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The idea that a beauty parlor could significantly change the lives of women who are forced to wear full burkas seemed not only uninteresting to me, but downright absurd. This film was a real surprise with its stunning digital photography and a really important self-esteem message. These women really do benefit from being beautiful, even if it is UNDER the burka. I think this film hasn't gotten USA distribution because most people have preconceived notions about the importance of hairdressers and beauty consultants, but this film completely changed my opinion about this profession. They really are psychological, emotional, and physical make-over artists and after I write this I'm going for a facial (just kidding). This is a truly wonderful film and I hope it gets off the shelf someday. The Middle East is a hot topic, wake-up people - this one deserves to be greenlit!
"The Beauty Academy of Kabul" documents a small but appealing
cross-cultural, women to women effort based around the universal, and
probably Darwinian, female urge to look pretty.
The film opens with historical footage showing how Kabul got to its present ruined state from the 1970's urbane center that expatriate participants in this experiment remember, though with no mention if the post 9/11 coalition's intervention against the Taliban furthered the civilians' plight. This seems like a follow-up to the docudrama "Kandahar (Safar e Ghandehar)" which showed women's plight in Afghanistan up through the Taliban take over.
Then, with a little name dropping of the corporate beauty products sponsors, we see a diverse group of women from England and the U.S. with different degrees of practicality and naiveté set up a school to teach local women hair styling and other beauty treatments in a three month curriculum. The project provides not only an entrepreneurship opportunity for the women (setting up both relief and possible imbalance in their family's economy), but is just barely acceptable under Islamic role as it is women touching women indoors (just as they did secretly in their homes under the Taliban -- whose wives also snuck out to visit), as long as there's some limits on type of styles and touching. Over millennia, men and prophets have railed against women's urge to preen, but all societies make much of marriage, whether love matches or not, and even the most rigid male has to give in to allow for dressing up at that important ceremony (and getting to do a wedding is the most profitable opportunity for local stylists).
Sometimes the women teachers intentionally take on the male powers that be to flaunt their Western independence when they brook no nonsense about late deliveries and shoddy work, or driving, sometimes they are not helpful in their lack of sympathy for women's fears and societal restrictions (it's not clear if there's been physical abuse or just threats from fathers, husbands and brothers). The experiences of the expatriate women, who also serve as translators, are moving, both as biography and how they relate to those who remained. When the teachers get away from trying to futilely change the local culture and focus on imparting skills, their helpfulness is clear.
The students are again and again portrayed as incredibly hard-working, cooking and taking care of their husbands from arranged marriages and many young children, practicing and handling clients until late at night while men are invariably shown as lazing around, including the ostensible manager, many with antagonistic stares, many with guns. There is one husband who seems sympathetic to his wife as he comes to enroll her while she's dealing with a family illness. (We see very few women in the Kabul street scenes and they are encased in burkhas.)
When we can apparently hear honestly from the women students they are fascinating -- we see one young woman change to robotically repeating what her father insists she say and another woman react nervously when her normally loquacious (and quite nosy) teachers are shocked into silence by her frank and contented acceptance of her second class role within the family. But while the Westerners push their philosophy, these survivors have dealt with extremists before and are good at pushing back -- especially at women who are single and childless.
Some intriguing cultural points aren't clarified -- why does one woman insist that her young daughter's hair be cut like a boy's? Shades of the gender-hiding film "Osama"? Why do so many of the women want curly permanents -- even as the teachers try to explain about healthy hair care? The locals seem to have a wide variety of hair types so where in such an isolated culture does the demand for a curly style come from? I was reminded of a recent Oprah focusing on her own "bad hair day" where the black women, including "super models" wanted straight hair and I couldn't figure out why there either. Given the huge, pent-up demand for these classes, which at one point a teacher calls "Beauty Without Borders," was there another session?
The subtitles are always clearly legible, using black outlining. I presume that the translations of the English-speaking instructions to students were edited out for smooth viewing.
The one man in the matinée I was at fell asleep, loudly snoring. This was co-produced by the BBC and Discovery, so I presume it will be available on cable.
