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‘This Taliban Government is Going to Be Temporary’: Oscar Shortlisted Filmmakers on Documenting Life in Afghanistan

Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei’s documentary short “Three Songs for Benazir” is that rare love story that dares to find hope beyond war.

After winning numerous awards worldwide, the film, produced by Omar Mullick (“These Birds Walk”) alongside Hamayoun Noori and Jamil Rezaei, was snapped up by Netflix. It is also shortlisted in the Academy Awards’ documentary short subject category.

Set in a displacement camp in Kabul, the film follows the tender and growing love story between young newlyweds Shaista and Benazir. Shaista struggles to balance his dreams of being the first from his tribe to join the Afghan National Army with the responsibilities of starting a family and the possibility of making quick money by travelling to Helmand for opium farming.

Gulistan Mirzaei is originally from Afghanistan, while Elizabeth Mirzaei lived there for eight years. They are both currently based in the U.S. The Mirzaeis are well-known chroniclers of Afghanistan, tackling the subject of political asylum in “Stranded in Kabul” (2013); international agency workers’ concerns in “Farewell Kabul” (2014); the murder of a journalist and his family in “For Sardar: The Afghan Journalist” (2016); and heroin addiction in Afghanistan in “Laila at the Bridge” (2018).

Shaista’s background was quite similar to Gulistan’s and the Mirzaeis became friends with him and were introduced to Benazir. Between other films and assignments, they began filming the lives of Shaista and Benazir in 2013. “We saw that there was something really beautiful in their relationship that drowned out all of the war, and everything on the outside,” the Mirzaeis tell Variety. “We were just present in the room with them. And that was what felt so extraordinary to us, and remarkable.”

The Mirzaeis say Shaista considered the option of working at a Taliban-controlled opium field as an easy way out and he wanted to find a job that would support his country and defend its borders. The film pauses at that point and picks up the narrative four years later, in 2019.

In 2021, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan. “Last year was the darkest year in my life; it was so hard for me to even believe,” says Gulistan. “Now the people in Afghanistan, they’re not the same people as they were 20 years ago when the Taliban took over because they have technology now.”

“I’m certain that this Taliban government is going to be temporary,” adds Gulistan.

The Mirzaeis say Shaista is excited that his story is getting seen around the world. “We feel like it’s really important to tell this story of a firsthand account from Afghanistan, especially at a time when these accounts are getting harder and harder to get out of the country,” say the Mirzaeis.

“We hope that it increases people’s understanding and exposure and empathy to the reality of life on the ground in Afghanistan, and this young couple, who are in love, who don’t have anything but each other, but they still have this world of hope in their hearts.”

The Mirzaeis have a number of films in development including a project on memory, about Gulistan’s best friend who was killed in Sept. 2021, and a screenplay that’s also set in Afghanistan.

“Three Songs for Benazir” is now streaming on Netflix.

Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be revealed on Feb. 8.


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