An Interview with the Director of The Beauty Academy of Kabul
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a screener of a documentary called The Beauty Academy of Kabul (many thanks to Ken Eisen, the head of Shadow Distribution, who is releasing the film, for that). This fascinating film tells the story of a Western style beauty school that opened in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Called Beauty Without Borders, the program was funded by beauty industry mainstays, Clairol, M.A.C. and Vogue. The cosmetologists, all volunteers, believe that they are saving this society from the outside in. One Afghan-American teacher assuages her guilt for having fled her country by teaching beauty to the women who stayed to fight. The interactions between the Afghan students and the Western teachers in the salon show both the struggle and the possibility of cultural exchange. Ultimately the film offers hope for genuine understanding between our two cultures (as opposed to the Bush administration’s “I’m going to make your life better whether you like it or not” attitude.).
The film opens in New York City at the Angelika on March 24th. Check out The Beauty Academy of Kabul Web site for future screening dates.
I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with the film’s director, Liz Mermin. Below, is the transcript.
When I heard about the premise of the film—that a Western beauty school comes to post-Taliban Kabul, it almost sounded like one of those curiosities you hear about through viral email. But, of course, the film is so much more than that. What was your process like—of discovering Beauty Without Borders and then deciding you had to make a film about it?
I learned about the school from an article in The New York Times. My first thought was, this is completely insane; my second was, someone must already be making a film on this. Because it was so nutty; because it was about beauty, which obviously lends itself to film; because it offered a sideways entrance into a culture that we were hearing about all the time but usually in the most superficial ways; because it was so controversial, from the perspectives of feminism and imperialism and theories of development. And though it hadn't occurred to me before, the beauty parlor seemed like a perfect way to get to know what average women—in any culture—are thinking, what they care about, how they handle life. And this is how you make people who live far away or in different cultures into people viewers far away can relate to. Which is particularly important in times of war.
So I tracked down the school organizers on the web, left a message for Patricia, the director, and forgot about it for two weeks until she called me back. We talked for an hour, during which time she made a few points that hadn't occurred to me. First, that hairdressing was one of the most practical business opportunities available to women who had been thrown out of school or lost their husbands and had to work at/near home or for whatever reason couldn't do jobs that might be considered more serious or more productive. Second, that beauty was and always had been serious business in Kabul, so this wasn't a Western imposition (one Afghan feminist said, in response to the accusation that it was a superficial project, "what, Afghan women aren't good enough to care about how they look?"). Then I met some of the Afghan-Americans involved in the project, who told me how they'd fled successful careers (journalism, medicine, social work) in Kabul in the 80s, come to the US with young children and very little English, and gone to beauty school, which allowed them to make good lives for themselves and their kids. All this made the project seem significantly less superficial, and in fact revealed a lot of my own prejudices (about hairdressers) to me.
It’s interesting because beauty, makeup, etc. can often be associated with maintaining the status quo sexual politics in the Western world. But, in the film the beauty school serves an empowering role for the Afghan women. Talk about that. Did that surprise you?
That's what I like about it —it really gets into tough questions about feminism. Whether beauty is demeaning or empowering. I think the answer is different for different women: certainly for the women I met in Kabul, it was empowering, if only because it made it that much easier for them to get through the day, you could see the difference in how they carried themselves as the course progressed. In a way hair and makeup became a way of rebelling, of doing their own thing despite what anyone else might think or demand. And of course beyond that, the ability to make money raised their independence from and esteem in the minds of the men in their lives.
The teachers have an almost missionary purpose; they believe that they are spreading democracy through Beauty Without Borders. Were you wary, going into the project, of the possibility of an underlying cultural imperialism in the program? Did you think there was any of this?
Yes, absolutely, I was wary of this (though I'm not sure they thought they were spreading democracy—maybe "freedom?"). But I've also come to think that there's a certain condescension implicit in that kind of fear of cultural imperialism. I just got back from a three month shoot in an outsourcing company in India, and a lot of the same concerns came up there. My feeling is that Afghanistan (like India) is home to many ancient cultures, with far deeper roots than American culture. The women I met in Kabul knew what they liked and what they didn't, and they didn't change their own sense of what was beautiful and what wasn't because of the opinions of the Americans. They still prefer Bollywood to Hollywood, and all the teachers' efforts to get them to use less eyeliner or glitter were lost the moment they left the school. I think the students took what they wanted to from the school and left the rest.
It reminds me of the documentary Promises, about the interaction between Israeli and Palestinian children, in that the relationship between the Western beauty school instructors and the Afhgan students hints at an optimism for the future, despite all the horror and death we know about. Is that my pie-eyed hopefulness or did you feel that way during filming? Did the relationships between these women extend beyond what was filmed?
I know what you mean. And like Promises, there's a terrible power imbalance at the root of the relationship. The Americans get to go home to their relatively comfortable lives at the end, and the Afghans are still in Kabul hoping that the peace holds up and that the world won't forget about them (because God knows they still need help over there). Two of the Afghan-American teachers returned to Kabul after the school closed, but only briefly. One of the American teachers remained, married an Afghan man, opened a beauty salon, and moved the school into a house she rented. She continues to train students to this day. I'll let people who see the film guess which one.
What was your favorite moment in the film?
I'm terrible with favorites. There are a lot of images that I love (thanks to my fabulous camera woman, Lynda Hall). A girl leading goats across an insanely busy street, two women in burkas walking by a banana stand, a glimpse of a huge bunch of balloons going by a mob of women waiting to get into the school, the landscape shots from the top of a destroyed house that belongs to Sima's cousin...I love the scene in Fauzia's salon (a student), with all the children around, where she's smiling beautifully as she tells these horrible stories about her life while cutting a little girl's hair with a giant pair of scissors, because it's so matter of fact, so not how you'd expect someone to talk about tragedy. I love the scene in the interview with Hanifa (a student) when her father keeps interrupting and telling her what to say. And of course there are many priceless and surreal moments with the American teachers, but I don't want to give them away.
What surprised you most during filming?
How the women would laugh when they told about the terrible things they'd been through. How warm and open everyone was and what an incredible sense of humor they had. Somehow I expected that all the humor would have been drained out of them, after all the horror, and that it hadn't was extraordinary and inspiring.
How has the film changed your notion of beauty, if it has?
I am now not ashamed to admit that I spend too much money getting my hair cut. And I am much more tolerant of excessive eyeliner.
Did you ever think about doing a day-and-date release on cable, in theaters and DVD for this film, like with Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble? It seems, in a way, like the subject matter lends itself perfectly to this type of release, that it would be a perfect way for audiences to discover the film, to build momentum through word of mouth.
No, I hadn't—mostly because I'm in the middle of production on another film and don't have time to plan it myself. Also, the rights are tied up in complicated ways. A long story, but suffice it to say that documentary film funding isn't easy and you have to make compromises along the way in terms of rights to get the thing done. But I'll be curious to see how it works for Soderbergh.
What are you working on next?
I just returned from a three month shoot in Chennai (Madras), India, for a documentary about young Indian professionals and how they are taking on or adapting to American corporate culture, and how the presence of corporate culture is changing life in India. It's also about how in so many ways office culture is the same everywhere—depressing to think (if you're not an office person) but it could be the most uniform experience in the world today. Which makes the subtle differences even more interesting. It's another controversial culture clash story, with a lot of surreal moments and some surprising moments that (I hope) will be surprisingly inspiring. Like Beauty Academy, it's for the BBC—I don't know what I'd do without them.