In the BBC documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul , we are reminded that Afghanistan was plagued by thirty years of political upheaval, war with the Soviets in which 2 million Afghans were killed, and oppression by the Taleban regime. The capitol city of Kabul decayed from a modern city of movie theaters, discos, and mini-skirts, to a bombed-out husk where music, film, and dance were illegal. Under the Taleban, it was against the law for a woman to work, to go to school, to be out after dark, or to show an inch of skin. If she broke the rules, it was legal to beat her, maim her, or kill her on the spot.
In 2003, when the film was made, the Taleban have been kicked out of Afghanistan by the Americans; but the capital city is still dirt poor and shell shocked. In a fascinating social experiment, six women from New York City raise the money to open a beauty school in Kabul. They assemble a beautiful place – spotless, brightly-lit, trimmed in wood. It immediately draws a throng of Afghan women, lured by the promise of a free education.
Many of the students already have some experience cutting hair and doing makeup. They did it in secret, in defiance of the Taleban. Sima, one of the teachers, who fled Afghanistan twenty years ago, says, "I am in awe of these women. I feel so guilty – I didn’t change anything – I didn’t help anybody. Look what they went through – and they’re smiling!" And yet the Americans are frustrated by Afghan intractability. "You’re stuck in a rut, guys!" says one teacher. "Why are you afraid of your husbands?" She is told that if a wife talks back to her husband, she can be thrown out of the house.
How do the Afghan women regard their teachers – as self-actualized, articulate, and determined? Or as the ugly American, self-absorbed, trivial, and obnoxious? We never get the sense. One of the teachers — a riot of red hair, New-Age religion, watered-down yoga, and self-help speak — says, "Outside, it’s 140 degrees and choked with dust. The school is an oasis in the middle of Hell." But do the Afghan women see it as Hell? "Ditch your burkas, ladies," says a teacher, "and get a car." Have cars really made the world a better place? Maybe she’d be less bothered by the heat if she tried on a burka herself, not such a bad adaptation for punishing heat. Later, that same teacher says, "This is the first country that needed me. This country wants to be normal." But who, exactly, is defining "normal"?
If there is a weakness in Liz Mermin’s film, it is that the point of view is not skeptical enough of the Americans. A strong case can be made that exporting donated Paul Mitchell shampoo and MAC lipstick to Afghanistan is not an advance. And though this is a film about women, it would have been nice to hear from the men, who are seen only on the periphery. What do they have to say for themselves? The extremes of the Taleban were clearly a horror. But as the West races head first at the wall erected by its freedoms, we’ve got to ask: with all of the gains of modernization, what has been lost?
The Beauty Academy of Kabul will be playing at the Ryder film series, beginning Friday, April 7th. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.