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'Three Songs for Benazir,' a short documentary, is nominated for an Oscar


The documentary called "Three Songs For Benazir" opens with a shot of the sky. A giant white blimp, a U.S. military surveillance balloon, floats high above a sprawling camp in Kabul, Afghanistan. It monitors hundreds of Afghans now internally displaced because of the war in their country.

ELIZABETH MIRZAEI: There was a lot of families there - you know, several hundred kind of makeshift houses made of mud and tents. And every year we watched it grow larger and larger as more and more people were displaced by the war. There is no running water. There's no electricity. People are living in really dire situations. But there is also - we found there is love in the camp, just like anywhere else.

MARTIN: That's the voice of filmmaker Elizabeth Mirzaei. She and her husband Gulistan visited the camp when they lived in Kabul. Gulistan, who himself fled war during the Soviet military's invasion of Afghanistan, found a special connection with a young married couple in the camp named Shaista and Benazir.

GULISTAN MIRZAEI: There is something so beautiful in the relationship between Shaista and Benazir, something I had never seen on a film from my country before. A story about my country, usually about war, violence. I want to tell a love story and show something people have never seen from my country before.

MARTIN: Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei's film "Three Songs For Benazir" is nominated for an Academy Award.


SHAISTA: (Singing in Pashto).

BENAZIR: (Laughter). (Speaking Pashto).

MARTIN: The opening scene is so beautiful and so intimate. Can you describe it, Elizabeth?

E MIRZAEI: Well, we actually opened with the security balloon in the sky, and then it goes into - behind the walls of Shaista's home with Benazir. And Shaista is serenading Benazir with a love song. I'm actually not sure if he made it up.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

E MIRZAEI: But it's a beautiful song in Pashto. And it's just about, you know, how much he adores his wife. But we filmed it not actually knowing what he was saying because Gulistan and I both speak Dari, but we don't speak much Pashto. And so most of the time Shais and Benazir would speak to another in Pashto. So we knew that even without understanding the meaning, we felt there was something beautiful about this moment. It was just the simplest of things.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that security balloon. It's mentioned a couple different times. At one point, Shaista explains it to Benazir. She's like, what is that thing? And, I mean, you couldn't have come up with something more poignant, right? It is the Americans looking down, examining every inch of their home.

E MIRZAEI: Yeah. The balloon was pretty much, I feel, in the sky all the time. There was only, I think, two instances I can remember when I saw one of the balloons, just this gigantic object, grounded. And it was really just unsettling to see it that close up. In the camp, it's essentially hovering right above Shaista's house. And for us, it really represented and symbolized the disconnect that exists in the war in Afghanistan and, I would say, in most wars as well, that there's this, you know, foreign, highly advanced technological contraption in the sky, this cold device, you know, disconnected, impersonal, monitoring everything. And it touched on the idea of looking versus actually seeing and how that balloon with its many devices registers Shaista and Benazir just kind of as fragments or, you know, blips on a radar, and then with the camera bringing you instead beyond that, into this home with this young couple who are in love.

MARTIN: Last August, Gulistan, what was it like for you watching the U.S. evacuate, the chaos of that, the Taliban come in and take control?

E MIRZAEI: You can speak in - if you want to speak in English or Dari, whichever you're more comfortable.

G MIRZAEI: (Speaking Dari).

E MIRZAEI: Gulistan says, "it was one of the darkest and most bitter days of my life. I couldn't believe that my country could fall apart so quickly and that 20 years of assistance from the world would just get lit on fire like that."

G MIRZAEI: (Speaking Dari).

MARTIN: What has happened to Benazir and Shaista?

G MIRZAEI: (Speaking Dari).

E MIRZAEI: Gulistan says, "they're in Afghanistan, and we are sending them support. And as you know, the situation is very, very hard in Afghanistan right now. People are living without any jobs. And it's like they're kind of trapped in a cage, and people are again trying to leave the country."

G MIRZAEI: (Speaking Dari).

MARTIN: The film has been nominated for an Oscar for best documentary in the short subject category. Is it doing what you wanted it to do in terms of telling people outside of Afghanistan what life is like there?

E MIRZAEI: Well, I think, one, it's been amazing for the film to be nominated for an Oscar. You know, we started this, like, with no idea that would, you know, ever happen. It feels particularly important, you know, at this time to have this take really be at the front of audiences' experience because the world right now is contending with so many - you know, multiple wars, and there's multiple breakdowns in people's capacity to empathize with the, quote-unquote, "other."


E MIRZAEI: And I think that's something that Gulistan and I can both speak to because in our relationship, we embody this unique situation where on the one side, Gulistan is Afghan, and we can see what's happening in Afghanistan right now. And on the other side, I'm Ukrainian and what's happening in Ukraine. And so we just think that's not an accident, that this film is a reason for us to speak about how we can look at people who are othered as though in a way that, you know, war coverage of bombs and everything else that's happening in the news front, which is really important and necessary - but it's - this is part of a different long-term view.

MARTIN: My God, Elizabeth, I didn't know you're Ukrainian.

E MIRZAEI: Yeah. I don't have any family there anymore. But, yes, that's my background.

MARTIN: It's a lot for both of you to absorb then, watching those ancestral homes change in this way.


MARTIN: Well, we so appreciate you both talking to us. Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei, thank you so much.

E MIRZAEI: Thank you, Rachel.

G MIRZAEI: Thank you so much, Rachel, for talking with us.

MARTIN: The film is called "Three Songs For Benazir." It is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary in the short subject category.