Girl Model: Toronto Review

Girl Model still - 2011
Compelling subject matter outweighs narrow focus in this bleak glimpse into one unglamorous reality behind the modeling industry.

Between Siberia and Tokyo, scouts and agencies scouring the Russian countryside to find fresh faces for new girl models for the hungry Japanese market in this revealing doc by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin.

Anxious parents looking to dissuade their daughters from pursuing a career as the next Kate Moss might find Girl Model a useful tool. David Redmonand Ashley Sabin’s engrossing documentary provides access to a pitiless niche of the fashion industry, but it’s arguably more fascinating in its depiction of the recruiters than their discoveries.

The specific milieu here is the unlikely channel between Siberia and Tokyo, with scouts and agencies scouring the Russian countryside to find fresh faces for the hungry Japanese market. While trends vary from year to year, the prevailing appetite is for tall, young, cute, skinny and borderline pre-pubescent.

The intriguing opening sets the scene for this less-than-wholesome unregulated meat market. A sea of blank-faced girls in swimsuits parades before a dehumanizing panel that mandates dieting even for the most sylph-like candidates.

The documentary might have benefited from tracking a handful of wannabe models attempting to break into the fashion world and bring financial support to their struggling families. But the filmmakers instead confine their focus to just one of them, 13-year-old Nadya. Her unhappy experience in Tokyo no doubt echoes that of many unworldly girls packed off to Alienation Central, without language skills, social smarts or even the most rudimentary business savvy.

Housed in a shabby, cupboard-sized apartment with a similarly clueless Russian roommate, Nadya goes through a punishing grind of casting calls and rejections. Fine print in her contract allows the Japanese agency to renege on the immigration requirement of guaranteed work, and she is eventually sent home with debts of $2,000 for photo shoots and other expenses.

While Redmon and Sabin show admirable restraint in their detachment from this story of innocence chewed up and spat out by a cruelly exploitative industry, the poignancy of Nadya’s solitude resonates. But the film could use a sharper and more expansive point of view. It’s biggest problem is that Nadya is always less interesting than the woman responsible for her thankless odyssey.

An American former model who now works as a scout for a Russian agency specializing in supplying girls to Japan,Ashley Arbaughis a dizzying whirl of contradictions with a giant chip on her shoulder. Intercut with excerpts from her own video diaries as a miserable teen model in Tokyo, she spouts an off-putting mix of self-justification and self-loathing. For every confessional moment in which she concedes that the promise of a golden future for these girls may be false, there are equal glimpses of willful denial concerning the damage being done to them.

The heads of the modeling agencies are no more flatteringly represented. Tigran, an ex-military man who controls the Russian supply chain, appears to have convinced himself that he is providing a valuable service to economically disadvantaged girls. But his educational methods – involving a cautionary trip to the morgue -- are questionable to say the least. And his Japanese counterpart, the ironically named Messiah, responds to ethical issues with obstinate evasion.

Mostly, however, the filmmakers decline to put anyone on the spot with pointed questions, sticking to an observational approach and allowing Arbaugh to hang herself with the glaring inconsistencies of her involvement in the industry.

The idea for the film actually came from Arbaugh, who had attended college with co-director Sabin. Given that she emerges here as a whiny mess, screaming for therapy, it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t now regret making that call to suggest that her work might be juicy documentary fodder.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production: Carnivalesque Films
Directors/producers/directors of photography/editors: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Consulting producers: Marcy Garriott, Robert Garriott
Music: Matthew Dougherty, Eric Taxier
Sales: Dogwoof Films
No rating; 77 minutes