In 2003, director Liz Mermin (On Hostile Ground) and an all-woman crew spent ten weeks filming in Kabul, Afghanistan. They were not there to report on the ongoing war, but rather to follow a group of aspiring hairdressers.

The Beauty Academy of Kabul is about the first class of Afghan women to attend the beauty school, but it is also about their teachers, mostly American volunteers. The would-be hairdressers and make-up artists, all Taliban survivors, risk ridicule, exclusion, and beatings from their husbands for the opportunity to learn the latest coloring and curling techniques. One student vividly recalls the day she watched another woman set ablaze for defying Taliban law, and a teenage student frankly admits that her brother would beat her if she went out unaccompanied. The teachers, confronted with the ongoing taboos that for the Afghan women are simply a way of life, sometimes find themselves unable to suspend judgment and, Ugly American-style, rail against what they mistakenly view as their students' malaise.

In the end, it's hard to decide whether we're witnessing an effort to export Western artifice-among the school's financial backers is Vogue editor Anna Wintour-or whether, as one teacher says, the school is "healing Afghanistan one woman at a time." Mermin doesn't blush at sappy comments like this one: At one point, her camera stares, unblinkingly, as two teachers visiting a student's makeshift salon ask what she thinks would happen to Afghanistan if women were in charge. The question is a superficial stab at consciousness-raising, and the reply, that women will never be in charge of government or anything else in Afghanistan, is so unsettling that the teachers are stunned into speechlessness. The student, upset over their reaction, asks the translator if she's said something wrong.

Mermin's interests lie in portraying, and sometimes idealizing, women's relationships: On Hostile Ground, about abortion-clinic violence, features a moving portrait of activist/provider Susan Cahill's work, and Beauty Academy focuses on several transformative friendships, most memorably that of an insensitive teacher humbled by her students. Mermin is an incredibly perceptive and astute filmmaker, but she is still honing her editing skills: Some short sequences, such as the opening one on Afghan history, attempt to communicate too much, and others, like the one about an Afghan-born instructor returning after 20 years in the U.S., is cloying and far too long. The Beauty Academy of Kabul is more skillfully produced than On Hostile Ground, perhaps because Mermin's co-producer is Nigel Noble, Oscar winner for the short Close Harmony, but best-known for A Stitch in Time and in indie circles for the flawless and moving documentary The Charcoal People of Brazil, Brazil's entry in the 2000 Sundance Festival.

Mermin, who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, shares with Love and Diane director Jennifer Dworkin a decidedly leftist orientation, and a keen eye for discovering and illustrating archetypal conflicts in the everyday lives of women. Dworkin is the better filmmaker, but both share a Jean Renoir-like affection and awe for the women they portray: Their documentaries never cast women cleanly into the categories of victim or virago. It is that lack of small-minded judgment which distinguishes The Beauty Academy of Kabul and which makes it thoughtful, yet so much fun to watch.

-Maria Garcia