Proving that altruism and “Ugly American” behavior aren’t incompatible, Liz Mermin’s The Beauty Academy of Kabul details the 2003 launch of a beauty school by largely unbearable American hair stylists in an Afghanistan recently liberated from Taliban control. Aware that under the Taliban’s severe strictures, women forced to cover themselves with burkas would nonetheless frequent beauty shops (only to mask the results when out in public), a crew of U.S.-funded volunteers—including two Afghan émigrés who fled their homeland some 20 years earlier—arrive in rubble-strewn Kabul intent on teaching the finer points of haircutting, perms, and massage.
Obnoxious and bordering on culturally insensitive, the idealistic Americans barrel over traditional customs with abandon, bossing around male electricians (who aren’t accustomed to taking orders from women), screaming at the incompetent men running air-delivery services, and, in the case of arrogant loudmouth Debbie, callously chastising her students for not always wearing makeup. Abrasive and unpleasant as it may sometimes be, however, the Americans’ indelicate conduct becomes an empowering model for the academy’s female pupils. Despite living in a country that relegates them to second-class citizenship, the Afghan women are remarkably indefatigable, recounting horror stories about sexist mutilation and murder with defiant nonchalance and shouldering their burdensome lives—which involve not only working as beauticians but also functioning as cook/cleaner/mother/wife to their bustling households—with smiles on their faces. In their instructors’ outspoken, autonomous brashness (including—gasp!—driving a car), they see the promise of a world free from subjugation.
Refusing to embellish her documentary with lofty narration, Mermin allows cross-cultural conversations about love, relationships, and marriage, as well as careful juxtapositions between American actions and Afghan reactions, to cautiously, but optimistically, convey the school’s potential for cultivating hope in a more progressive, egalitarian future (as seen in one student’s rebellious habit of wearing a jacket and tie). And in a scene in which two beauticians are struck silent by a student’s matter-of-fact opinion that women will never achieve true power because men will never relinquish their totally dominant position, The Beauty Academy of Kabul also captures the still-wide chasm between Western and Middle Eastern women’s realities.