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

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

“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


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