Girl Model review

Girl Model is a sobering documentary that follows the parallel stories of Ashley Arbaugh, a former model now scouting Russia for young models suitable for the Japanese market, and Nadya one of her discoveries. The film opens with a modelling casting in a Siberian town which predictably is like a cattle market. Lines of girls in bikinis snake round a vast indoor exhibition centre, almost all of the girls are children. Each is cooly and clinically evaluated, by model scouts and agency reps with the brutality that any viewer of America’s Next Top Model would expect “oh my god she looks 25 years old already”.

We see Nadya's Siberian home. Her family clearly love their daughter, but opportunities are limited and they have money issues. Sadly it seems that the promise of modelling and the money they are told Nadya is guaranteed (this is very important, and it is brought up a lot) from working in Japan is strong. It is hard not to sympathise, the modelling agency is legitimate, the promises are compelling, and the contract is in English. Nadya is 13 years old.

The film then follows Nadya as she is sent alone to Japan, no one is there to meet her at Tokyo airport, she has a piece of paper with an address. The film crew step in to help her find her accommodation. She is put up in a disgusting flat which she shares with another 13 year old Russian model Madlen who is already jaded. They are sent to endless castings, but the guaranteed work fails to materialise, and they aren’t paid, when they do work they are told little about it, and scour magazine racks trying to find their pictures. They are isolated and alone.

Back in Connecticut, Ashley describes her life experiences in the modelling trade. She is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across in a documentary in some time. Looking uncannily like Anne Hathaway, Ashley is a mass of contradictions. Only in her late twenties but already too old to model, she loathes the industry, but is inextricably financially linked to it and has clearly benefitted greatly. But she lives alone in modernist glass apartment that is as spartan as the one Robert De Niro’s character has in Heat. About the only truly personal thing in the flat are some custom made boxes in which she keeps photographs she took of other models. These are strange somewhat sinister close ups of body parts, hands, feet, legs, but no faces, no identities. Ashley seems to be living in a Brett Easton Ellis novel.

This is a hair raising film, without showing anything outside of what is clearly the norm in the Japanese and Russian fashion industries, it portrays a nakedly exploitation world in which children are traded, used to earn uncaring adults money, then sent back to their families in debt to the agency due to the restrictive contracts their families have unwittingly signed. Behind the glitter and glamour, it is positively Dickensian. One cannot escape the feeling that the presence of the film crew is protecting Nadya from worse exploitation. There is a horrid gulf between the lines when Ashley says that the man who runs the Japanese agency “likes models”, and a flesh crawling interview where she discusses the prevalence of prostitution. She hastily adds that she hasn’t experienced this, but that everyone knows it is common. Ashley says she is there to help the models, but on a brief visit to Nadya and Madlen’s grubby flat her disconnection from the girls is striking.

This is a well made and non-sensational documentary. Nevertheless it is deeply troubling and should be essential viewing as a counterpoint to the Wherever’s next top model TV reality franchise.

Girl Model at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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