When Liz Mermin flew to Afghanistan to shoot her documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" in 2003, she was consumed by dread. Never mind that she had previously trailed abortion doctors dodging murderous pro-lifers for her film, "On Hostile Ground."
Now she was heading for even more hostile ground, despite the state department advisories, the mines planted in the roads, the bombs exploding in women's schools. Mermin was hoping to profile an equally controversial school -- one for hairdressers who had run secret salons under the Taliban. She was well aware that women who wore makeup in public still risked having acid thrown in their faces.
As a Jew, she was also cognizant of the extra risks of venturing into extremist Muslim territory. The 2001 murder of Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl was never far from her thoughts.
"I was afraid of being attacked as an American and a representative of the West," she said in a telephone interview from her Manhattan apartment. "But I knew I was after a great story and I was incredibly curious about what I might find."
Her curiosity began after she read a 2002 New York Times article about the proposed school, which was backed by the magazine Vogue and volunteer Americans stylists:"I thought, 'Of all the things Afghanistan needs, how could a beauty school be anywhere but near the bottom of the list.'"
Yet Mermin was also intrigued that crude home salons had flourished under the Taliban, and that customers still wanted to look glamorous for the all-female parties where they could safely remove their burkas. Skilled hairdressers were paid 10 times more than physicians; cosmetology remains the most lucrative career for women in Kabul, Mermin says.
The project pushed her activist buttons. Her parents were Cornell professors who linked Judaism, in part, to social justice. Her mother, she says, helped spearhead Cornell's African American studies classes.
Mermin studied African, French and American literature at Harvard and explored Senegal's emerging free press and cinema on a 1993 Fullbright scholarship. She profiled gun-toting pro-choice activists in "Hostile Ground."
The women she spotlighted in Kabul were even more vulnerable. When Mermin began production there in 2003 -- amid sandstorms and 110-degree heat -- she shot images of men glaring through windows of the school, which was protected by armed guards and a helicopter.
She kept mum about her Judaism, though she says she heard no anti-Semitic or anti-Israel rhetoric throughout her three-month stay. (The one time a woman asked her religion, the translator didn't know the word for Jew.) She says she never felt she was in any real danger.
After 21 students were selected from hundreds of applicants, she filmed women unfurling their stories along with their hair curlers. Fauzia, who married at 14, says she had hoped to become a doctor before the Taliban kicked women out of schools. She made good money as a hairdresser, since women were eager to look as coiffed as they had when Kabul was a modern city. But when customers left the salons, the burkas went back on.
"I saw them cut off hands and feet," another student says of women who had painted nails. "I saw three women in burkas doused with gasoline and set on fire."
Meanwhile, Afghan American teacher Shaima Ali cries with the widows in class, describing how her own husband was murdered during the Soviet occupation.
"When I saw the devastation of the [common] people after Sept. 11, I felt so guilty for being alive," Ali, 49, told The Journal. "I could not eat or sleep. I was so desperate to help, but I thought, 'I'm a hairdresser, what can I do?'" She says the school answered her question.
But some of the teachers "prove that altruism and ugly American behavior aren't incompatible," as Slant magazine noted.
"There were definitely moments when I was cringing behind the camera," Mermin says. In one scene, a spiky-haired American barks, "You're in a rut, guys," when pupils don't wear makeup to class.
"The teachers were demonstrating how to shampoo and use hairdryers, when most Afghan salons don't have electricity or running water," Mermin adds. "Many function with just one comb and wooden sticks instead of perm rods."
Mermin says she often cut away to students staring blankly or amusedly at their teachers, to create a gently satirical tone.
So far the film has earned overwhelmingly good reviews (The New York Times called it "hilarious" and "moving"), although the Independent chastised the school for targeting lifeless hair rather than saving lives. Mermin agrees, to a point, stating that if she were to donate funds to Afghan relief, it would not be to the beauty school.
But she does take offense at the suggestion that her film is propaganda for what Americans have done for Afghanistan. "They simply don't get the irony in the film," she says.
"Kabul" opens April 28 in Los Angeles.