Beauty's more than skin deep in Afghanistan

By Brooks Robards - April 13, 2006

A scene from "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" showing this Saturday night at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

The founding of a beautician's school may not sound like a promising topic for a documentary film. But when such a school springs up in Kabul, Afghanistan, right after the 2003 fall of the Taliban, the subject has clout.

Martha's Vineyard NOW and the Silver Screen Society are co-sponsoring a screening of "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," this Saturday, April 15, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Directed by anthropology-trained filmmaker Liz Mermin, the movie covers a lot more ground than how to give a good haircut or color job.

It illustrates the enormous gaps in opportunities, freedoms and attitudes between Afghani women and the Americans who have come to help set up the school. To a middle-class American woman, let alone your average NOW member, aspiring to an education as a beautician may seem like setting the bar at a rather low level. That doesn't take into account the gender disparities between first- and third-world nations.

"Movies like this are an opportunity to have much-needed discussions about issues that affect women internationally and nationally," says MV NOW President Catherine DeGrandpre of Edgartown. She also hopes the organization can use the film as a springboard to address how the beauty industry affects women in our own communities.

Shot in 2003 and released in 2004, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," opens with a collage of Afghanistan's sorry history over the last 30 years - coups, assassinations, Soviet invasions, Mujahadeen and Taliban takeovers, as well as American occupation. As an Afghani-American beautician who has returned to help set up the new school sees it, Afghanistan has regressed 100 years from the way it was 20 years ago when she left.

Funded by the international beauty industry, Beauty Without Borders, the organization that founded Kabul's beauty academy, set as its goal providing Afghani women with the skills they need both to be beauticians and operate beauty salons as businesses.

Many of them had already been working out of their homes, in secret. The school, which continues to turn out graduates every three months, has helped legitimize a profession that enables many Afghani women to earn more money than their husbands.

Director Mermin takes a decidedly low-key approach to telling the story of how the school comes into being. The viewers watch the completion of the school's construction, with large windows so people can see in and watch the students at work. The mannequin heads that the Academy's 20 students are supposed to practice on threaten to vanish into bureaucratic red tape before they've even arrived.

Periodically Ms. Mermin turns her camera away from students and teachers to the Uzi-wearing soldiers on Kabul's streets and the Afghani men who gawk when one American teacher, Debbie, decides she should take to the wheel of a car, something an Afghani woman wouldn't dream of doing.

The American teachers occasionally veer into New Age meditation exercises and massage techniques or lecture to their students about their prospective clients. Comments like, "We're not just cutting their hair, we're healing them," and "It's healing a country one by one" prove irritating reminders of how much "noblesse oblige" Americans can inadvertently display.

The real story comes through loud and clear, though. It concerns the pluck and determination of the Afghani women who bring their small children with them to class when they have to, who put in long hours in the classroom or their home salons and then go to work fixing meals and cleaning house.

It seems ironic that for a film about physical beauty, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" is so un-beautiful. Ms. Mermin clearly belongs to the school of filmmaking that prefers real-life rawness to the grace of tight editing and handsome camera shots. The opening historical overview, for instance, seems both clumsy and wasteful in such a short film. But beauty, after all is said and done, lies in the eyes of the beholder, and "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" offers a story well worth the telling.

At the Saturday night showing, NOW will have information about a variety of organizations that help Afghani women and suggestions about how to become involved.

"The Beauty Academy of Kabul," Saturday, April 15, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven, 7:30 pm. Tickets $6; $4 for members. For more information, go to

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.