Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

One student, Nafisa, working on a mannequin
Photo: Shadow Distribution

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Directed & Edited by: Liz Mermin.
Produced by: Nigel Noble & Liz Mermin.
Director of Photography: Lynda Hall.
Music by: Ahmad Zahir.
Released by: Shadow Distribution.
Language: English & Farsi with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA. 74 min. Not Rated.

August 2003: For the first time in decades, a beauty school establishes a beachhead in Kabul after decades of war and then the totalitarian rule of the Taliban, where women were forbidden to wear makeup or display an outward show of vanity. (That’s not to say women did not go to salons. They did – secretly in the stylist’s home, hiding under their burkas in the street.) This disarming documentary follows the school’s first class of students from the matriculation lottery to graduation, showing some of the stressful, day-to-day process of opening an enterprise that would have been forbidden less than two years earlier: Fauzia, who clandestinely cut hair during the Taliban; Hanifa, whose parents chose her husband; and Nazira, who besides going to school, raises several small children, and works at home until 11 at night, earning more money than her husband.

Despite the frequently moving interviews, the film is really about the Western instructors. Their hearts are doubtlessly in the right place, but there’s an unmistakably patronizing tone. Before starting a class, New York stylist Sheila enjoins the women to sit in a circle and clear their minds through silent meditation, though it’s not apparent if the Afghanis know the philosophy behind this. Always wearing sunglasses, Sheila, with a straight face, intones at one point, “I am a hairdresser. I heal people.” By unconsciously taking herself way too seriously and coming across as affected, the film becomes campy in moments like this. At least there were no scented candles.

However, it’s the arrival of loud and brassy Debbie that provides a welcome blast of zingers. Like Bette Midler as a drill sergeant, she commands her charges to be the new trendsetters, “My God, before I leave here, you’re getting out of this hole,” though what’s trendy in Kabul is one of many unanswered questions. Perhaps because she’s in the driver’s seat, or maybe it’s her shock of red hair, a sequence with Debbie driving through the streets becomes an amusing joyride for the viewer as she basks in the attention of passersby (and the camera); an Afghani soldier literally stops traffic so she can turn. (Or maybe the filming causes the men to stare.) Passing a group of shrouded women, Debbie wisecracks, “Lose the burkas ladies and get a car.” You would be blameless if you thought you had walked into another clever Christopher Guest mockumentary.

Though the film was completed in 2004, there’s not an epilogue, leaving the audience out in the cold to their progress. There’s also little mention of the background, funding or motivation behind the school’s organizer – Beauty without Borders (I kid you not). This is one film that demands footnotes. Kent Turner
March 24, 2006



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