KABUL: It took four years for filmmakers Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei to complete Three Songs for Benazir, now a Netflix documentary shortlisted for this year’s Academy Awards.
Presented in 2021, two months before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the short-form documentary discusses the expanse of tenderness, joy and purpose against the backdrop of war and broken lives, following a young man’s indecision on whether to join the Afghan National Army or attend to family responsibilities.
“You may feel you have seen these faces before, this garb, this landscape, this dust framed usually in the language of war and news. But I am from here. And I have tried to rip out the tired, hollowed out – yes even obsolete – grammar for this world,” says Mirzaei.
Shaista is a newly married teenager who dreams of being the first of his tribe to enlist in the ranks of the army. Originally from the Helmand province, he is one of the 5.9 million Afghans who have either been internally displaced or have fled the country since 2001. He lives with his wife Benazir in a mud house in a displaced camp in the outskirts of Kabul.
Shaista and Benazir are expecting their first child, a son. Despite the lack of electricity, running water, meatless meals and meagre resources, the couple is happy in marriage. We follow their moments of intimacy and gentle tease, such as when Shaista sings to Benazir who laughs and goes outside to the courtyard. “Benazir, come here. This time I will sing you a better one,” he tells her seductively, before initiating a second serenade.
Yet this isn’t entirely enough for Shaista. Behind the chain-smoking habit and sleeplessness, we guess his frustration and impatience. He earns a modest living in daily and seasonal work. “I hate this,” he says to himself after a failed attempt at selling his mud bricks to potential clients in the litter-filled camp. It’s on his way to the city riding his old bicycles that Shaista eventually makes up his mind. He comes across a large billboard praising the glory of Afghan soldiers and he can’t divert his gaze.
He shares his intentions with his father who lives in the same camp. The presence of numerous children playing outside hints at the many mouths to be fed. “Instead of going to the army, go poppy harvesting,” he tells the young man. Shaista refuses, he sees his enlistment in the army as a way to pursue his education aborted at the third grade. “I will have a real job and be happy” he later tells Benazir, whose advice is not sought.
Shaista considers the army as a solution, as a possible redemption to poverty and an undignified life of limited opportunities. He practices his military salute in front of a dirty mirror and starts self-imposed physical training, running and doing pull-ups in the slum. He wants to succeed. “I want to join the army and serve my country,” he says nervously to a soldier posted at the entrance of a recruitment centre, words he recites like a mantra before withdrawing forms to fill.
His naiveté is immediately challenged by his fellow tribesmen whom Shaista needs to convince as the army requires sponsors for his application to certify of his good character. “If you join, the Taliban will chop us into pieces,” one of the men says, underscoring a tension between individual agency and collective responsibility which infuriates Shaista. This inner conflict culminates when Shaista holds Ibrahim, his newborn son, in his arms and decides to choose family over career. He temporarily leaves Kabul to participate in the poppy harvest instead of military fatigues and AK-47 routines.
The third and last song from Shaista to Benazir takes place four years later, in heart-breaking circumstances. After having satisfied the request of his tribe and abandoned his plans, we see Shaista as a shadow of his former self, having to face the dramatic consequences of terrible mistakes. Would the army have provided him with any better outcome, we wonder in vain.
The documentary brilliantly exposes claustrophobia and entrapment. Shaista isn’t just weighing his personal choices against tribal and marital responsibilities, he’s also followed by the shadow of a continuing war. The camera stops on spiders animating against a wall. We imagine lives caught in an invisible casting net. Footages of caged birds underline a longing for freedom and a symbolic spring.
A scene depicting a quail fight, where other Afghans cheer on while Shaista stares absently away, illustrates his impasse between two sides of the same possible coin. The metaphors are not always subtle but their renditions work in conveying tightness and confinement.
Unlike Hollywood’s lazy white saviour complex or pro-military tropes, Afghanistan-born Gulistan Mirzaei knows displacement intimately well for having grown up as a refugee in Iran and reporting on the difficulties of rebuilding a country as a contributor to western and Arab venues. He previously co-directed with his wife Elizabeth their first award-winning feature documentary, Laila at the Bridge (2018), based on the life of Laila Haidari, which explored pressing social issues such as child marriage and heroin addiction, a latter topic also presents in Three Songs for Benazir.
“You may feel you have seen these faces before, this garb, this landscape, this dust framed usually in the language of war and news. But I am from here. And I have tried to rip out the tired, hollowed-out – yes even obsolete – grammar for this world,” director Gulistan Mirzaei wrote in a statement.
“When guns want to silence harmless human ecstasy, colour and music, is there hope to sing and dance again in Afghanistan”
Perhaps inadvertently foreshadowing the latest tragic developments in summer 2021 and the fall of Kabul, three characters remain silent in the documentary. Yet it’s by their absence, or subdued appearance, that they haunt Three Songs of Benazir.
First, the US military, which is incarnated in oppressive objects – the aerial surveillance balloon, a blimp nicknamed “the dirigible”, and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. They occupy the sky as an exclusive domain. The hovering air balloon almost carries a semiotic property. A normal symbol of freedom and travel everywhere else, one that transcends borders, it becomes, in the context of Afghanistan, one of the signifiers of daily violence and the legacy of a lost war that began before Shaista was even born.
Then, the Taliban whose presence and likely return is not lost on Shaista nor his tribe. When Shaista harvests opium-poppy, we guess from his clothes that the man watching over him and his friend belongs to the group. He summarises this dissociating conundrum early in the documentary, “we’ll either be bombed by the foreigners or killed by the Taliban”.
Lastly, and most regrettably, Benazir whose motives and preferences are not featured as significant objects of exploration. She barely speaks and we don’t know how she appraises her life, whether she also wants more for herself and her family, how she felt running the risk of being a widow had Shaista enrolled in the military and the hardships of raising their two children while her husband fell to addiction. When Shaista tells Benazir that he adores her, she replies “I can’t afford shoes.”
In many ways, a story from the perspective of Benazir would have avoided this impression of deja-vu and provided a radical departure from projecting a narrative of poor Afghans and voiceless Afghan women.
Shaista faces a tragic fate yet his character also perpetuates the caveats of victimhood and inescapability. It’s ahistorical, in the sense that Shaista’s dilemma could be set in 2002 or in early 2021 – and perhaps this is an intentional message from the directors: not much has changed after all in the living conditions of the majority of people in Afghanistan since two decades. In a flashback scene, Shaista and Benazir giggle during a snowball fight. They are children that grew up too soon, too quickly. It’s during one of those fleeting moments of bliss such as when Benazir listens to a song on a portable radio in her courtyard that Three Songs for Benazir, presented at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Odense Film Festival, Nashville Film Festival and others, makes for a gut-wrenching film. When guns want to silence harmless human ecstasy, colour and music, is there hope to sing and dance again in Afghanistan?