Shortly after the downfall of the Taliban regime, the media relayed many stories illustrating the great liberties given to Afghan women by democracy: their newfound ability to drive and go to school, their right to not wear the burqa and bizzarely, the establishment of beauty parlours.
It was as if the new semblance of democracy brought to Afghanistan had reinstalled the notion of beauty for the first time in years: women were pictured getting their hairdos in new salons, happily applying make-up or enjoying manicures. I remember having an uneasy feeling while watching the news, thinking that surely women were perfectly capable of caring for each other and making themselves feel beautiful without any American help.
It was therefore with great pleasure that I watched Caramel, one of the last movies to be shown at this year's Bird's Eye View festival. Set in Beirut, the movie follows the everyday pleasures and heartaches of five women working in a beauty salon. Without any reference to the conflicts which have been tearing the country apart for many decades, Nadine Labaki manages to create an intimate atmosphere thanks to colourful dialogue and a very likeable set of characters.
Far from Sex and the City and its assortment of westernised beauty standards, Caramel celebrates the contentment found in a routine where friendships, family matters and unrequited love are intertwined. Much like a female version of the Wayne Wang / Paul Auster comedy Blue in the Face, the viewer finds herself recognising a microcosm that is probably not the same as her own "planet", but one in which many similarities can be found.
While religious and country politics are not central to the movie, Labaki still dutifully points out the restrictions that are sometimes imposed on Caramel's characters: when Layale wants to book a hotel for her secret lover, she finds it impossible to do so without proving that she is married (unfortunately, she is not). Likewise, she has to get up in the middle of the night and lock herself in the bathroom in order to talk to the man she loves without her parents finding out. When her friend Nisrine tearfully admits to not being a virgin before her wedding, the girls decide to help her undergo a secret hymenoplasty.
Fortunately Caramel does not linger in political statements, and instead chooses to celebrate women's lives by underlining their strength, resourcefulness and independence through bittersweet moments and happy celebrations. It is both heart warming and tasteful, and makes for a very judicious choice from Bird's Eye View.