An arresting and optimistic portrait of post-Taliban Afghanistan, the theatrical hit THE BEAUTY ACADEMY OF KABUL captures the wonderfully odd circumstances that bring Afghan and American women together in pursuit of physical beauty and much more. In this utterly unique film, a quirky gaggle of Western hairstylists, including Afghan-American women, armed with blow driers and designer scissors, improbably opens a school to teach eager Afghan women the high art of fixing hair. Torn by decades of war and oppression, the women of Kabul embrace perm rods and mascara with unbridled hope even as they candidly recall the horrors of burkas and bombs. Both humorous and slyly subversive, the film offers poignant moments of culture clash between the Americans and Afghans and touching moments of feminine solidarity. Eschewing the trivial, THE BEAUTY ACADEMY OF KABUL innovatively renders the odd story of international goodwill through hair care in exquisitely humane terms.
When "liberators" don't understand the country they're trying to help, the end result can be well meaning, but diluted. In the documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul
, filmmaker Liz Mermin focuses on a group of American hair stylists who travel to post-Taliban Afghanistan to teach local women how to beautify themselves and their customers. Though well-intentioned and enthusiastic, many of the Westerners come across as clueless and thoughtless. Looking at a group of women eager to pick up some styling tips, an Indiana hairdresser admonishes them for looking plain and demands to know why they're not wearing makeup. She seems to have no idea that until recently, these women were covered head to toe in burkas. Another American stylist says to her translator, "It seems to me some of these women are fearful of their husbands. Why?" And yet another seems disappointed when her class makes no notice of her declaration that Frederic Fekkai--the famed hairdresser to the stars--personally donated the scissors they're using. Mermin would've done better to focus less on the Americans and more on the Afghani women, many of whom have heartbreaking stories to tell. One, who got married at 14, notes, "Men and women should be equal." Another young student likes the idea of marrying a man she falls in love with, but pragmatically points out, "If a guy can fall in love with you, he can fall in love with someone else, too." It is these women who carry the story. And it is these women whose stories should've been delved into more. --Jae-Ha Kim