The Beauty Academy of Kabul, a documentary by Liz Mermin (Office Tigers), seems on the surface like a rather frivolous subject. This isn't a movie about an already established school in Afghanistan being run by Afghani nationals, but an American aid effort with the aim of setting up just such an institution. My first reaction was to think that this was some misguided idea hatched in the image-conscious West to export some of our worst values to a country that has a lot more to worry about than their hair.
My attitude quickly changed. At the start of the film, Mermin presents a brisk montage giving a quick history of the strife in Afghanistan. As I watched it, I started to see some of the sense in this mission. Here is a country where, under the Taliban regime, women could not have jobs, had to keep their face and hair covered while in public, and could be punished for even cutting their hair. Education was also completely forbidden, with all schools for girls being shut down, so the chance to learn anything is important. As a means of liberation, this was a small one, but one that could matter on an individual level.
The interest was certainly there. The "Beauty Without Borders" crew is a small group of rotating people, with only the director--a British woman named Patricia--remaining constant. At all times, she keeps at least two teachers, pairing an American woman with an Afghani ex-patriot who had been living in the States. When these women opened up their school in 2003, they were inundated with far more students than they could accept. Many of the candidates were already running secret salons out of their homes and had been doing so even while the Taliban was in power. The demand to be a part of the program continued through the end of that first three-month course. When the Academy invites women to come to the school for free cuts and perms so the graduating students can practice, they have to practically barricade the door. As one of the teachers, Sheila, explains near the end of the film, it's about changing each woman who has taken their course, and then sending her out to provide a service to other women, and eventually those customers will start to heal and feel better about themselves, too. Regardless of who we are, if we're being honest, we tend to feel happier about ourselves when we think we look good. So, why not the same for Afghani women?
From a production standpoint, The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a no-frills affair. Most of the footage is shot from a vantage point just on the edge of the action, only moving in close for the background interviews. The narrative cuts between the teachers and a handful of the students, exploring their home lives and workspace. All of the women have stories to tell, and the sense of empowerment that Sheila describes is obvious the farther they progress in the program. They've all struggled and continue to struggle, but they keep a positive outlook. There is no option but perseverance. In one scene, Patricia visits the home of a young student named Palwasha and they end up on the topic of marriage--a subject that comes up quite often in The Beauty Academy of Kabul; one of the primary functions of a beautician in Kabul is to prepare brides for their weddings, and your marital status defines you as a woman. Palwasha says she would never elope with a man strictly for love because her parents need to approve of any union, and that currently, she has a secret boyfriend. They have shared a hidden love for nine years, trading secret messages but not even engaging in so much as a kiss. They have to wait for his two older brothers to get married and then maybe, just maybe, he can ask for Palwasha's hand. Now, that's true patience!
The Beauty Academy of Kabul ends with the graduation of the first class, and outside of the personal achievement, the documentary doesn't leave us with much of an idea of what the results of the program will be once practically applied. There is actually some sense of futility, that none of it really matters. Sheila's point about the personal healing going from hairdresser to client as a revolution that will go from person to person, head to head, comes only after one of their students says that women will never have power or complete freedom in Afghanistan because the men will never let them. That answer stuns Patricia and Sheila, and their silence makes the young mother they are speaking to uncomfortable. Watching it, you'll likely feel it, as well. It's hard to understand anyone's acceptance of such conditions, and doubt is inevitable.
That kind of clash of cultural attitudes is pretty important in the movie. The teachers can only look at life in Kabul from an outsider's perspective, and as members of the audience, we are even further removed. The actions of the individual teachers could be a real hot button issue in regards to The Beauty Academy of Kabul. The returning Afghani immigrants are naturally emotional about seeing their home country again, and at least one of the white teachers, Terri, makes a real effort to understand where her students are coming from and the conditions they've had to deal with. The remaining two women are a little more strange. It struck me as odd to see Sheila try to teach the ladies to meditate, for instance, and Debbie, a stylist from Indiana, embodies a lot of the "Ugly American" stereotype that we all hope won't show up in otherwise noble endeavors. Debbie's lecture to the class insisting they should all start wearing make-up or they will somehow let the rest of the country down, or her deliberately obnoxious drive through town, is irksome. They seem to reinforce that a lot of America's efforts in the Middle East are more about what America wants and not about what the people in the region want. I don't doubt that all the women were sincere in their efforts, and it is easy for me to sit back, watch a DVD, and judge, but now that their efforts have been fashioned into a film, it's a story being presented the world and must be talked about as such.
Even with that caveat, The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a winning tale about one unique attempt to do some good in the rebuilding of a country. In the end, it's probably better that Liz Mermin doesn't try to push some kind of agenda or hokey message. Instead, it's just a story about what a few hair stylists did and how it went, take what inspiration from it that you will. I personally walked away agreeing that by changing one person to start, you can set off the chain reaction for changing many. While The Beauty Academy of Kabul is maybe a little too slight and could have been meatier politically, that could have also detracted from the women who were making the most of the opportunity for a better life. Once all the political dust settles, that's what's going to count, anyway.
Much more extensive is the near hour of deleted scenes. Most of the footage is from the one-on-one interviews, and after watching the added bits, I feel I have a greater insight into why each of the teachers was personally motivated to go to Kabul. I particularly feel bad for how I reacted to Debbie, who reveals herself to be the most sincere and have the highest of good intentions. It just goes to show what editing can do. Two other interviews are with people who didn't make it into the final cut: Anna Wintour from Vogue and a cousin of one of the returning Afghans. Finally, there are a couple of more elaborate sequences with people from the Academy.
Also on the disc are several text-based bonuses: a biography of Mermin, information about various resources to help in Afghanistan, and information about Docurama, who released the DVD. There are also trailers for other Docurama DVDs.