In an act of “selfless service,” a group of American women, backed by industry giants like Clairol and Vogue, open a beauty school in war-ravaged Afghanistan in “Beauty Academy of Kabul.” The anomalies are manifold: Gun-toting soldiers patrolling the streets are visible through the windows as rookie beauticians busily snip, perm and tweeze. Although helmer Liz Mermin’s straight-faced adherence to her subject tends to diffuse the cultural dissonance the pic reveals, docu’s feminist optimism should still serve Wellspring well domestically, while pic retains enough absurdist contradictions to satisfy cynical European auds.
Mermin achieves an easy intimacy with students and instructors alike. Pic alternates between scenes in the elegant academy, where the mindsets of the teachers dominate, and visits to the home salons of their various Afghan students, most of whom have husbands and children, where quite another set of values holds sway.
The teachers are a mixed bag, though many seem afflicted with vocational fervor, given to statements like “she is healing a country, one by one — that’s what hairdressers do, they heal people.” Carrying the analogy one step further, they dub themselves “Beauty Without Borders.”
Chastising women who go without makeup and lecturing pupils in their obligation to represent modernity, they never entertain the possibility that progress may lie in the eye of the beholder. Mermin frequently crosscuts to assorted insert-shots of closely listening students to establish a certain ironic distance from the well-meaning barrage of cosmetics propaganda.
It is clear the volunteers feel genuine affection for their Third World sisters, and find their ability to cope with excruciating living conditions awe-inspiring. Yet an unconscious arrogance informs their assumptions: When they ask a student how her country would be different if women ran it, she answers that couldn’t happen, the men wouldn’t allow it. The instructors bow their heads in silence until the woman, alarmed, asks if she gave the wrong answer.
Indeed, in Lynda Hall’s compositions, the gestures and body language of the teachers often seem theatrical, overstated, larger than life. In contrast, the Afghan women display an extraordinary ease with their bodies and with each other, unselfconsciously accepting the camera as an invited guest.
Among the staffers are two Afghan women who have lived in America, returning to their native country for the first time in decades. Their authentic anguish stands in stark contrast to the New Age babble of some of their beautician sisters.
The beauticians who take the three-month class definitely find empowerment through the experience, though perhaps not in the precise way it was intended. A cottage industry that doesn’t require much capital, beauty salons help repair the image of womanhood so damaged by the Taliban while providing women with extremely profitable livelihoods. Since the trainees who come to the school already enjoy a measure of freedom, they function as ambassadors rather than as recipients of cultural change, a distinction sometimes lost on their teachers but rarely on the women themselves.
Mermin’s Afghanistan is one of ruins and devastation, excursions to the countryside revealing only more of the same. This tabla rasa vision contrasts interestingly with another documentary unspooled at Tribeca, Iranian Yassamin Maleknasr’s view of her neighboring country as a continuous, still-viable civilization in the throes of yet another change in “Afghanistan: The Lost Truth.”
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