Girl Model (First Run Features, NR)

girlmodel sq_copyThe film creates the impression that you are observing the lives of these young women more or less as they happen.



The most amazing thing about Girl Model, a new documentary by David Redmond and Ashley Sabin, is the level of access the filmmakers achieved to people on the inside of the Siberia-to-Tokyo modeling pipeline. It’s a straightforward doc about some ugly realities underlying a glamorous profession, and after seeing it, you may think of this particular corner of the modeling trade as more akin to human trafficking than anything else.

The through-line in Girl Model is provided by the story of Nadya Vall, a strikingly beautiful 13-year-old who is plucked out of her village near Novosibirsk by Switch Models, and put on a plane to Tokyo to pursue a modeling career. Her motivation seems to be a combination of helping her family (her father notes says he will build an addition on their small house “if Nadya earns money”) and a not-atypical teenage ambition to be part of a bigger world than the one she was born to.

Nadya is beautiful and sweet, but she’s also a child who gets homesick and cries to her mother over the phone—when she can manage to borrow one to make the call. Neither she nor her parents have any idea how crooked the business is—that she may never be paid for photo shoots, for instance, and that the “guaranteed” jobs in her contract are just window dressing to satisfy the Japanese government. She also does not realize the significance of a clause in her contract that allows Switch to dismiss her if she should “gain 1 centimeter in the hips, waist or bust.” For a girl in the peak growth period of early adolescence, this means she can be terminated at any time, for any reason.

The other major presence in Girl Model is Ashley Arbaugh, a former model now working as a scout for Switch. She knows what Nadya does not, which is that most of the models will never get any significant amount of paying work, and will return home owing thousands of dollars borrowed from Switch. Even worse, some of them will become involved in prostitution—one profession in which where there’s always a market for leggy young blondes—as a means to pay back their debt. The whole business puts me in mind of the scene in The Godfather (the book; it was cut from the movie) in which the moral decay of Hollywood is symbolized by the producer Jack Woltz and his taste for sex with underage girls, a proclivity satisfied by a succession of stage mothers offering up their daughters in the hopes of getting a break in the business.

Ashley seems conflicted about the business she’s in, although not enough to give it up. You can’t say the same about Tigran, Nadya’s black leather-clad agent, who portrays himself as some kind of a social benefactor (“I’m saving these girls”) while looking every bit like a Russian gangster straight from Central Casting. The owner of Switch Models, referred to only as “Messiah,” also seems to have no doubts about the morality of his trade. First he says straight to the camera that “new girls” like Nadya can’t make any money as models in Japan, then justifies himself by saying that they will gain “new experiences” and “new pictures,” suggesting that both will help develop a modeling career. Where and when, he does not say.

The cinematography in Girl Model is workmanlike—mostly handheld shots with straightforward framing—but it gets the job done. In fact, the modesty of the film’s technical means is one of its strengths, as it creates the impression that you are observing the lives of these young women more or less as they happen. Although outrageous things happen in Girl Model, the film itself maintains an even keel, and Redmond and Sabin pay their viewers the compliment of assuming they don’t need to be told how to feel about each incident, but can observe and judge for themselves.

Girl Model won two prizes at the 2011 Rome Film Festival: Best Documentary and the ENEL CUORE award for Best Social Documentary. Extras on the DVD include text biographies of the filmmakers and six bonus video clips. There’s some interesting material in the latter, including Ashley’s story about “one of the guys” in Japan putting hidden cameras into the models’ apartments and selling the resulting videotapes. Gross, perhaps, but not out of line with a culture that treats barely pubescent girls as sex objects. | Sarah Boslaugh

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