With Afghan life in the foreground, the viewer is reminded that behind the destruction and calamity lie lives [Netflix/Mirzaei Films]
Unlike Hollywood’s lazy white savior complex or pro-military tropes, Afghan-born Gulistan Mirzaei knows the displacement intimately from growing up as a refugee in Iran and reporting on the difficulties of rebuilding a country as a Contributor to Voice of America, Al Jazeera and other places. He previously co-directed with his wife Elizabeth their award-winning first feature documentary, Laila at the bridge (2018), based on the life of Laila Haidari, who explored pressing social issues such as child marriage and heroin addiction, a final topic also featured in Three songs for Benazir.
“You may feel like you’ve seen these faces, this costume, this landscape, this dust usually framed in the language of war and current events. But I’m from here. And I 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, color and music, is there hope for song and dance again in Afghanistan”
Perhaps inadvertently foreshadowing the latest tragic developments in the summer of 2021 and the fall of Kabul, three characters remain silent in the documentary. Yet it is by their absence, or their veiled appearance, that they haunt Three Benazir Songs.
First the American army, which is embodied in oppressive objects – the aerial surveillance balloon, an airship nicknamed “the dirigible”, and the CH-47 Chinook helicopters. They occupy the sky as an exclusive domain. The hovering hot-air balloon carries almost a semiotic property. A normal symbol of freedom and travel everywhere else, which 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 even before the birth of Shaista.
Then, the Taliban whose presence and probable return do not escape Shaista or his tribe. When Shaista harvests the opium poppy, we guess from his clothes that the man who watches over him and his friend belongs to the group. He sums up this dissociating enigma at the beginning of the documentary, “we will either be bombed by the foreigners or killed by the Taliban”.
Finally, and most regrettably, Benazir whose motivations and preferences are not presented as meaningful objects of exploration. She barely speaks and we don’t know how she rates her life, if she also wants more for herself and her family, how she felt she was at risk of being widowed if Shaista enlisted in the army and the difficulties of raising their two children while her husband became dependent. When Shaista tells Benazir that he adores her, she replies “I can’t afford to buy shoes”.
In many ways, a story from Benazir’s perspective would have avoided that sense of deja vu and provided a radical break from projecting a narrative of impoverished Afghans and voiceless Afghan women.
Shaista faces a tragic fate, but her character also perpetuates the caveats of victimhood and inevitability. It’s ahistorical, in the sense that Shaista’s dilemma could be set in 2002 or early 2021 – and this is perhaps an intentional message from the directors: little has changed after all in the living conditions of the majority of Afghans for two decades. .
In a flashback scene, Shaista and Benazir laugh during a snowball fight. These are children who grew up too soon, too quickly. It’s during one of those fleeting moments of happiness like when Benazir listens to a song on a portable radio in his backyard that Three songs for Benazir, shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Odense Film Festival, Nashville Film Festival and others, makes this a heartbreaking film. When the guns want to silence harmless human ecstasy, color and music, is there hope for singing and dancing again in Afghanistan?