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The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004)

Not Rated | | Documentary | 4 May 2004 (USA)
A documentary following American women (some of whom emigrated from Afghanistan in the early 1980s) who return to the capital city of Kabul to open an American-style school for beauticians.... See full summary »

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A documentary following American women (some of whom emigrated from Afghanistan in the early 1980s) who return to the capital city of Kabul to open an American-style school for beauticians. Some of their students are women who maintained "underground" beauty salons while the city was under strict Taliban control. Written by RBFS

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Not Rated
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4 May 2004 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

I akadimia omorfias tis Kabul  »

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$9,704 (USA) (24 March 2006)

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$225,348 (USA) (20 October 2006)
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Hair curlers over Kabul: or, how to really win the hearts and minds...
24 September 2006 | by (Portland, Oregon, United States) – See all my reviews

This intriguing documentary tells a most unusual story of the establishment of a beauty school in Kabul, in 2003, by a group of women beauticians from the US. After our invasion forced out the Taliban late in 2001, Kabul experienced a dramatic relaxation of the severe Sharia-based strictures and repression that had tyrannized women beginning in 1996.

Two American beauticians sought some way to aid Afghani women to restore their self esteem. They established a non-profit, called Beauty Without Borders, and solicited private donations to begin the school. At least six American beauticians have taken part, half of whom are Afghanis who had lived in exile in the US since the early 1980s. They work in Kabul in rotating pairs– one native Afghani paired with one non-Afghani – in stints lasting several weeks.

In a delightful, almost casual manner, the filmmaker, Liz Mermin, and her colleagues deftly weave an account that is richly layered and vastly illuminating. Local women are eager to participate: so many want in that the sponsors must create a lottery to determine who will be in the first 3 month-long class. The beauticians address not only hairstyling and makeup, but also encourage the women to give voice to their experiences under the Taliban, and guide them in learning techniques to enhance positive regard for themselves and one another, healing methods like meditation and massage. The local women just love all of this. The sharing of endearments with their teachers is moving. Especially touching are the expressions of emotion by the Afghani beauticians returning from long exile.

Mermin gives us in a few moments a brief political history of Afghanistan since 1972, using short cuts of archival film. And, here and there throughout the film, we see evidence of the massive destruction of the city, ruins that have remained untouched since the early 1980s when the Soviet invasion began. We accompany one of the beauticians, returning to her homeland after 25 years, on a visit to her relatives, farmers who live out of town. Their former, large house is a bombed out shell, as are others we see across the nearby rural landscape. These people have been left with too few resources to rebuild.

Full, unhidden makeup and fancy hairdos are allowed for women only at wedding celebrations, we learn. Oddly, the thing most local women want is permanents, even though so many have attractive long black hair. But the students do learn proper methods of cutting hair, and receive decent scissors to keep for their own. I did wonder why the U.S. instructors emphasized facial makeup so much, even for a few younger women whose natural beauty was obvious.

We pay visits to several women who have been running their own salons, now openly, but previously in secret, in their homes, during the Taliban oppression. Through these more intimate views of women's lives, it becomes clear that their lot has only improved by degree. Few women are engaged in formal education. Several must labor nonstop from dawn to late at night in order to maintain a salon and also cater to all the domestic demands of the family.

Many continue to wear burkas, covering their freshly done hair, and several who have consented to more radical haircuts and makeup express anxiety about how the men will react. Arranged marriages are still the rule. Women dare not assert themselves with their husbands in most circumstances. (Over and over we see glimpses of steely eyed, suspicious looking men glaring at the American beauticians or staring through the windows of the school.) One thing that's puzzling is the manner in which the women relate their stories of domination by men, past and present . In so doing, they invariably smile or laugh, seemingly with warmth more than anxiety. What are we to make of this? Is it merely reaction formation, a cover for their true feelings? On the other hand, one young woman tells the Americans in no uncertain terms that, coming from the U.S., it may be well and good for them to advocate assertiveness for women, but the reality of the local situation is entirely different.

One comes away from this film with a clear sense that the slightly improved status of women is fragile and uncertain, even in Kabul, the most emancipated place in the country. In the south, in Kandahar, and elsewhere, where there is now a resurgence of the Taliban, we hear in news accounts that women's rights are far more tenuous. Still, compared to bombs and guns, it is refreshing to witness U.S. attacks employing more benign weapons like hair curlers and eyeliner. (In Dari - eastern Farsi - & English) My grades: 8/10 (B+) (Seen on 09/21/06)


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