The Beauty Academy of Kabul

Showing at Varsity, Fri., April 28–Thurs., May 4. Not rated. 74 minutes.

You might pass off the premise of this documentary as frivolous: Six American hairdressers, funded by Vogue, Clairol, M.A.C., and others, open a beauty school in Afghanistan in 2003, after the U.S. invasion has ousted the Taliban. But the titular academy's efforts aren't entirely in vain. It won't solve the country's 40 percent unemployment rate, yet it might put a few dozen women on the payroll. And judging by the multitude of women pushing through the door to get groomed by academy students, it's clear that there's a demand.

While Afghan women are often depicted as hidden creatures, Academy brings strong individual personalities to center stage. There's Palwasha, the beautiful daughter who's been in love, secretly, for nine years with a man her parents wouldn't approve of her marrying. Another student—all smiles and giggles—explains how she secretly operated a busy salon from her home during the years the Taliban barely allowed women out of the house. Talk about motivated customers!

Academy doesn't ignore the hardships these Afghan women still face. When an obnoxious teacher berates her students for having makeup that's "stuck in a rut," one stands up immediately to argue. She counters, logically, that Afghan women are thrown out of the house for excessive frivolities, like flashy makeup. (To be fair, some of the other teachers are absolute gems. Director Liz Mermin simply lets the more ignorant, insensitive ones embarrass themselves on camera.)

Culture conflicts like this are about much more than makeup. In dirt-poor Kabul, we learn, cosmetic arts can pay the bills. One student operates a home salon and makes considerably more money than her husband. In the same breath, she says Afghan women will never be able to apply that power in society, because men won't allow it. But at least these future beauticians are taking positive steps toward greater personal independence.

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