Six American women, expert hairdressers all, make their way to the capital of Afghanistan to bring back, and out in the open, that most valued of femme-centric professions in “The Beauty Academy of Kabul.”
Documentary filmmaker Liz Mermin travels with her subjects to Kabul as the beauticians, three of them Afghan born, open their beauty school and attract the ladies who have been long repressed by the former Taliban overlords. Under that regime the woman were forced to wear the restrictive burkah, hiding even their faces from view. Now, with the arrival of the teachers at their school, they are ready to show themselves, their hair and their makeup.
Mermin divides her film in two parts. The Americans are the focus of the first part with the women, in pairs, working in the title city and teaching their students about the mysteries of good grooming. But, though their intentions are good, the male-dominated Muslim world is not an easy one for the ladies. Paradise in hell,” is how one of them describes their little oasis in the midst of hot and dusty Kabul. When they drive in public they are the object of everyone’s attention and, sometimes, scorn. Each is more than happy when their tour in Afghanistan is finished and the next pair of teachers arrives. They are glad to leave but sad, too, having made good friends during their tenure.
The second part, as the Americans teach the local women their beauty art and craft, brings the students and their lives to the forefront of “The Beauty Academy of Kabul.” The women are, by now, comfortable with the ever present camera and open up, telling about the difficulty of being a woman under Taliban rule. Even now, with “democratic” rule, they are still afraid to leave the house for fear of being harassed and, sometimes, worse. And, forget about defying one’s husband. “A woman not obeying her husband looks like a whore,” one of the women tells the camera.
Sophomore documakers Mermin opens my eyes to the fact that women, everywhere in the world, care about how they look and feel even if no one else ever sees them. I give “The Beauty Academy of Kabul” a B.Laura:
After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, many organizations got involved in helping the devastated country rebuild itself, but none were as unexpected or unique as the one run by women and championed by Vogue editor Anna Wintour - "The Beauty Academy of Kabul."
Director/editor Liz Mermin ("On Hostile Ground") certainly knew a good subject when she spotted one and she has captured sights and stories both poignant and surprising, but "The Beauty School of Kabul" wavers in its focus, often leaving the viewer frustrated by what is left unexplored.
We never do really learn much about Patricia O'Connor, the British director of the effort who wears no makeup and seems to find her mission interminable and uncomfortable. O'Connor is supportive of the women she is there to guide, but her association with her school's curriculum is perplexing at best. Of the six U.S. teachers who come and go in shifts, only three stand out. Sima is an Afghani who fled the country twenty-three years prior and is overwhelmed with guilt by what she finds. Her warm and motherly demeanor as well as her background make for the strongest bond with the students who are tearful when she leaves, replaced by Shaima, her more elegant Afghani compatriot. Debbie is Sima's opposite, a loud, brash New Yorker severely lacking in cultural sensitivity but boundless in enthusiasm. Debbie tells these women to get 'out of their ruts' and become Kabul trend setters, without consideration for the consequences this might bring them. But she also goes the extra mile, encouraging women to learn how to drive, jovially jumping into the thick of chaotic Kabul traffic, professing to feel 'at home.' The last teacher to arrive is the New Agey Shirley who introduces meditation and massage to the salon. Shirley would seem to be more at home burning incense than wielding shears and her rallying cry of 'healing' the country through hairdressing comes across as egotistical and self-deluded, no matter how much truth may lie beneath it.
If these latter two teachers seem strange to the American view, one can only imagine what their students think because Mermin gets no insight into how these women view their teachers. Nor do the filmmakers explore how the Taliban, who set Afghanistan culture back 100 years, seem to have maintained their grip on female oppression. What she does do is highlight the few who ran clandestine salons under Taliban rule, again with some standing out more than others. The most surprising revelations come at Nafisa's salon, where her daughter recounts how terrified they would be for every knock at the door, fearing Taliban, but usually just finding men bringing their wives for a perm. Even the Taliban wives came regularly, Nafisa tells us, keeping their beauty regimens secret from their husbands. Narisa represents both progress and repression. Her salon is so successful, she frequently is still receiving customers at 11 p.m. She earns far more than her husband, yet she bears the sole responsibility for child care, cooking and maintaining the household. All this and she goes to school.
Mermin starts her film with a very concise history lesson which Sima is able to reflect upon at more length. Some viewers may be surprised to learn that women of Kabul worked in offices and wore mini skirts back in the 60's and should be reminded that it was the U.S. who backed the Mujahadin who fought against the Soviets. But what she can make clear in flashback she fails to shape in observation. Patricia's travails tracking the nineteen mannequin heads her school can't begin without feels like manufactured drama and the connection between the deal made with a Turkish restaurant for the graduation celebration and the four Turkish generals who attend isn't made clear, although it provides sniggering hilarity for the organizers.
"The Beauty School of Kabul" proves two global truths, that the beauty industry is a staple through peace and wartime and that women dress for other women, but it does too little exploring differences. Patricia is told by the students at a social gathering that her life is boring if she isn't married and the school director offers no difference of opinion, nor does she delve into what makes their marriages so interesting. Like a before and after makeover, "The Beauty School of Kabul" should have left us in a different place from where we began, but the film left me with more questions than answers. Mermin's use of 1970s Afghan pop-star Ahmed Zahir's (“the Afghan Elvis”) music gives her film a jaunty edge well suited to the admirably upbeat Afghani women.
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