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The Beauty Academy of Kabul

If you think the idea of bossy Western women moving to Afghanistan's war-torn capital, Kabul, to open a beauty school for women who've only just shed their burkas is just about the silliest thing you've ever heard, you're in for quite a surprise. For many Afghan women emerging from the brutal repressions of the Taliban regime  whose draconian restrictions forbade them to work, attend school or appear in public unaccompanied by a man and clad in anything but head-to-toe veils  the opportunity to put on a public face and attend an educational institution of any kind marked a huge leap toward something remotely resembling normalcy. Liz Mermin's warm, funny and hugely entertaining documentary follows a group of determined American and English hairdressers as they fearlessly attempt to help build a future for the war-ravaged country by founding a beauty academy in downtown Kabul. Some, like Sima, are native-born Afghans who never thought they'd return to the country they fled decades earlier during the Soviet invasion. They were drawn to the Beauty Without Borders program as a means of reawakening in Kabul the sophistication and sense of pride it once knew. Others, like blowsy, Indiana-bred Debbie, just feel an affinity for Kabul and its long-suffering women, and are determined to get these Afghan gals out of their "rut" and into some makeup. Whatever their backgrounds, these bravely optimistic volunteers, who arrive from New York on a rotating schedule, take their work very, very seriously, and it sometimes seems that the absence of a complete understanding of the country's political realities works to their benefit. And while it's easy to chuckle at their plucky sense of purpose, you can't help but be humbled by the stories of their eager students, many of them war widows who, despite the Taliban's strict injunctions against their working, found ways to feed their families by turning their homes into clandestine beauty parlors. Now free to attend the academy and practice their art in the open, these same women are making up to $6 a week, an almost unheard of sum in today's Kabul. So laugh all you want at the proud haircutters of Beauty Without Borders — but don't underestimate what a basic cut and color can mean for a country's future.