There is an uncomfortable, eerie, and saddening feeling that runs throughout the course of the documentary Girl Model (2011). Directed by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, the film examines the life of young fashion models as they embark on a strange and disconcerting trip that takes them from their home country to a foreign place where success and fame are apparently waiting for them. The harsh reality, though, is anything but that dream. When speaking of the world of fashion and modeling, one might think of flashing lights, bright runways, and designer clothing. This film, however, sheds all of the glitz and glamour to reveal something very unsettling, where certain people’s moral compasses are turned upside down, and where young girls get into situations that are beyond their understanding and control. It’s a film that’s effectiveness strengthens more after you have seen it, because you start to realize that it goes far beyond those that are portrayed.
From the very beginning, we start to feel that there is something wrong happening. The opening of the film takes place in Siberia, where we are introduced to a roomful of young girls, all dressed in swimsuits, waiting in line to take their pictures. They are all a part of a casting call, waiting to see who the lucky person will be to go overseas and get a contract for a modeling job. These are young girls, ranging anywhere from thirteen to sixteen years of age. We overhear a modeling scout say that for parents that wish their child to enter the fashion world, they must start training them somewhere around the ages of five to ten. Among those picked is Nadya, a thirteen-year-old girl. Nadya is like any other kid her age: innocent, a bit naïve, and excited to be a part of what seems to be a new adventure. She gets a contract to work in Japan, and before she knows it, is whisked away from her family and everything she knows, on a plane towards Tokyo.
Things are not as Nadya expects once she arrives there, and as she begins to experience exactly what her purpose is, it is revealed that nothing is as she was told it would be. This part worried me immensely, because for someone who is barely a teenager, she goes through hoops and much difficulty, and is taken advantage of before she can prevent it from happening. No jobs are waiting for her in Japan, no one around speaks her language or can translate what is being told to her, she shares a one-room apartment with another model, she is instructed to lie and say that she’s fifteen, and the company she works for does not pay her any money. Her contact stipulates that if she gains one centimeter in her hips, waist, or chest, she will be sent back to Siberia, owing the agency for her expenses. Even more flagrantly, a clause in the contract says that the company can change the terms of the agreement at any time. So, in reality, Nadya was sent to Japan without any legality to help protect her or provide for her well being.
Does this seem a bit like human trafficking to you? It does to me, and even though none of these girls are taken by physical force, they are lied to and manipulated into an unfair agreement. It’s quite unnerving, when I think about it, to be brought to a foreign place and have to deal with your own safety with no one there to guide you. This is where we meet the second main character of the film, Ashley Arbaugh. Ashley provides a unique insight into this world, being the talent scout for the agency that picked Nadya and sent her to Japan. Ashley is a fascinating character, but very troubling in the way she works her operation. Being a former model herself, Ashley pushed that career aside and quickly became a scout, holding auditions and being responsible for picking these girls to send away.
To see Ashley examine the models who are barely into puberty, and critique every part about them was disturbing, from height and weight to complexion and personality. Going further, I would say that the darkest parts of the film involve Ashley herself. She is presented in an off-kilter way—her outlook is completely narrowed to fit her own purpose. Ashley openly admits to hating the fashion world, and yet sustains it in her occupation. She’ll say in interviews that all of her clients find success in Japan, when that is clearly not the case. And the worst part about it all is the way she justifies it to herself. Ashley draws the connection between what models go through and the selection process of underage prostitutes, and goes so far as to say that it may even be possible to find more success in prostitution, although she confesses to never seeing that first hand. Again, these are thirteen-year-old girls we’re talking about.
It’s scary, really, to see all of the people involved in this story, and know how deeply troubling the business is, and yet see no one step up and say that it must stop. Nadya needs to work to make money and provide for her family, and her family wants her to be successful and have a good life. Ashley sees it as a business with the models as her product, but believes she is not the bad guy because she doesn’t force them against their will—as long as she’s not the one in front of the camera, everything is fine. And the vicious cycle goes on and on. Girl Model is a haunting film that sticks with you whether you want it to or not. Redmon and Sabin have created an unflinching film, with their cameras deeply fixed on the subject matter and refusing to turn away. It sheds light on an industry that I am not familiar with, and shows the dark side of something most people only see the glimmering surface of. I want to say that this is a film you should see, but only if you are in the mood for its subject matter. It’s very dark and twisted, and does not provide any easy answers. For as well-made and penetrating this documentary is, I’m not so sure I’ll be eager to see it again anytime soon.
Final Grade: B+