Girl Model Review

The dark face of modelling rears its ugly head in this new documentary from David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, as they follow a 13-year-old Russian girl’s journey from Siberia to Tokyo to become a model in the pre-pubescent world of Japanese fashion.

Split between two individuals, Girl Model assesses the experience for both sides in the shape of modelling scout Ashley Arbaugh and teenage hopeful Nadya.

The opening scene sets the rather uncomfortable tone where what can only be described as a “meat market” of young girls in swimsuits are scrutinised by ex models who claim to know better, yet still choose to deal in exporting Russian girls to Japan’s modelling agencies.

And even the skinniest of these teens are told they’ll be put on a diet.

This event is where we’re first introduced to Arbaugh, herself a former model, who’ll choose the new fresh-faced beauty for the East.

Arbaugh, an infuriatingly pious and hypocritical character, bemoans her youth modelling days but still travels the length and breadth of Russia to sentence other young girls to a similar fate, later confessing she’s pleased just to be free of a nine-to-five life.

She works alongside local modelling agent Tigran, who claims to be on a “religious” mission to save Russia’s girls. Specialising in finding talent from the farthest reaches of his country, Tigran also happens to make a handsome profit from his altruistic calling.

I guess that’s just a happy by product of spiritual fulfilment.

The populist theory in Russia is that modelling affords a way out of poverty for many families, and perhaps it does for the lucky ones. But as Girl Model amply illustrates, the majority will be left in debt, uneducated and disappointed.

Modestly produced with neither gimmick nor bias, Redmon and Sabin leave plenty of room for the viewer to get a healthy perspective of both sides of the modelling coin.

Largely absent throughout, the film makers only break their journalists’ code when the vulnerable Nadya arrives at an overseas airport on her own and with no one to meet her.

Nadya’s the lucky one though, as we later hear of her fellow teen model’s four hour wait in Tokyo for someone to meet her. Eventually, a good samaritan helps her out but this perfectly illustrates the value of these young girls to both Arbaugh and Tigran.

Ultimately Girl Model serves as yet another example of the eastern bloc woman as a commodity. In one telling moment Arbaugh goes as far as to liken modelling to prostitution, believing this is where most of her girls will end up.

It’s not a pretty thought, but with the sex industry equally well versed as the modelling world in luring young women away from their homes with the promise of bright lights and material wealth, you can see what she means.

The moral of Girl Model’s story? Well, if there is one, it can only be that the modelling industry doesn’t have any.

Laura Thornley

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February 2012
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