Beauty Academy of Kabul, The: Liz Mermin’s Docu–Liberating Afghanistan’s Women

Armed with mascara, hair spray, and attitude, the women of The Beauty Academy of Kabul are determined to liberate Afghanistan’s women–one perm at a time.

Liz Mermin’s documentary, about six American hairdressers who come to Kabul to open a beauty school, neither makes light of the project nor suggests that it will bring large-scale social change. Instead, it focuses on the moments of camaraderie that develop between women, who, cultural differences aside, all share a hard-core commitment to hair.

Much of the movie centers on the trials of opening a beauty academyfor instance, how to politely turn away the barrage of women that the academy doesnt have room for, or where to locate a much-needed shipment of mannequin heads. Other questions are more universal to the fashion worldare smaller, tighter curler rods preferable to softer rods Is full make-up more appealing than a minimalist look consisting only of powder and lip-gloss

Out of the six teachers, three were raised in Afghanistan and fled their country when the Taliban came into power six years ago. One woman reflects that twenty years ago, Kabul was a modern city where women were wearing miniskirts and going to work everyday.

These women see their mission to beautify Afghan women not as a superficial one, but as part of an effort to reclaim the color and vitality that has since been lost. It is also a way for the women to take control of their appearance, sculpting and shaping their looks rather than hiding themselves from the world.

The American-born teachers deliver their offerings of feminist pride a bit more aggressively than their colleagues. Debbie, a boisterous red-head with a big smile and a sharp tongue, tells her makeup-less trainees that they’re stuck in a hole in the past. Sheila, a yoga devotee, encourages women to partake in deep breathing exercises and challenges their unquestioning obedience to their husbands.

The education that the movie provides is hardly earth shattering the Taliban was oppressive, women were forced to wear burkas, Afghan men would prefer their wives to stay at home, etc.

That said, filmmaker Mermin does not portray Afghan women as a mournful, downtrodden mass, but as spirited individuals who have varying opinions about arranged marriage, life under the Taliban, and the role of women in present-day Kabul.

While several women reflect on the actions of the Taliban with horror, for at least one of them, the trainee Sabria, the last five years were a great experience, because being forced to the indoors afforded her the time to perfect her styling techniques. Like Sabria, many hairdressers did business out of their homes, and occasionally members of the Taliban would even bring in their wives for a perm.

These same women do not neglect to mention their constant fear of being punished by the Taliban. However, these interviews do reveal that in a harsh political climate it is possible to maintain a relatively normal existence. With the American medias tendency to distort facts and heighten emotions, its refreshing to see a casual, straightforward approach to this subject matter.

At 74 minutes, The Beauty School of Kabul is shorta little too short to fully explore the issues it brings up. For example, how do the trainees manage to satisfy both the demands of their teachers, who consider a bad perm a failure to womankind, and their husbands, who expect to come home to well-nurtured children and a full-course meal How do Afghan women react to Debbies message of girl power when it contradicts everything they have been taught

At times, the interviews feel awkward and a little too ordinary, as if the subjects were saying what they felt the filmmakers wanted them to say, rather than speaking candidly. When the trainee Hanifa says, were happy the Americans came to Afghanistan and got rid of the Taliban, it feels scripted. Maybe this is because our cynicism has gotten the best of us, so that we view any positive comment by a foreigner concerning American policy with suspicion. Something about the womans tentative smile, though, suggests that she had more to say and either didnt know how to say it or felt too uncomfortable.

At other points, the gap between what is said and what goes unsaid works in favor of the movie, adding a layer of subtle tension. For instance, when one trainee tells her teachers, I don’t think women will ever be in power because men will never allow that, the silence that meets her statement does not mask but rather emphasizes their disappointment. Was that the wrong answer the woman asks.

Polite silences happen often in this movie; it may be a way of smoothing over cultural tensions. Some may criticize the docu for making light of this tension, for not pushing more political hot buttons. The truth is, though, incendiary elements would be out of place in a docu that is about a beauty school.

Merim’s transitions from footage of the Kabuls ruins to a conversation about how to handle unruly hair may seem awkward and opportunistic to some viewers. Nonetheless, her light touch allows her subjects to breathe, revealing perspectives that may not be politically correct or even politically relevant but are engaging nevertheless.

Written by Kate Findley