In the director’s commentary for his movie Three Kings, filmmaker David O. Russell explains that two characters, Iraqi brothers who dream of opening their own hair salon, were based on people from real life. “It just explodes (your) perception of what the average Arab is like,” Russell says. These days, it’s easy for Americans to imagine Afghanis as devoutly religious at best, violent fundamentalists at worse. That they may be earning their keep as hairdressers – an everyday American counterpart – seldom occurs.
The documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul attempts to shine a light on the average, everyday side of life in Afghanistan. It also explores the systematic oppression of women during the reign of the Taliban (which has, sadly, continued even after that government has been destroyed), but not by confronting the issue head on; rather by telling about this issue through the story of the opening of a beauty salon in Kabul. To assist with opening this salon, this rare place for women to gather and work, professional American hairdressers fly to Afghanistan. The Americans are buoyed by the inspiring stories they’ve heard of illegal salons being run under the Taliban, and decide to share with these Afghani women more modern techniques for their business – and a few inspirations.
An early montage of grainy black and white footage gives viewers a quick crash course in the political history of Afghanistan: the simplified subtitles, which reduce each event to their basics (‘another coup, another President. He is killed within a year.’), at first can seem condescending, as if American viewers wouldn’t be able to understand anything more complicated about Afghanistan. But maybe it’s just a sign that the people of Afghanistan themselves are weary of the endless fighting and don’t see important political convictions behind every act of bloodshed, anymore. Still history 101 but vitally conveyed is the irony that the extremists who would go on to form the Taliban were actually allies of the United States in the ‘80s, when they were fighting a Soviet invasion.
Under the Taliban rule, women were forbidden to go outside unless they were accompanied by a man and wearing a burka that covered them from head to toe. If a woman showed even an inch of skin on her arms or legs, she could expect to be beaten in public. It would seem that having fun of any kind for anyone under the Taliban is illegal: movies, television, and music – even kite flying – were outlawed. Indeed, little has changed to date. (See Amnesty International for the status of life for women in Afghanistan.)
And yet within the confines of this beauty salon, the women living under these brutal conditions are transformed. They gossip, discuss their lives, and briefly captured their stories share insight into what everyday life is like for them. As we watch them, their roles as hair dressers recedes and the true theme of the documentary comes into focus: the dichotomy between these Afghani women who are finally able to reclaim a small piece of their independence after years of horrific oppression, and the relative shallowness of the Americans who have come to teach them something.
Maybe that’s a harsh analysis, since the Americans arrive in Kabul brimming with altruistic motives. None of the Americans are earning money for this work (as far as this documentary lets us know), and they’re possibly putting their lives in danger by coming to a city where until recently random executions for minor infractions of religious law were a part of everyday life. These American women encourage the Afghani hairdressers to begin every training session with a meditation exercise, and with good intentions, explain to the women that they’re not just cutting hair. “We are healing (Afghanistan) one woman at a time. We are making them feel better about themselves inside.” One woman gushingly tells the camera that “this is the first country that’s ever really needed me, in terms of my skills.”
But as we learn more about the Afghani women’s lives, we understand that they are quite aware that these hair salons are important to them – so important, in fact, that all the empty philosophizing of the Americans can’t begin to comprehend it. On a purely economic level, hair dressing allows these women to earn more on a good day than their husbands will make in a month; their new jobs might be able to lift them out of poverty. But just as crucially, the salons are sanctuaries where the women can relax and talk freely.
Much of their conversation centers on their love lives and romantic prospects, which are rarely encouraging. Most of the women note that their husbands are strict, almost possessive of them, and their marriages are entirely arranged by their families. Whether the bride and groom will get along is of no concern in planning a wedding. In the documentary’s most unforgettable scene, a young Muslim woman is asked by the narrator if she has a crush on anyone, and her blushing response eventually leads to the confession that she has been in love with a man for nine years, but since their families would never allow them to marry, any relationship would be impossible.
She’s an attractive young woman; far from the stereotype conveyed in American press of serious, stony-faced women who have had their individuality beaten out of them by the Taliban. She wouldn’t look out of place on an American college campus, laughing and having fun. Instead, she talks regretfully of being in love with a man that she’s never even kissed, and probably never will.
Unfortunately, this documentary never spends enough time with any one character to allow us to get to know them. For reasons that are left unexplained, the American teachers are constantly leaving and arriving. Instead of depicting them as individuals, the film lumps them together as a mass of self-help jargon quoting automatons. The Afghani women each get a turn to speak to the camera, but no one has a reoccurring story we can follow.
The meager DVD extras include trailers for other documentaries from the distributor, Docurama, deleted scenes, and most frustratingly, a post-screening Q & A session in which director Liz Mermin evades some crucial questions: she reveals that the beauty salon in the film has already shut down, but vaguely refers to “management” problems as the reason. You would think that’s the sort of thing that should prompt a full explanation.