Filmmaker Elizabeth Mirzaei on Telling the Stories of Afghan People and Fighting “Afghanistan Fatigue”

Elizabeth Mirzaei’s recent short film Three Songs for Benazir has been shortlisted for an Oscar. (Courtesy)

In 2007, filmmaker Elizabeth Mirzaei found out about an opportunity to teach photography in Afghanistan with Aina Photojournalism Institute. She had never been to the country, but having recently graduated college and losing her mother to cancer, she decided she was up for an adventure. So she went.

Since then, Afghanistan has become an integral part of her life and work. She met her husband and collaborator Gulistan Mirzaei there, and she lived in the country for nearly a decade as she balanced working as a photojournalist and producing independent documentaries. After making several shorts, she completed her first feature documentary Laila at the Bridge in 2018 to chronicle the journey of Laila, who runs a drug treatment center and retrieves new hopefuls from under a notorious Afghanistan bridge where addicts congregate.

Her most recent film, the short film Three Songs for Benazir, has been shortlisted for an Oscar and was recently acquired by Netflix for distribution. The story about Shaista and his wife Benazir, who live in a camp for displaced persons in Kabul, presents Afghanistan in a light not commonly depicted—one that reveals stark realities through the more quiet moments of one couple.

Mirzaei and her family had been planning their next extended trip back to Afghanistan when American troops withdrew in 2021. Not long after, they received a call from their niece who saw  Taliban soldiers searching houses in her neighborhood. A few days later, the Taliban took Kabul. As Mirzei says, “We didn’t realize then how quickly it would all happen.”

In this interview with Ms. writer Michele Meek, Mirzaei talks about how she came to make the film, what it was like to produce films in Afghanistan, and the line one walks between filmmaker and friend.

A still from Three Songs for Benazir. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Mirzaei)

Michele Meek: How do you choose subjects for your documentaries?

Elizabeth Mirzaei: We almost never approach a story in terms of a subject. We are really intrigued by a person. So in the case of Laila at the Bridge, we met Laila and we were intrigued by her and her journey. She was a lens through which we could see Afghanistan and this opioid addiction epidemic that was happening in the country and is currently happening. 

A still from Laila at the Bridge. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Mirzaei)

So with Three Songs for Benazir, we certainly didn’t set out to make a film about the conditions at this camp for displaced people—or even the issue of displacement, but we saw Shaista and Benazir as a way to touch on these themes in a subtle way. But it was he and Benazir that compelled us to tell this story. It’s them and their relationship that we were drawn to. 

Meek: How did you meet them?

Mirzaei: We were actually distributing food in that displacement camp. This was about 12 years ago. We met Shaista there, and he was just so full of life and curiosity and wonder, and he became a very good friend of ours. And that really was the genesis of the film—our friendship and how that’s developed over the course of three years.

We got to know his family. We got to know Benazir. We got to know their extended relatives. We got involved in helping—the conditions in the camp are really difficult to live under. And so there were times we accompanied Shaista’s family members to the Ministry of Refugees to help them with petitioning for better rights and resources or to the hospital. So it was a friendship for over three years before we even picked up the camera to start filming. 

A still from Three Songs for Benazir. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Mirzaei)

Meek: At what point did you decide to make it a film?

Mirzaei: Well, to be honest, we didn’t have a clear idea of what it was going to be. We just knew that there was something really special and remarkable in Shaista, in Benazir—and what happened when they were together. And then the access we were able to get for this story behind these doors, and what happens in the room when they’re together. And we just kept filming. We let the story dictate to us what it wanted to be. 

Meek: Did it feel risky to be making films in Afghanistan?

Mirzaei: There’s just a risk of being in Afghanistan in general. And I think it’s a risk that you have to be willing to accept. And you do see a lot of tragedy in the country, and there are really difficult things that you witness and that you go through. 

When I first got there in 2007, I remember an Australian friend of mine saying to me, “If you don’t know someone that’s been killed here, you will.” I remember that felt so foreign to me. I mean, I had just lost my mother who died from cancer. And so I was coming off of that loss, which of course never really goes away. But the idea that I would know someone that would be killed in Afghanistan felt surreal to me—I couldn’t comprehend it. And he was right. It took just two months before that came to pass. And over the years, we lost many other loved ones there. You also recognize it could happen to you at any moment, too, and the fragility of life becomes much more pronounced. 

But you do accept these risks because you love the country, and you want to be there—at least that’s how it was for me. And so the things that you love about it outweigh the risks of being there.

