The Beauty Academy of Kabul

Sometimes hair dye and lipstick speak louder than banners and raised fists. Or so concluded six professional hairdressers from America who, in 2003, set up a school in the capital of Afghanistan to train local women in the business of doing hair and makeup. That the students had, until recently, been forced by Taliban rule to shroud themselves in public in head-to-toe burkas was no small part of the venture’s revolutionary underpinnings; that the volunteer teachers included three Afghan-Americans returning home for the first time in over two decades was, likewise, a gesture chosen for political resonance. (The project was financed by American beauty-industry types with an eye for the synergy between idealism and capitalism: Kabul ladies can be encouraged to buy volumizing shampoo too.)

The Beauty Academy of Kabul, a documentary record of this high-concept experiment in the peace-building properties of perming techniques, isn’t the prettiest thing — filmmaker Liz Mermin, who specializes in social-issue docs, gives her picture a home-grown look that borders on unkempt, with scraggly editing and unnecessarily dinky typography to establish timelines and character IDs. But as the visiting Westerners assert their way around baffled Kabul men and the Eastern hairdressers-in-training open up about their lives, the documentary takes on its own engaging shape — one of edgy editorial and political ambivalence.

A strapping American beautician begins her teaching stint by leading the group in a New Agey meditation. (Most of the trainees, some of whom arrive toting children, keep their eyes open; some giggle, awkward.) Another American import, a self-styled outspoken spitfire, enjoys freaking out the male populace by driving a car — something few Afghan women would do — and bossing around the men whose muscle power built the shop.

What do the students really think of their teachers, these well-intentioned outsiders with booming voices who’ve come to liberate their sisters from the tyranny of bad haircuts? Mermin never tells. Instead, the camera observes the armed soldiers in the streets, catches the shy smile of a trainee praised for her technique, and follows the homemaking labors of women who until recently haven’t even been allowed to have a face in public, let alone adorn it.

The Beauty Academy of Kabul
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