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"The Beauty Academy of Kabul": Pretty goals, ugly realities
Special to The Seattle Times
Much like those wickedly funny "South Park" episodes about well-intended but presumptuous liberals attempting to save the world without having a clue about what's really going on, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" is sometimes a portrait of misguided activism.
Not that empowering Afghanistan's women economically and socially by teaching them beauty skills, ostensibly the documentary's subject, is a bad one. With the Taliban losing the American-led war, women who once had been accustomed to Western fashion and a little modernity — only to be hidden under burkas and terrorized by Islamic radicals during the 1990s and beyond — are grasping, as we see in the film, for some of the old normalcy.
The academy is run by a mellow British woman and staffed by top-flight, female hairdressers from America — all volunteers, half of them Afghans returning home for the first time in decades. It's a fine effort to help wives and mothers in shattered, war-torn Kabul make some income. The school also signals it's OK again for Afghan women to appreciate their appearance.
But as director Liz Mermin makes clear in "Beauty Academy," those lofty goals are complicated by harsh realities. The post-war environment, as Mermin shows us through smart and judicious editing, looks terribly dangerous, with guns everywhere and armed men looking askance at the academy's activities. Freedom for women, even without the Taliban, proves relative: As the students often remind their foreign instructors, they aren't at liberty to show skin or talk back to their husbands.
Mermin is quite skilled at separating the honorable intent of the school from dopey assumptions of several American beauticians. A brassy, loudmouthed New Yorker should embarrass any American with her self-aggrandizing lectures, to people who have been through an unknowable hell, about being a healer.
But nothing beats the academy's graduation ceremony, at which grizzled officers from the United Nations' peacekeeping force are asked to hold hands. You can just feel Mermin cringing.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company