“You accept [the] risks because you love the country, and you want to be there,” said Elizabeth Mirzaei about Afghanistan. (Courtesy)

Meek: Are you ever compelled to interfere in the lives of your subjects? Or are you aiming to be the fly on the wall as a filmmaker?

Mirzaei: No, we can’t be, because they’re very close friends of ours, and films, they take so long. So I don’t know how you can. I think for us, we can’t be just distant. So in the case of Shaista, we’ve been really involved with him for, you know, 12 years or so now. In fact, we initiated his admission to the treatment center because we found out that he was living under the same bridge that Laila at the Bridge took place, a place where many people addicted to heroin congregate.

We had been trying to reach him after we had our first child. We were in the U.S., and he wasn’t answering the phone. So, we had one of our producers try to go see him. But he was never there. They wouldn’t say where he was. Finally, we found out that he was under the bridge. 

We immediately sought to get him into a treatment center because we know from experience how quickly it can be over under that bridge. He actually ended up in Laila’s treatment center—so it was crazy how it all just came full circle.

And we knew there is going to be a jump in the story where we were going to have to make creative, bold choices. But our priority was just getting him help. 

“We fell in love in Afghanistan. It’s a place where you can fall in love—romance is possible,” said Elizabeth Mirzaei about her husband and collaborator Gulistan Mirzaei. (Gul Khanom Mirzaei)

Meek: That’s amazing. I was only thinking of the moment Benazir says she couldn’t afford shoes for the children. But you basically saved his life. Do you ever worry about exploiting your subjects? How do you find that balance between shaping the story as the filmmaker and wanting to be respectful to your subjects?

Mirzaei: Our films come out of friendship. But I think that you do have to, as a filmmaker, always self interrogate and have these ethical audits. And it is a balance. We wanted to be really careful in both films about not including anything that could be dangerous to anyone in the film. So there were moments that we filmed with Laila, where we knew we couldn’t put this in the film.

A friend of mine has talked about the fact that no film is safe from exploitation, in a way. You are being present with someone at these really difficult moments and you have to constantly interrogate yourself about how to do service to what you saw and what precious thing was shared with you. 

Our films come out of friendship. But I think that you do have to, as a filmmaker, always self interrogate and have these ethical audits. And it is a balance.

Meek: I read that you had trouble obtaining funding—why do you think that was? 

Mirzaei: Just getting funding is hard in general for most people. It takes a long time, and there are not many grants given. And we never feel like we have the ability to wait around for a fund to arrive. Since we were living in Afghanistan, we could just tell the story. We didn’t need to fly in and out and pay for visas and hotels. So that’s why it was possible for us to make it independently. 

I think that there’s also an Afghanistan fatigue in some ways. I mean it’s America’s longest war, and to get people to care about it felt really challenging at times.

Meek: I would have thought that it would be the opposite, but 20 years—I guess that does make sense. Do you think now you’re benefiting from a resurgence of interest in Afghanistan?

Mirzaei: We never would have predicted this when we started making the film in 2013 with a tiny camera. So I do think that in some ways, the current reinterest of Americans and international audiences in Afghanistan does help this story. Although we intentionally don’t touch on political issues in a very obvious way.

A still from Laila at the Bridge. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Mirzaei)

Meek: There is the surveillance balloon that reminds the audience of this foreign presence.

Mirzaei: Yes. The balloon was really important for us because it’s so much a part of the landscape—you internalize it. In the eight years that I was there, I think there were only two times that I saw the balloon down, and it was so shocking. I mean, I think there were multiple balloons, but one of them down—it was so shocking to see.

It’s something that is both mundane and then sinister in a way, you know. It just becomes part of your consciousness. And for us, it also represents that disconnect in war between the lived experience on the ground and the people who are instigating the war or fighting or making decisions and that vast gulf between them. 

Meek: Well, I think that’s one of the things that really is moving because you know, there is danger in both Laila at the Bridge and Three Songs for Benazir, and yet you see these moments of individuals enjoying laughter, companionship, food and their children.

Mirzaei:  That’s something that we really ached to be able to show—people in these moments of humor and levity and love and joy.

And, you know, we fell in love in Afghanistan. It’s a place where you can fall in love—romance is possible.

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About

Michele Meek, Ph.D. is a writer, filmmaker and assistant professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University. She published the book Independent Female Filmmakers: A Chronicle Through Interviews, Profiles, and Manifestos in 2019 and presented her TEDx talk “Why We’re Confused About Consent—Rewriting Our Stories of Seduction” in 2018. For more information, visit her website at www.michelemeek.com.