresh thoughts on Bhutto's death and life drive Bhutto from beginning to end, along with other dramatic footage. The film had its challenges and dangers. In September of 2008, two days after leaving Islamabad, militants bombed the hotel where Baughman was staying, killing scores of people, many of them employees that Baughman had taken his picture with. Baughman didn't know much about Pakistan before the film.
"It was one of my major fears and one of my major goals to be able to tell a story that was respectful of Islam, that was respectful of a country I had never lived in, that I was never educated about, that I really had no business making a movie about," he says. "It drove me to work ten times as hard to distill the facts."
Bhutto features an exclusive interview with former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, whose lack of security for Bhutto contributed to her death, the United Nations says. Bhutto, which has already been released in more than 30 countries (including Pakistan) and 60 cities around the United States, opens Friday in the Bay Area. The neophyte filmmaker says this is likely his first and only film. But he's leaving the window open, as it were, in case another dramatic story comes along that inspires him. In both politics and filmmaking, says Baughman, one should never say never.
"I would go to Sundance every year, and all I would do is see documentaries," he says. "I would completely overload on documentaries -- me and my nephew. To me, documentaries are so much more accessible, so much closer to an audience, than feature films. The first year I went, I said, 'Those films are amazing. They really speak to me. These issues are important.' The second year I went, I said, 'These are great, but last year was better.' And the third year I went, I said, 'I could do that.' I just kept my eyes open after that, always believing, 'It might not be so hard. I have the means and my company is almost running itself. I could probably take some time and do this.' "
So when Siegel contacted Baughman in 2007, filmmaking was already a possibility, even if he had never done it before. The film took almost three years, prompting Baughman to say, laughing, "I had no idea how difficult it was going to be, and how expensive it was going to be. But I was convicted. And I don't quit. I've never quit anything in my life. And believe me, when you get up to $1.5 million and you're wondering what you have, and whether or not you have a movie, and you wonder whether you're leading yourself into financial ruin, you want to quit. But it's just not in me. So I spent another million dollars, finished it, and got out with my life, and I'm extremely happy that I made it all the way through."
Bhutto opens Friday, January 7, 2011 at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco and at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Director Duane Baughman will be at the Clay Theatre to take questions after Friday's and Saturday's 7pm and 9:45pm screenings.