‘Girl Model’: Documentary On a Catwalk Toward Exploitation

The ‘Girl Model’ documentary follows one girl’s journey from Siberia to Japan, raising a host of questions about the beauty business.

Girl Model is a documentary that follows a group of aspiring models in Siberia who dream of a career in the industry. (Photo: Courtesy of Carnivalesque Films)

Sep 7, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

The Girl Model documentary began its theatrical rollout in New York City on September 5, just a short distance from the annual festivities of New York Fashion Week. There couldn’t be a greater gulf between the glamour on display at the latest Badgley Mischka and Anna Sui shows and the opening moments of the Girl Model documentary.

A trail of teenage girls in bathing suits appears as the Girl Model documentary begins. The teens are lined up inside a warehouse. The feel inside the building is even chillier than the Siberian cold outside. The waifish young Russians—assume most of them come from impoverished backgrounds—stand and wait to be judged, hoping to win a contract that will allow them to support their families while traveling abroad for what they envision as a lucrative career in modeling.

“Showing up at those castings with the amount of girls that were there and at the same time, their age was incredibly surprising,” Ashley Sabin tells TakePart. Sabin codirected the film with her husband, David Redmon. “We had no idea what to expect once we got to Siberia, and it just floored me.”

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The quantity and the youth of the girls chasing the modeling dream were only the first of the surprises in store for Sabin and Redmon.

The Girl Model documentary follows Nadya, a fair-skinned 13-year-old who emerges as the winner of a contract in Japan where her pale complexion and wide eyes are prized. However, the unexpected developments that Sabin and Redmon encounter in Siberia, and subsequently Tokyo, were preceded by a string of twists and turns long before the cameras started to roll.

The couple had been approached by a former American model-turned-scout, Ashley Arbaugh, who had caught a double feature of their films Intimidad and Kamp Katrina at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Aprised of the model recruitment industry, the directing duo was intrigued by the themes of globalization that ran through a previous film, Mardi Gras: Made in China, which tracked the creation of beaded necklaces from a factory with poor working conditions in Fuzhou, China, to around the necks of drunken revelers in New Orleans.

“Ashley selected the girl, whoever the girl was going to be; we would follow the girl from the casting to her hometown and then onto Japan. It essentially becomes very similar to our movie Mardi Gras: Made in China, which is a commodity chain,” Sabin tells TakePart. “The girls stand in for this commodity, which is whatever the agencies want out of them, and then you follow that chain and where it brings you.”

The path ultimately diverged from what Arbaugh had originally pitched to the filmmakers—a film that would delve into a connection between modeling and prostitution that is only hinted at in the final product.

Sabin and Redmon navigated a less sensationalized approach that’s equally provocative.

The Girl Model documentary explores the moral gray area that appears to exist at every level of the modeling world, particularly as it relates to girls as young as Nadya. The gray area includes Arbaugh. The former model’s history leaves her fully aware of and troubled by the industry’s practices, and yet she remains a part of it. Arbaugh’s ambivalence is presented onscreen as a parallel to Nadya’s story.

Rachel Blais, another model who appears in the film, was inspired since Girl Model premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year to spearhead a campaign to pursue legislation and regulation that would prevent minors from gaining work visas or obtain representation for adult fashion. The hope is that legislation would lead to less children being placed in the same precarious, adult positions as Nadya is in the film.

With the theatrical release of the Girl Model documentary, director Sabin additionally hopes the film will be a platform to bring attention to the reality behind the flood of ads and magazine covers we consume on a daily basis.

“David and I are hoping that people [begin to ask when] you go into the grocery store and you see images all the time, what’s beyond the image?”

What ways can children be protected when they enter the adult world of fashion modeling? Leave some safeguards in COMMENTS.