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THE BEAUTY ACADEMY
USA: Shadow Distribution
Director: Liz Mermin
Languages: English / Dari (English subtitles)
USA: 74 mins
USA Release Date: 24 March 2006 (Limited Release - New York)
A group of American hairdressers head to Afghanistan to open the country's first post-Taliban beauty school.
THE BEAUTY ACADEMY OF KABUL is a film about beauty in form and in content. And in Afghanistan, beauty raises serious questions: Why were women willing to risk imprisonment, even death, to run beauty salons under the Taliban? In a land that has suffered decades of war and loss, where people are ill, wounded, and illiterate, why are women so anxious to learn makeup-application techniques? It is also a film about globalization, a case study of how American culture is received abroad: Is the school imposing shallow American materialism, or helping women support and express themselves as they have across the world for centuries?
These questions are explored through the personal stories of the women whom the school has brought together for this first post-Taliban beauty school class - from Afghan-American hairdressers struggling with the guilt of having fled their homeland to Manhattan stylists out to spread the beauty gospel; from mothers who turned to clandestine hairdressing when the Taliban made them leave their jobs to girls who worship Hindi films stars and dream of escaping to the West. The film elegantly weaves together cinema verite footage with interviews and mini-biographies of the Afghan students. The stunning cinematography, accompanied by the music of 1970s Afghan pop-star Ahmed Zahir ("the Afghan Elvis"), captures the beauty of the Afghan characters and the surprisingly game spirit with which they struggle to rebuild their lives in the midst of horrifying devastation.
The creation of the school is a bizarre and unprecedented event, bringing together beauty-industry power-players with a group of impoverished women and girls who have been brutally sidelined in a nation that has been a pawn in several decades of global conflict. The women who travel to Kabul include the school's British director and six teachers - three earnest American hairdressers and three Afghan women who fled over twenty years ago with children in tow, now successful hairdressers in America returning to their homes for the first time. It is a grand experiment. The school strives to maintain the highest standards of the field as they are taught in Manhattan (adapted slightly to post-war circumstances), but differences are immediately apparent when we follow these students home. They work in half-destroyed buildings, with no running water or electricity, surrounded by children and hidden behind layers of curtains. Several students ran secret salons under Taliban rule; their husbands had lost their jobs, leaving the women and children to support their families with clandestine work. Though the practice was outlawed, the demand for hairdressers never dried up: even under their burkas, women wanted to look their best for weddings and engagements - a defiant gesture of humanity in the midst of violent oppression.
The students talk with surprising candor. They share stories about life under the Taliban and during the civil war before that; tell us how they feel about love and marriage, the past and the future, East and West; explain what drew them to the beauty school in the first place; and speculate about the roles they think women can play in Afghanistan's future. Smart, articulate, and charming, the women are disarmingly familiar, even though they are survivors of unimaginable loss and terror. Their perspectives are compared to those of the Americans and of the Afghan returnees, who struggle with guilt as they confront the astounding destruction wrought by the past thirty years. These stories carry tremendous political weight for the future of Afghanistan - a weight that increases as the country struggles to maintain a tenuous peace, feed its people, and strike a delicate balance between tradition, religion, and the allure of a glamorous modernity represented monthly in the pages of Vogue.