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May 3-9, 2006

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'The Beauty Academy of Kabul'

Curl Whirl: A new documentary shows how the women of Kabul learned the finer points of the hair art.

Locks and Keys

In Afghanistan, the hair burning must go on, according to 'The Beauty Academy of Kabul'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE HURRIED beginning of The Beauty Academy of Kabul, the recent history of Afghanistan is sketched out. In the 1970s, there were three separate coups. In the 1980s, there was the Russian invasion, followed by a war that cost 2 million Afghan lives. In the 1990s, the Taliban came to power, banning film, TV and music. Finally, a little less than five years ago, there was the U.N.-backed American incursion, which persists today.

As one method for bringing normalization to the war-ravaged nation, a volunteer group called "Beauty Without Borders" came to Kabul to school local women in Western-style cosmetology. Six female volunteers under the direction of marketing expert Patricia O'Connor arrived to drill a classroom full of Afghan women in the proper techniques of styling, cutting and sanitation. It's mentioned in passing that Western cosmetic companies supplied some of the money for the school.

The volunteers face problems of cultural collision. The mannequin heads needed for practice don't arrive in time. The glass windows that are supposed to let the sunlight in also draw the attention of male loungers, who gape at the spectacle of women without burkas. The students have to take absences when their husbands order them to help out, and they have children to watch and meals to prepare, ordinary tasks made all the more tough in a city where the water and electricity supplies are uncertain.

The six teachers are compassionate, though in one case, a teacher named Debbie approaches the class with a New York aggression that it's difficult to watch. She's in a part of Asia where everything is done to avoid confrontation, but Debbie doesn't hesitate to get into people's hair, so to speak. Chatting as she drives through the bombed-out city, she says that she sees no difference between Afghanistan and Indiana. Every woman has a right to cosmetics. And as the documentary notes, a good hairdresser can make $40 a week in a country where the deputy minister for women's affairs makes $40 a month. But when one of the instructors comments that a woman "would be a good candidate for a waxing," she's implying that there's one standard of beauty that spans the globe.

Fortunately, director Liz Mermin captures the ambiguity of the situation—she sees the altruism, but she also notes the threat of cultural imperialism. Mermin was sensitive enough to film with an all-female crew. It was important to get the subjects to express their opinions in a nation where men are king and women are subjects. The 1970s ballads by Ahmed Zahir, known as the Elvis of Afghanistan, stir up nostalgia for a land beyond war and horror. One one can even see the purpose of the choppy opening, a disorienting stream of images that never last long enough to give you a sense of the terrain or the people. When the film settles down, Mermin elicits candor from her subjects, who went through hell but didn't lose their enjoyment of life. Even during the Taliban's puritan reign of terror, women were taking care of their faces and their hair, despite all their laws against beauty.

Movie TimesThe Beauty Academy of Kabul (Unrated; 74 min.), a documentary by Liz Mermin, opens May 5 at the Century Cinemas in Fremont.

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