This film intimately personalizes a culture much in the news that we rarely get to see this close-up, as well as the difficulties and potentials of one-on-one outreach. Even within Islamic strictures, we are left with the sense that a comb and brush are instruments of revolution.
An excellent movie about Afghan women, their life under the Taliban,
and their hopes for the future. Some American women seemed slightly
condescending to their Afghan students, but the filmmakers seemed sort
of condescending to the Americans, who after all, were hairdressers,
not sociologists, and who were spending their time and money, not to
mention risking their lives to bring a little normalcy back to a
country that hasn't been "normal" for a very long time.
Like, "Voices of Iraq", this movie helps us to see average people caught in a "War on Terror" zone, and how they're coping. Unlike news reports that can only focus on the immediate, or the outrageous, it helps us to put a human face on the people of these countries within the context of their culture, and without overt political spin.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While I wished for a tighter narrative structure, or maybe a closer
focus on particular women, more like "Born Into Brothels" did by
following a handful of children closely, I enjoyed this film. It gives
the viewer glimpses into the homes and daily lives of Afghan women,
instead of just the street shots of scowling armed men we so often see
in the news.
It does make any culturally sensitive American cringe a bit when you see the hippie-dippy woman in John Lennon glasses telling an Afghan woman she needs to meditate and practice deep breathing before going home to slave for her strict, demanding husband and in-laws, or when you hear the abrasive New Yawk instructor upbraiding the students for not doing full face make-up and hair every day so they can represent the New Look to the rest of Afghan women, only to be told that if the women wear full makeup every day, they'll be punished by their husbands and in-laws for loose morals. Even so, I admired the instructors for taking on this project and bringing so much obvious joy to women whose lives seem to have held so little; and admired the students even more for their dogged determination to complete the training despite the demands of family and the lack of such seemingly ordinary things as driver's licenses.
At only seventy-four minutes in length "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" doesn't stick around very long, but there is a palpable power in its brevity. The film follows several hair stylists from the United States, including an Afghan refugee, into post-Taliban Afghanistan, as they train local women in the art of hair and make-up. Amazingly, some of these students had run beauty shops while the country was under the thumb of the Taliban. The film is quite fascinating in its simplicity, as it presents a story about building bridges between cultures and introducing peace to a war torn country with something as basic as scissors and a make-up brush. It's unexpectedly affecting, and captures a sense of rekindling misplaced hope in the region.
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)
Hi, I'm replying to the post from before. I just wanted to let that author know as being a Muslim, albeit from India, women are allowed to primp themselves. There is nothing saying that they can't. But it is noted, that women should only do so for their husbands, not others. For example, it is said that a women should not apply perfume outside the home. Also, there is nothing against women touching other women, like how a stylist would touch a customer. Homosexuality is not allowed, or any other sexual touching is not allowed. Lastly, about the comment with the mother telling them to cut her daughter's hair like a boys. I have two things that come to mind: It is cheaper to get it cut once short and let it grow out. Its just a matter of money. The other thing is she might have lice. I know people that had to go bald to get rid of lice or dandruff.
This documentary is more than about teaching a few lucky Afghan women how to take care of other women's hair. What makes seeing this movie worthwhile are two things. First, seeing a bit of Kabul, its street life, its people and, sadly, the still visible destruction that is the result from many years of conflict starting with the Soviet invasion. Second, the candid commentary by the Afghan women about their role vis a vis their male relatives. Clearly this is still a retrograde male-dominated society despite the minor advances that have been made since the Taliban's ouster from power. Granted women's hands and feet are no longer being chopped off for exposing bits of uncovered skin. But for the women of Kabul, and more so for those of the rest of the country, there is a long way to go before they recover the relative social freedoms they enjoyed during the period of Soviet occupation. One readily sympathizes with the resigned frustration and powerlessness the American women feel when they hear their Afghan counterparts talking casually about the restrictions that oppress them. It is not the US occupation, which is not overtly shown in the film, that is likely to change a culture that is prepared to condemn a man to death for converting to another religion. One can only hope that time will erode the reactionary nature of the Afghani -- and all others for that matter -- faith-based system.
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