“I’m looking for a specific type of girl for the Japanese market,” says Ashley, scouting girl models for the Japanese agency, Switch. She’s explaining her work for David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s extraordinary documentary, Girl Model. “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. The session — vaguely awkward, tense and brief — introduces a disturbing phenomenon. As much as these slender, big-eyed children (and their parents) hope that the promises of agents will come true, that modeling will help them escape their impoverished small towns, they are, in fact, headed into a business designed to exploit them — in any number of ways.
Hailing from Novosibirsk, Siberia, 13-year-old Nadya is one of the girls selected by Ashley, who is, you come to learn, a former model herself, someone who’s been through this harrowing process of exploitation. 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,” she says, curling her hair with the help of her mother, who looks on with an expression that ranges from pride to concern to expectation in a matter of seconds.
Nadya’s experience provides the focus for Girl Model, which opens the Northside Film Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on 18 June (the screening is followed by a discussion hosted by POV’s Andrew Catauro and featuring film subject/fashion consultant Rachel Blais. Other films in the four-day Festival include Sam Feder’s Boy I Am, Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Eric Strauss and Danielle Anastasion’s The Redemption of General Butt Naked, and Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray’s Unfinished Spaces.