Judge Katie Herrell has seriously considered investing in a Burqa for those bad hair days.
"After decades of war and the Taliban the women of Afghanistan need a makeover."
This film is an inspiring look at the resiliency and hope of a group of women that should have neither. It also demonstrates, legitimately, that outer beauty need not only be for the compliments of others, but for the happiness and comfort of the individual.
Facts of the Case
The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a documentary about a group of American hairdressers who travel to Kabul, Afghanistan to open a beauty school. The school's objective is to give the Afghan women a physical and emotional boost after their demoralizing oppression during the Taliban's reign—as well as to teach these women a salable trade.
This documentary opens with a recount of the unrest that has challenged Kabul for the last several decades. When the movie was made in 2004, the Taliban had recently (2001) been forced out of power after 20 years. Under the Taliban's control, Afghan women were turned into living shrouds, forced to cover themselves in public and denied education or careers. Many of them worked illegally inside their homes, including perming and styling the hair of Taliban wives. It is an important back-story from which to gain perspective on the women clamoring to become students at the new American beauty school.
Through "Beauty Without Borders," a group of American hairdressers, including several Afghan women who fled to the U.S. during the unrest, travel to Kabul to open a beauty school that will teach hairstyling and makeup techniques. The filmmaker, Liz Mermin, explains in a special features Q&A session that her style of documentary filmmaking is to just let the camera role, rather than manipulate scenes. She understands this tactic sometimes leaves questions about what is happening, but through editing a cohesive story comes about, and indeed that happens here. This is a beautifully shot story about two groups of women with entirely different realities who ultimately want the best for each other and for all women everywhere. But there are just as many gaps in understanding between these women as there is a sense of solidarity; Mermin's filmmaking style captures both sentiments.
Despite the fact that most of the Afghan women don't speak English, their emotions are palpable and tell a strong story—even without the subtitles. It is a story so layered and complex that sometimes a laugh, as happens repeatedly when the Afghan women refer to being beaten for this or that, is a complicated response. Are they laughing because it's so unbelievable that such beatings used to occur, or is it a laugh because they don't want to cry? Likely both, although the women are never prompted to explain why they seem flippant about their own oppression.
The Afghan women speak in hurried tones, with shy smiles and sidelong glances. They seem worried that the filmmaker will be dissatisfied with their answers and turn away to find a new subject, even though Mermin keeps the camera focused on one subject until the woman politely indicates she is finished being interviewed. Interestingly, these women do not seem to be lacking confidence even in their extreme self-consciousness. They also don't seem unhappy despite all they've been through or the hardships they continue to endure raising families in the midst of extreme poverty. Maybe that means this film is one-sided, or maybe it's a true look at the hope, will, and tenacity of these women.
In contrast, the Afghan-American hairdressers seem like broken souls. They look tired and haggard, a colorless version of their fellow countrywomen. One woman explains the guilt she has from fleeing, and another explains how she looked endlessly for her dead husband in American news coverage of the unrest. At times, all of the hairdressers seem a bit harsh towards their students, but during private camera time it is obvious they don't know how to comprehend these women's pain, or their strength, or their guarded personalities. It is important that the American women are filmed privately, as well as interacting with their students out of the classroom, because in these scenes they display awe for their students, an awe that tempers the business-like, tough love of the classroom.
Afghan men play a minor role in this film (with the exception of one who serves as the Afghanistan-based liaison for this American project), seen only on the sidelines, snickering as the flamboyant Debbie from American drives through the streets—Afghan women don't drive—with her bright red hair, or eating the feasts their wives have prepared in their tiny kitchens. The Q&A session indicates that the absence of interviews with men could be a criticism against the film, but I think it's a positive. For once the Afghan women are the stars; they are uncovered and presented to the world with their own voices representing their families, including their husbands. It is a sign of progress that a movie about Afghan women was made that doesn't directly involve Afghan men.
The visuals are accentuated by scenes of the destroyed city. The beauty school itself is a stately room with plenty of windows and shiny wood paneling, but outside the city is in ruins. The women live, and work, in rectangular tiny houses, hiding their salon supplies behind curtains. It is an interesting juxtaposition of past, present and the hopeful future—although the Q&A session indicates the school doesn't stay in business that long.
The audio is nothing of note. This is a visual film, as well as a conceptual, emotional film. There is a lot left unsaid, and a lot that is said only through the eyes of the Afghan women. Their eyes, a highly honed facial feature after years of head-to-toe hiding, convey sadness and wisdom but also a hope for their future—which is exactly what this film is all about.
The special features include the horribly shot, but interesting, Q&A session and several deleted scenes which are mainly one-on-one interviews with the Americans. Debbie proves the most interesting interviewee as she explains her connection to the Afghan women—a connection she preserves by staying in the country after the school is closed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The criticisms of the film and the beauty school were addressed both in the actual footage and in the Q&A session and aren't without merit. Why, when many Afghan women are illiterate, didn't they open a reading school instead of a beauty school? Why aren't the men interviewed? Why wasn't the American invasion of the country addressed? Why do these American women think they come in and start ordering people around? These are all valid questions and had they been addressed directly it may have opened up the film to a wider audience.
When questioned why she didn't teach the Afghan women how to read, Debbie replied, "I'm not a reading teacher, I'm a hairstylist; that's my skill." And to quote an Afghan woman about her hardships under Taliban rule, "But we lived. And it passed." On the one hand these quotes are shockingly different. But really they are about acceptance and reality and truthfulness. The reality is people need to read, but they also need to feel good about themselves and have a reason for living. And if having a nice hairstyle and well-applied makeup is that reason, then who can fault them? And who's to say that a nicely coifed do won't be the encouragement someone needs to learn to read, or get a job, or stand up to their husband? The Beauty Academy of Kabul is about doing what you can with what you have—a lesson applicable to anyone.
Guilty. Sometimes everyone needs a makeover. The women of Afghanistan just need it a little more urgently than most.
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