For all the aching sincerity on display in Liz Mermin's documentary The Beauty Academy Of Kabul, it can be difficult to overlook the occasional resemblance to a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Like Guest's Best In Show or A Mighty Wind, Beauty Academy features a surfeit of huffily self-important people describing their vocation in laughably self-aggrandizing terms, with nary a whit of irony. The fact that they're real people expressing real opinions doesn't make them any less comic. Neither does the fact that their project—opening a beauty school in Afghanistan—really does have strong overtones of political protest and feminist empowerment. It's still hard to keep a straight face while watching spacey beauticians talk about their "selfless service" and how they're "healing the city" with their classes in makeup, massage, and meditation.
Admirably, instead of sticking by the unintentionally comic Westerners, Mermin focuses on Beauty Without Borders' beneficiaries, the Afghan women who lived under the Taliban's strict laws against makeup or exposed female skin, and who hid their perms under burkas, risking beatings or worse. She enters their houses to see the covert salons they ran to support their families, and listens to them discuss their lives under Sharia law, and their attitudes toward power and relationships today. She observes them eagerly awaiting access to the makeshift Western-sponsored salon, and then at classes, where the skills they learn are as much about financial survival as vanity. Her focus is sometimes too narrow, as she never touches on the political or social difficulties Beauty Without Borders faces, and she leaves many questions unanswered. But her heart is in the right place, and so is the film's.
Nonetheless, the Westerners dominate the story, because they're so obliviously outrageous—particularly "Debbie," who introduces herself by demanding that her Afghan pupils focus on moving their country's fashion sense forward: "You're stuck in a rut!" she bellows. "You're stuck in a hole in the past that you can't get out of!" Later, tooling around in a car, to disbelieving and hostile male glares, she gaily chatters about how comfortable she feels in "the first country that needed me, that needed my skills," and she snorts at pedestrians, "Lose the burka, ladies, and get a car!" Mermin presents all this without editorial comment, and her film would be worth watching if only for its look at a profound culture-clash. But it goes one better, and delves into one of those clashing cultures, capturing it in a moment of change that goes far beyond one beauty academy's superficial concerns.