Girl Model is a documentary that gives a different take on the notorious modelling industry than its title suggests. Going into this, one would expect a scathing picture of the physical torments, body-image issues and other predictable horrors of the modelling industry. Instead, this documentary focuses on the uncharted territory of the supply of young models between Siberia and Japan. It may not make an impacting statement but Girl Model is nevertheless a bleak, honest insight into the exploitation of innocence.
The film centres around two main characters. One is 14 year-old Nadya, a heart-wrenchingly innocent girl who lives in rural Siberia. We follow her as she goes through the auditions for Noah’s Modelling Agency, gets recruited, and is then whisked off to Tokyo with the promise of a great modelling career.
Equally intriguing is the story of Ashley Arbaugh, the scout who discovered Nadya and who is a former model herself. Her ambivalence and dulling dispassion towards her job and the models infuses the whole film with an uneasiness; a lingering lack of belief in the viewer that the hapless Nadya is in good hands.
Right from the beginning, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin establish a bleak and sombre mood. Watching any modelling auditions in any country can be a depressing experience, but here it is exacerbated by the fact that these naïve, poorly educated girls have no clue as to what they’re doing; illustrated fittingly by their show reels, in which they hold placards and are guided to introducing themselves in English (which most of them don’t even understand).
The auditions early in the film – the grey lighting, the blank facial expressions, minimal clothing – evoke images of cattle being herded into a slaughterhouse. Even though these girls have vague dreams of modelling stardom, the viewer is never under any illusions about the futility of this process.
Once Nadya gets selected and taken to Tokyo – that mecca of social alienation – an air of hopelessness takes over the film, making it difficult to watch at times. Holed up in a small room with a fellow aspiring model, Nadya goes to audition after audition with her ineffectual agent (ironically named Messiah), only to face constant rejection. It’s not long before Nadya’s better-educated and more clued-up room-mate intentionally breaches her contract and gets sent home, leaving Nadya on her lonesome.
The hopelessness of Nadya’s situation becomes apparent a little too quickly to remain engaging for the film’s whole viewing time. What upholds the intrigue, however, are the morally grey people working for the agency. The dead-eyed scout Ashley is a scarily detached presence whose life we get some insight into.
Particularly interesting are the recordings she took of herself when she was a young model in Japan. These haunting clips show a wide-eyed Ashley looking as if she’s on the verge of insanity, and it’s hard not to think that there must be a link between her experiences as a model and her current detached state.
The Russian model recruiter Tigran is an equally tough-to-read character. He talks of himself as a saviour for these girls, wanting to give them opportunities that most girls in this remote part of Russia can only dream of. However, inter-cutting this with the reality of Nadya’s experience suggests that he’s way off the mark. Then there is the Japanese contact Messiah. While little is revealed of his character, his fumbling inability to answer the simple question, ‘Why bring the models to Tokyo if they’re not guaranteed work?’ is comical, disturbing, and hugely revealing.
Girl Model does not shock us into thought. Instead, it despondently drifts to a conclusion in which Nadya, the epitome of innocence, comes back from her experience a little wiser to the workings of a cold and exploitative world. There are few surprises here for us cynical Western viewers who already know that this is how things work, but seeing the process so vividly in action is nevertheless a poignant experience.