Salons and Civil War

The Beauty Academy of Kabul

A documentary directed by Liz Mermin.

Reviewed by Molly Freedenberg

At first it sounded a lot like a joke: New York hairdressers opening a beauty school in Afghanistan. “It instantly jumped out as completely insane,” said filmmaker Liz Mermin, who read a newspaper story about the project — and then promptly decided to make a movie about it. “How could there not be a story here?”

There turned out to be many stories — not only of the American hairdressers (three were Afghan refugees returning for the first time) or their first 20 students, but also of women in Afghanistan, of cultures colliding and changing, of history, of politics, and of civil war.

But The Beauty Academy of Kabul only alights upon most of them, without settling on any in particular. It doesn’t go into depth about the Taliban’s reign and fall, or talk much about Kabul’s recent influx of foreign aid. It doesn’t explain how popular beauty schools have become in the post-war city, nor the complex personal journeys that led the Americans to build their own.

The reason, said Mermin, was part necessity and part intention. In 74 minutes (the ideal length for a documentary, she claimed), there isn’t time to cover all that ground — even though her all-women crew filmed more than 180 hours of footage at the school, students’ homes, and on Kabul’s streets. But beyond that, she wanted to avoid the traditional documentary techniques (voiceovers, music, interviews with experts, obvious political agendas) that make up for such constraints and instead allow the story to tell itself.

“The film doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Mermin, who assumed her audience has a basic knowledge of current events and has probably seen films like Behind the Veil. “I was taking off from, what elements haven’t I seen somewhere else?”

The method mostly works: With a little back story gleaned elsewhere, the film is compelling and thought-provoking. For non-experts or those expecting the doc to take a position, it leaves much to be desired. It also raises more questions than it answers; which is why it’s good as a film, but would make an even better mini-series.

Mermin agreed. “The DVD extras are going to be amazing,” she said.

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