The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004)—Afghan
In 2003 six American hairdressers opened a beauty school in the bombed out ruins of post-Taliban Kabul. Director Liz Mermin follows this venture from the grand opening and selection of the first class to the graduation dinner three months later. Two of the volunteers, Sima and Shaima, had emigrated from Afghanistan to the United States more than twenty years earlier, and their cultural reconnection is emotionally powerful. "It's been twenty years since I was here," observes Sima, "but the country has regressed a hundred years." Two other volunteers are positively obnoxious; they cannot understand why these Afghan women would not wear makeup, drive, or anger their husbands. One of them begins classes with yoga meditation as the Afghan women giggle. Another gushes that their project is not just about hair and makeup but about "healing the country." The real heroes that make this film worth watching, though, are the Afghan women. "Our men have backwards mentalities," one of them laments. I found the symbolism of a beauty parlor run by culturally insensitive American do-gooders in a conservative Muslim country rich with paradox. Was this project one of genuine feminist liberation or self-congratulatory cultural imperialism? A little of both, I thought. In English and Afghan.