Girl Model | reviews, news & interviews
Little fun on the catwalk as Russian teenage would-be model hits Japan
American documentary directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin have made a reputation with stories that study, as they describe it, “variations of truth and falseness”. Their latest, Girl Model, is just that, in spades. It tells the story of 13-year-old Russian teenage would-be model Nadya, plucked from the talent contests of Siberia to work in the potentially lucrative Japanese fashion market, where the premium is on youth.
That strong clash of cultures is enhanced by a distinction between sheer naivety - in Nadya’s expectations of what she will be doing - and the reality of an industry in which exploitation is all too often the name of the game. Redmon and Sabin evidently aren't out to expose what they witnessed, just to illustrate – though the hints at murkier edges of the whole business are clear.
The documentarist’s dilemma is whether to intervene or not in what they are filming
A sense of contradiction remains throughout the film, not least because of the character of their lead-in to the story, also called Ashley, in her time an American teenage model in Japan who has now turned scout looking for Russian hopefuls. We see home videos of her thoroughly miserable time a decade earlier modelling in Tokyo – and then her selling the experience to Russian girls in the provinces who are desperate for any route out into the wider world. Their unhappiness, loneliness and sense of being caught up in an anonymous system they don’t understand (literally, since they have little or no English, and no sign of a minder) will only repeat Ashley's own past.
And that’s before we see Ashley in her own home environment – a starkly modern Connecticut house, devoid of any personal touches, except for a couple of naked plastic dolls who spookily seem to be some sort of child surrogate (there had been a third one, Ashley admits, before she pulled it to pieces). Or witness her hospital operation to have tumours removed, which again raises an issue of (absent) children. Vulnerability and coldness combine in her, as well as a need to control.
There's more initial clarity in Nadya’s story. She’s from a village outside the Siberian town of Novosibirsk, its winter chill memorably depicted in the opening shots, and her family background seems a supportive one (pictured right with her grandmother, and some potential magic slippers). There’s no sense that she is being pushed into a modelling career. If anything it’s the unreasonable level of trust shown by her parents that stands out, as they sign a contract in English and Japanese that they can’t understand (which includes clauses that allow almost any pretext to terminate the agreement at the discretion of the agency). The Russian intermediary in the process, a talent agent called Tigran, runs an outfit named after Noah, and sees his mission to save such young girls as a “religious matter”. His Japanese counterpart is nicknamed “Messiah”.
Nadya is one of two Russian girls the film tracks – the second, Madlen, ends up as her only companion in Japan (because she can speak good enough English, and has a mobile, she’s also her main support). Nadya’s arrival in Japan immediately sets the directors up against the documentarist’s familiar dilemma of whether to intervene or not in what they are filming: no one meets her at Tokyo airport, and she's lost with only a Russian-English dictionary to explain her plight. Clearly they turned the camera off as they escorted her into the city to find the very basic accommodation awaiting her. What follows – as she attends casting session after casting session in which the models are rarely told if work will ensue, or what fees may be involved - is remorseless.
The sense of Nadya's sheer loneliness, of being a teenager in an alien culture who just wants to go home, has her bursting into tears more than once. Does that leave a sense that the film itself is exploiting her position too? It’s a debatable point, although it's possible that the presence of the camera may actually be protecting her.
One of the film’s most powerful images is of Nadya’s picture being churned out again and again from a photocopier, a symbol of the individual's depersonalisation in this working world. We might like to think that when Nadya is sent home early, still in debt to the Japanese modeling agency, that she’s well out of it. The closing titles reveal that she’s off on new jobs in China and Taiwan.
- Girl Model is on release from Friday, 10 February
Watch the trailer to Girl Model
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