Editing the Oscar-nominated documentary short <I>Three Songs for Benazir</I>
February 18, 2022

Editing the Oscar-nominated documentary short Three Songs for Benazir

Three Songs for Benazir tells the story of Shaista, a newly-married young man who is living with his wife in a  refugee camp in Kabul. There, he struggles to balance his dreams of being the first from his tribe to join the Afghan National Army while also starting a family. While Shaista’s love for Benazir is obvious, the choices he must make to build a life with her has profound consequences. 


The short is the creation of filmmakers Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei, and was recently nominated for an Academy Award in the ‘Best Documentary Short Subject’ category. Editor Christoph Wermke recently shared his experience cutting the Oscar-nominated short.

How did you get involved in this project? 

“Anne Fanini, editor of the 2019 Oscar-nominee Of Fathers And Sons and Independent Spirit Award nominee The Tale, who knew me as a director/editor back in Europe, came to LA for her award ceremonies. That’s when she got to know Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei, who asked her for advice on their project. She recommended me to help with editing the film, and they reached out to me. We met, discussed the material they had shown me and some ideas I had, and we agreed to work together on the film.”

What about the material appealed to you?

“I thought the material was thrilling for several reasons: There was the very special tendernes between Shaista and Benazir; there was the poetry in Shaista’s words and in lyrics like: „I’ll sacrifice my life for her hashish smoking eyes. At night she comes to me.’ Pure rock’n roll! Then there was the way the film was looking at Afghanistan: not filmed from a Humvee or with high-ranking Taliban giving interviews or building IEDs, but from the normal people caught between those two antipodes, pushed and pulled from both sides. Living in this refugee camp in Kabul, built from clay and rubble. Poor people. Refugees from the countryside, struggling to make ends meet. 

“As a director trained at Berlin’s prestigious film school dffb (alumni: Wolfgang Petersen, Christian Petzold) I knew my film history and the footage reminded me of films from the Italian neorealism period after the second World War: shot on location in the poor parts of town with working class characters struggling to survive. Rough and simple. An unromatic mirror. The trauma of the time. 

“Also interesting to me was the issue of surveillance in Afghanistan. American balloons were omnipresent over the camp, leaving the inhabitants to permanently live under suspicion. So there was more than one reason to try to help build a narrative out of the material Elisabeth and Gulistan had lovingly collected over the years.

“Later, after another shooting phase in Afghanistan, when I was back in Europe and (was) busy with other projects, Melanie Annan did great work adding the new material and further shaping the film. Again, later I was invited to advise Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei again on the final edit.”

What was your editing set up?

“We edited on Adobe Premiere. I personally prefer Avid, but the directors had worked with the material and assembled an hour of material on Premiere, and it seemed easiest to proceed on that system. 

“I like to work with stills, which I take as an image from each scene. I use one image that represents the essence of the scene. That's how we built the arc: first with the stills, then in the edit, then back to the stills and so on.”
What camera formats were you working with? 

“Based on the fact that the directors had shot this film in stages, spread out over several years, I think we had material from different cameras. But since everything was already ingested into the computer when I came on, I can’t say for sure what exactly it was shot on.”

Is there a scene that you would point to as a highlight?

“In this case it makes more sense to speak about the challenge of shaping a consistant arc, a telling of Shaista’s and Benazir’s story, combining material that was shot over several years in little over 20 minutes story time. Of course, what happened happened. This is a documentary, but choosing what to tell and when to tell it, deciding what moments to include and for how long to stay in them - this creates the groove, the flow of a film. Working a lot in fiction helped me find, shape and focus the story - the arc of Shaista’s journey.”