'Three Songs for Benazir': Oscar hopeful shows Afghanistan in a new light

The documentary short follows the love story of an Afghan couple

'Three Songs for Benazir' is a short documentary that follows the story of an Afghan couple in Kabul. Photo: Netflix
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Three Songs for Benazir is a beautiful and hopeful documentary short about life inside a camp for displaced people in Kabul.

Directed by Afghan filmmakers Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei, who previously drew acclaim for their 2018 feature documentary Laila at the Bridge, their latest film tells the story of Shaista, a young man who is newly married to Benazir, and is trying to balance his responsibilities as a husband with his dreams of being the first member of his family to join the Afghan National Army.

Ever since it premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where it won the jury award, the 22-minute-long documentary has drawn international acclaim, appearing at numerous festivals across the globe. CNN called it an “unprecedented” look at life in Afghanistan, while the Odense International Film Festival jury insisted that it “should be seen and heard by the entire world", which it can be, as it's showing on Netflix, too.

Three Songs for Benazir has done so well that it’s now qualified for Academy Award consideration in the documentary short category in the Oscars 2022.

All of which makes its humble origin story even more remarkable. “The first time we saw Shaista, we’d just gone to the camp to distribute food,” explains Gulistan. He instantly felt a connection to Shaista. Not only because he’d previously been a refugee in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, but he also saw that Shaista was so different from the other people in the camp. “He had a lot of hope, a lot of dreams in his mind. There was something really dynamic about him that drew us to him,” continues Gulistan.

This was in 2009, but it was another four years before they actually started filming. During this period, with the camp only 20 minutes away from their home, Elizabeth and Gulistan continued to visit it regularly, becoming good friends with Shaista and pretty much everyone else who lived there.

“Ninety per cent of the camp knew us because we’d been going there for so long. Everyone was comfortable with us,” recalls Gulistan. “News crews would come for 10 to 15 minutes with their security teams usually. But because they felt very close to us, they allowed us to film.”

We want to film Afghanistan the way we have seen it with our eyes. It’s a way that we don’t often see on the other side of the camera
Elizabeth Mirzaei, director

Then, in 2013, the idea of making a documentary began to percolate. Not only was there Shaista and Benazir’s love story, and their undeniable chemistry, but there was plenty of conflict, too, as his dream of joining the army was completely at odds with his family’s demands for him to work in the poppy fields.

While Shaista was a “natural” in front of the camera, according to Elizabeth, because of his “wonder, ambition, and curiosity”, it took some time for Benazir to adjust. “In the beginning, Benazir was a bit shy. Because she hadn’t been with a camera before and wasn’t super comfortable,” explains Gulistan. “But they came over to our house and we would see them many times over long periods.”

Between the beginning of 2013 and the end of 2015, Elizabeth and Gulistan visited the pair every month, filming them around their own freelance work. “We had no funding or budget of any kind. We used the money that we earned as freelancers to be able to shoot this film,” says Elizabeth. “We would go visit and film a bit, then we would go to other projects.”

During the winter periods, though, rather than shooting, they’d go to the camp without their cameras and simply help out, either by taking or preparing food with the Ministry Of Refugees.

Afghan filmmakers Elizabeth, left, and Gulistan Mirzaei. Photo: Elizabeth Mirzaei

As well as assisting on the ground, both Elizabeth and Gulistan are hopeful that Three Songs for Benazir will be able to make an impact on a more global scale. For Gulistan, as an Afghan director, he wanted to show the language and culture of his country in his own cinematic voice. As a result, he brings an authenticity to Three Songs for Benazir that’s often completely absent from foreign filmmakers that shoot in the region.

“Afghanistan is often framed in the media solely around war. We wanted to put the war on the edge of the story,” adds Elizabeth. “We wanted to make a film about people like Shaista and Benazir whose lives challenge the stereotypes and narratives that people have. We wanted to focus on this love story that you don't normally see. Because when you do live in proximity to war, you realise the fragility of life and how quickly something can be taken away. So these ordinary moments become really profound.”

Elizabeth and Gulistan finally stopped filming Shaista and Benazir at the end of 2019. After entering Three Songs for Benazir into films festivals throughout 2021, in December it was announced that Netflix had acquired it.

“It's been such a long journey,” says Elizabeth. “It’s amazing for us to have this kind of global audience. Because there were a lot of times we got really discouraged. We didn’t know if people would really get the film or the way we want to represent Afghanistan. We weren't sure if it was going to resonate with an American audience who have different expectations of films from this region.”

While they wait to see if Three Songs for Benazir’s journey will conclude with an Oscar nomination, or even a win, the pair are also currently working on their next set of films, which will once again show Afghanistan in the hopeful and inspiring light they know.

“We want to film Afghanistan the way we have seen it with our eyes. It’s a way that we don’t often see on the other side of the camera,” explains Elizabeth. “There's a lot of moments of humour and joy, outside of the wars, that we want to be able to share with people. We really just want to bring new insight to this world that hasn't been seen or heard before.”

Three Songs for Benazir is on Netflix now

Updated: January 27, 2022, 7:34 AM