The Beauty Academy of Kabul

Movie Information

Genre: Documentary
Director: Liz Mermin
Starring: Debbie Turner, Sheila McGurk, Terri Grauel, Shaima Ali, Sima Calkin
Rated: NR

There’s something at once ironic and apt about screening Liz Mermin’s documentary at UNCA’s “F-Word Film Festival,” which is billed as “a celebration of images by and about women (but for all audiences).” On the one hand, it’s certainly about women and most definitely by them. (Mermin worked with an all-female crew). On the other, though, it’s a film about trying to rebuild and heal post-Taliban Afghanistan with beauty parlors. It’s a screwy, even frivolous-sounding idea—one that hardly sounds terribly political. The point is, of course, that in a country where women have been reduced to something less than second-class citizens and have to hide themselves under burkas, the idea’s not only political, it’s defiantly subversive.

It’s also surprisingly entertaining—not in the least because of the well-intended cluelessness of the American hairdressers, who see themselves as the saviors of the Afghan women. And to some degree, they may not be wrong, but that doesn’t keep them from being uniquely American in their good-hearted blindness to anything but their own point of view. Nowhere is this more apparent than in cosmetician Debbie Turner, who views progress entirely in fashion terms and, without thinking about it, shocks locals by driving without a scarf (“It’s hard enough to drive without one”) and seems utterly mystified by the response (“Did he give me the finger?”). All at once, the film captures the essence of Americans’ sense of empowerment and innate goodness—and our cultural myopia. Well worth seeing.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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