Girl Model is an unsettling documentary by American filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin about the unknown (to me, at least) industry of young female models. The film primarily focuses on two main characters: Ashley (not the director), a former model turned model scout, and the thirteen-year-old Nadya. The film begins in Siberia, where the modeling agency that employs Ashley makes stops in several poor and remote villages and stages auditions. Of the many young girls that came out to line up in bikinis and underwear to be photographed and inspected, Nadya is selected to travel to Tokyo to become a model. (Ashley explains that every country has their own preferences for beauty, and Japan likes extremely young, and even prepubescent-looking, girls.) Nadya and her family are overjoyed, as they are very poor and struggling to get by. According to her contract, Nadya is promised a minimum of $2000 and two guaranteed modeling jobs (or something like that, I didn’t write down the exact numbers).
When Nadya arrives in Tokyo, she quickly learns that her time there will be more challenging than she expected. She is dropped off at a tiny, dingy, studio apartment that she shared with another young aspiring model. She spent her days auditioning, but with the language barrier, she seemed to have little idea what was expected of her, or even what was going on at all. She would simply be trucked around to various agencies, as they critiqued her in Japanese. As the weeks progress, not only has neither girl been paid, but they are in fact falling into deeper and deeper debt to the modeling agency, as they are being charged for their living expenses. Nadya’s roommate decides she wants to leave Tokyo. The girls notice a clause their contract dictating that they would be immediately fired and sent home if they gained one centimeter in their bust, waist, or hips, so she decides to binge eat, and is sent home several thousand dollars in debt with no modeling work. Nadya does secure one modeling job while in Tokyo, however in the photographs her face is entirely obscured by a long black wig. She too is ultimately sent home in debt.
The film is obviously dark and upsetting, but it left me with so many unanswered questions. Perhaps in our age of America’s Next Top Model, the directors expected a certain base understanding of the modeling industry, but I could have used some more guidance. I would have appreciated a narrator or on-screen captions saying things like “This is a recruiter. It is the recruiter’s job to…” or “Nadya is now auditioning for…” Maybe I just have a way below average understanding of modeling, but the whole time I kept asking myself very basic questions that could have been easily explained, and would have made for a much more educational film.
Additionally, the filmmakers failed to elaborate on certain themes that were mentioned in passing, often by Ashley (who was an utter enigma as a character, hovering between denial and insanity). Themes like prostitution and sex trafficking, and illegal underage models. These are issues that could use some unpacking. Ashley would say something like, “We all know that some girls turn to prostitution (though she never even says the word), but I don’t have any first-hand evidence of that,” and then she would move onto another topic. I think in cases like this, it is the filmmakers role to step in; if not to press Ashley further in the interview than at least to provide the audience with a statistic or something. However, the directors seemed determined to keep the narrative confined to the claustrophobic world of the characters that they were following, leaving the audience to scratch their heads and speculate. Additionally, with no additional information, the viewer is left with no idea about the scope of the problem. Are situations like this the exception or the rule? Are they limited to Japan, or to this one particular agency, or should we now assume that any photograph we see in a fashion magazine has a crying Russian child behind it? What can we do to prevent situations like this? We simply are never given any of the answers.
Girl Model was an engaging and disturbing documentary, though it left me wanting to know more. It showed us the characters and told us their story, but left out a lot of the context necessary to create a holistic understanding. I’ll probably end up trying to do some more research about the topic to answer some of the questions that I had, but it would have been nice it the directors had done that work for me.