CINEMA Girl Model
Beauty proves to be a gift and a curse for a 13-year-old Russian girl on a trip to Japan, hoping to make it as a model, and the agency scout that recounts her own journey through a morally controversial industry.
A seasoned model turned scout scours a crowd of young girls in Siberia, each is eager to follow in her footsteps on the path to a career in Japan. It’s their chance to live the dream of working overseas, earning good money for themselves and their families. But being told that they need to be on a diet at 13, being left alone in a foreign country with no money, and no language skills to ask for help, is far from a dream, which is what we soon witness when Nadya is given her shot at modelling.
As Nadya begins her journey, the model turned scout, Ashley Arbaugh recounts her own tail of the industry, through personal accounts to camera, video diaries, old footage and photos. The two stories intertwine and evolve together to show modelling a decade apart.
As the pieces of Ashley’s life unfold before us, Nadya travels the same trail, seemingly destined for the same disappointments, if not greater dismay, while the fortunes seem all the more unreachable with each and every step…
This documentary is no surprise in content but an impressive emotive portrait of the world of young models and the many questions of its morals. An unsettling insight into the recruiting/trafficking of Russian girls into Japan’s model industry, it leaves you feeling as much an exploiter for watching as the model agency that profits from it all. The main reason for our guilt is that our attention lies not in the tragic tale of the innocent and manipulated Nadya but that of Ashley.
Girl Model has a most unique window to this world in the form of Ashley Arbaugh. In fact, it is not really the story of Nadya at all. Much in the way Nadya is used in the model world, she is used in the documentary as a front to the real story of Ashley, a most complex and contradictory person, who we see progress from young model, through depression, hate for her work, acceptance and, finally, becoming a corrupt instigator of the vicious cycle – someone who lies to get young girls into dubious contracts.
After seeing home videos Ashley made in her youth, confessing to camera her sadness, disinterest and even disgust for the industry, it is shocking to see her at the forefront, knowingly sending girls to a fruitless career (the large home with swimming pool in America that she speaks to us from surely helps ease her conscience). Even worse still are her comments about the way some girls pose, suggesting them for prostitution if modelling fails. It’s all too chilling to think that an agency may see those initial casting videos and have other uses for the girls in mind, but what’s worse is that Ashley doesn’t seem to think it’s an unnatural progression.
The film, surprisingly, does not offer any hope. Not at any point do you believe she’ll make it somehow.
Apart from Ashley, who digs her own grave in her blatant and heartless deception to recruit girls, the moral dilemma of Girl Model lies in looking at the people that contribute to Nadya’s misfortune along the way, and realising that it’s not so easy to assign blame, as one older model explains. It has a good range of interviews and contacts from both models and business men, from the cold money-making types to an agency man that somewhat convinces you that his heart is in the right place. All together, this paints a fairly abstract picture that leaves you, the viewer, to define the lines between naivety and malice.
It seems that the filmmakers have done their best to not get involved while filming, but there are times that you wonder how they managed it, especially when Nadya pleads directly to them for help when she is left alone and scared. Thus, our guilt feels like a reflection of their process and, in a way, forgives the trickery of editing to pull on our heartstrings.
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin know how to do this all too well. Take for instance Nadya. Her youth and innocence is definitely played up, with shots of her holding her mum’s hand, and comparative shots of her face with that of a doll. Perhaps she is genuinely this innocent, but much of it is down to the language barrier she has to contend with in Japan. Despite this, she survives mostly on her own for months, something any 30-year-old, let alone someone of just 13 years of age, would be proud of. Despite this blatant screen manipulation, we forgive it because for those important, juicy moments (like Ashley’s confessions and an interview with a model recruiter on the morals of his work), the camera mostly just watches, feeling as uninterrupted and honest as possible.
The film, surprisingly, does not offer any hope. Not at any point do you believe she’ll make it somehow, or something will happen to make it work, and this is both to the films benefit and detriment. It makes for a disheartening viewing to see Nadya tearful at every other moment as she puts her livelihood on the line for a dream we know will end in debt and hardship. As far as social exposé documentaries go, its content isn’t as surprising or sinful by far, which somehow makes it worse in being easier to forget. It is more intriguing than shocking, but you won’t want a second viewing in the unaccountable way we can turn off the TV and shut out such realities.
Girl Model is a film about exploitation. A young girl shipped off to make money for an agency that she’ll never see, an agency scout using this tale to get a documentary made about her own experiences, a documentary crew selectively observing it all to put it onto the screen, and an audience watching it from far away, being grateful of that distance. The question is who is the most exploited, and who is the greatest exploiter.
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