Many questions, but don’t answer. I don’t hear answer.
“I would say that the main issue for me is that there is a lot of 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old girls,” says Rachel. She’s 23, and she’s been modeling for five years. She’s in a car on the street in Tokyo, en route to a casting, that is, a chance to be seen, made up, and maybe hired. “You can’t blame the girls, they’re just being sent,” Rachel goes on. “You can’t blame the families. Can we blame the agency that takes them in because a client will take them? Can we blame the client that will pretend or that won’t know actually how old those girls are?” she takes a breath. “There is no one to blame,” she concludes. “They all play blind, really.”
Rachel only appears in the superb documentary Girl Model for a moment, her commentary cut short when she has to scoot over on the seat for Nadya, one of those 13-year-olds. Recently arrived from Novosibirsk, Siberia, Nadya’s been told she might make money to support her family back home, that she might even find a career in modeling. “A lot of my friends and relatives tell me I look like a model,” says Nadya, curling her hair with the help of her mother. She’s one of the first girls identified on camera in Girl Model, after she’s recruited in Russia by Ashley, a scout for the Japanese company, Switch.
Ashley first appears while she’s surveying a stage full of girls who resemble Nadya: skinny, long-legged, and bikinied, hopeful and nervous. “I’m looking for a specific type of girl for the Japanese market,” Ashley explains. “The girls need to be a certain height, not too tall, cute, young. Young is very important.” Ashley turns her own camera on a few girls as they hold up handwritten papers noting their names and birthplaces. She shoots them with their hair up and down, from the side and from the front.
Ashley is a former model, but she got out of that part of “the business” because she felt she lacked control. Now, she finds girls, takes their pictures, and questions them. She presents their images to her employers. “It’s a group decision,” she explains, her face close to the camera. “And often it’s not what I believe is the best and sometimes the girl that I believe is so amazing for Japan doesn’t work at all. So,” she dads, “That’s what’s exciting about this business, ‘cause it’s totally unpredictable. Nobody knows.”
No one is to blame and nobody knows. So how do girls become models?
Likely, you’ve heard stories, stories about girls discovered in villages or trafficked by their uncles, children with ambitious mothers or unscrupulous agents. Girl Model—which screens 20 March at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon—doesn’t repeat those stories. Instead, it follows two girls, Nadya and Ashley, during different stages of their careers.
Selected by Ashley and okayed by “group,” Nadya heads to Tokyo. “For me, it’s almost a dream,” she says, “I never thought I’d fly overseas, especially alone.” The film keeps tight focus on Nadya’s face, her wide eyes and flushed cheeks hinting at how alone she comes to feel, even as she does her best to negotiate a new city, a new language, and any number of adults who tell her how to stand and where to go.
When she signs in at an unadorned office, Nadya meets her new roommate Madlen, who is introduced as she’s tearfully recounting her own airport trauma over the phone (“I was lost for four hours”). The camera walks after Nadya as she’s shown her assigned room, then pans the space (bunk beds, a window, a sink) until it returns to Nadya, who looks suddenly large inside such tiny confines.
Sent to casting after casting but still not hired for actual money, Nadya and Madlen are increasingly in debt to the company and also frustrated. Being 13, they act out, that is, they bring home bags of candy, risking the chance that they might gain a centimeter in their waists or busts, and so be sent home, according to their contracts. They’re scarfing down chocolatey breakfast cereal when Ashley stops by for a visit. “It’s not the best models’ apartment,” Ashley half-smiles, “but I guess it’s okay.” The camera cuts to the drippy sink, Ashley peeks inside the bathroom and makes a face. But, she insists, they’re busy with the castings, aren’t they? Madlen notes they’re not working, not being paid. Ashley turns it into a translation issue: “You feel you don’t work, but you don’t know.” But Madlen knows, and describes her schedule: “I don’t work this week, next week.” Ashley insists, “This is your feeling, this is not the reality, because we don’t know.”
If Ashley doesn’t have much to say to the new girls, she talks about herself, her version of herself, repeatedly. She remembers her own first months in the business, specifically, how much she hated it. Girl Model includes some of her video diary entries from 1999, her face close to her camera as she explains how easy it is to recruit girls. “All the girls just want to get out,” she says, “They can be athletes, they can be gymnasts, they can be models, they can be prostitutes.” True, the girls recruited as models don’t always know where their tapes go: “Those tapes are widely distributed,” Ashley observes, “Of course, the goal is that they get placed in modeling agencies, but the reality is they get placed other places too.”
It’s unclear where Ashley’s tapes might have gone, or how she came by her own decision to stop modeling and recruit instead. She has a house in Connecticut, with huge windows. “It’s great in the daytime, but scary at night. When I stay here alone, I get scared,” Ashley says. “If you’re inside with the lights on, people can see you and you can’t see them, and then there’s like weird sounds. It’s pretty isolated.” The house is for sale, she adds, while showing off the swimming pool. “I’m reaping the benefits of my modeling career right now.”
But even as Ashley speaks, those benefits seem elusive. After traveling for 12 years in search of new girls, she calls the business an “addiction,” while also insisting that she has “control” in what she does. The film makes clear that the girls she chooses have no control. A close-up of Ashley’s dinner plate shows remnants, a few cherry tomatoes and an avocado. “I don’t feel like I have a big truth to tell them,” she says, “about the amazing business that’s going to change their life and have them be fulfilled, because it’s very tough.” The scene cuts from Ashley at home to Nadya, walking before a panel of solemn-faced evaluators. No one looks fulfilled, not even a little bit.