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MOVIE REVIEW

'Beauty' puts realistic face on Afghanistan

After decades of military coups, Soviet invasion, and crushing religious dictatorship, what do the women of the ruined capital of Afghanistan really need? ''The Beauty Academy of Kabul" says they need a makeover. The odd thing is that the movie has a point.

Liz Mermin's documentary takes place in early 2003, a year after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban, but it has little interest in global politics, partisan or otherwise. Instead, it follows a group of American and British hair stylists who, funded by corporate sponsors in the beauty industry, landed in Kabul to teach Afghan women how to run their own salons. In the process, ''Beauty Academy" says as much about well-intentioned Western naivete as about the tragedies and endurance of one country's second-class citizens.

Not that women went without perms under the Taliban's brutal rule. A number of the ''students" who sign up for the academy in the opening scenes ran their own clandestine beauty parlors out of their apartments, providing hairdos that were then covered up under burkas. Sometimes Taliban men dropped their wives off, looking the other way. At other times the hairdressers were told that they were ''shaming the heads of women." One student calmly recalls the daily atrocities: ''I saw three women in burkas doused in gasoline and set on fire."

To them, the beauty specialists from America and England could have landed from Mars. Tricia, the chief organizer of ''Beauty Without Borders," is a willowy Brit who takes no guff from Afghani bureaucrats holding up her shipment of ''deadheads" -- mannequin heads for the women to practice on. Terri, a New York stylist, tries to achieve a Zen-like calm to shut out the glares of the local men.

At least these two meet the culture halfway; after a while, Terri is replaced by Debbi from Indiana, a pugnacious ugly American who exhorts the women to never leave home without makeup. ''It's your job to set the trends," she shouts at her students. ''If you guys don't do it, how will Afghanistan change?" Maybe the bulldozer tactics work at home, but they reveal a cringing, almost comical lack of awareness in Kabul.

The women react much more strongly to teachers like Sima and Shaima, Afghan women who fled their country for America over two decades ago and have returned to find a homeland reverted to medievalism. Sima mourns the Kabul she knew, a modern city with universities and beautiful buildings that have all become rubble; the students easily share her tears. In these scenes you understand what Mermin is getting at: that decent haircuts can mean everything to women whose government destroyed their sense of self as a matter of theocratic principle.

The stories of the individual students, as we get to know them, are the heart of the movie, and they're rich, delightful, infinitely moving. Through these women and their daughters, we're privileged to see a society clambering to its feet, constantly fearing it could be pushed back down at any moment. When Nazira opens her apartment salon at the end of the movie, after graduating from the academy with honors, she gets so many clients that she makes more money than her husband -- and still minds the kids and cleans house and has his dinner ready. To do otherwise would be to risk getting thrown into the street.

It's that gulf between earnest idealism and beaten-down realism that's the unexpected drama of ''Beauty Academy." Toward the end, one of the Americans asks, ''What if women were in power?" Her student replies, ''Women could never run Afghanistan because men wouldn't let them. Where are the laws?" When the American lapses into depressed silence, the student asks, ''Was my response wrong?"

Of course not. It's just not something an Anna Wintour Award for Excellence can fix.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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