Mermin Brings Beauty to New Era

How far would you go for a decent haircut? Documentary filmmaker Liz Mermin, director of “The Beauty Academy of Kabul” (see review, right) traveled all the way to Afghanistan to film the efforts of Beauty Without Borders, a group of American beauticians who have committed themselves to teaching the newly liberated women of Kabul to clip, snip, and crimp themselves to picture-perfection. Mermin spoke with The Crimson in a phone interview last week and will appear for a question and answer session at the opening of “The Beauty Academy of Kabul” at the Kendall Square Theatre, on Friday, April 21 at 7 p.m.

The Harvard Crimson: What inspired you to document the efforts of Beauty Without Borders?

Liz Mermin: I came across a article about this organization in the New York Times, and it kind of jumped out immediately as something that was completely crazy. As a documentary filmmaker that meant it would make a great story.

THC: Several scenes in the documentary played like comedy. Is the premise of your film inherently comedic?

LM: The film doesn’t tell you what to think. People aren’t entirely sure whether the film is mocking the project or taking it seriously—which is intentional. I don’t want to tell people what to think. There’s a huge range of responses as to what people laugh at. I like the idea of finding humor in a foreign culture. It becomes much more real to you when that happens. It’s a basic humanist idea.

THC: Which of the Afghani students inspired you the most?

LM: I had the strongest connection to Palwasha, the young girl with the crush on the boy she wasn’t allowed to talk to. She was 19 and so brash and flirty and fun. She clearly wanted to have a more interesting life than she was able to have in a two-room apartment with her mother and sister. She had an insatiable curiosity about our lives. She didn’t want to pick up and move to New York, but she had a restlessness about her. She kept her spirit up despite intolerable circumstances.

THC: Which of the American beauticians inspired you most?

LM: Everyone in this film was so different from anyone I knew from my ordinary life. There was a naive optimism about them that is the opposite of my worldview. I was sometimes frustrated by the...lack of understanding they had about the nuances of the situation.

Debbie [one of the outspoken and brash beauticians with Beauty without Borders], I thought, was going to get us killed, and I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to finish a film with her. She also triggered the fear of being the “ugly American.” But she won me over in the end. And the Afghan people opened up to her much more quickly than with some of the other Americans. She was genuinely warm. She won me over. I still think she’s crazy, but not horrifying.

THC: Can Beauty Without Borders improve the quality of life for Afghanistan’s women?

LM: No, not in any large scale way. But for the 20 women who were in the first class, yes. It really was an oasis. I don’t think that it made an across the board change, but on a small level it improved lives.

THC: Have Afghani women’s lives improved in the post-Taliban era?

LM: Formerly they couldn’t even leave the house, and they were hiding behind thick curtains and watching Bollywood movies all day. But now that the Taliban is gone there is crime everywhere. There isn’t any curfew anymore, but women don’t feel safe on the streets. But I didn’t find anyone who was happier under the Taliban.

—Staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at