Ashley Sabin & David Redmon Interview

Harsh daylight instantly silhouetted their bodies and, if I didn’t know better, I could have easily assumed Ashley Sabin and David Redmon were still tucked in to the confining walls of a Japanese backstreet room, fragile models surviving at their side.

“That was our introduction to it,” Sabin explained, as she told me that neither her nor her cinematic collaborator Redmon had been involved with the modelling industry before making Girl Model.

I sat down to speak with the pair to discuss their most recent work which, despite its objectifying title, is actually an honest portrayal of what it’s like on the other of this industry.

Sabin and Redmond spent three long years following the life of model scout Ashley Arbaugh, and her freshly chosen thirteen year old protégé Nadya, filming the process that models and scouts alike endure to find financial success.

Their documentary takes you on the under age and underweight Nadya’s physical and emotional journey from Siberia to Tokyo, highlighting the stressful and sad situations herself and Arbaugh both learned to stomach.

“I think we’re done with the fashion industry for a while,” Sabin adds. “Unless it was under very different circumstances,” Redmon followed. “With a lot more involvement and bodyguards.”

It was an honest declaration that highlighted the passion these documentary filmmakers had for their work.

Throughout the film, Girl Model explores the de-sensitized environments both models and scouts find themselves in. I asked Redmon and Sabin if they had expected such a plot to develop?

“We went in with a fairly open mind as far as what kind of story we would document, but as we started filming we quickly realised there was an underbelly of what we perceived as the glamorous fashion industry,” Sabin began.

“There was a sense of disconnection that was taking place,” Redmon continued. “Hundreds of girls would show up [to each casting] and have ten seconds with the scout; the same routine, the same language game with each girl and after a while that repetition becomes…”

“Numbing.” Sabin finishes off her colleague’s thought.

To many who’ve watched Girl Model, I’m sure they’d agree. For me, it was more than this, and I’d go as far to say that I was haunted by its eye opening revelations. Redmon clung on to my words, explaining that Eyes Wide Open was their second choice for a film title.

“Throughout the movie there were periodic indications of people’s eyes closed; like Nadya’s picture where her eyes are covered, the little kid at the end of the film, her eyes are shut.”

Some of Girl Model’s scenes are heart breaking to watch, so I asked if any sense of parental responsibility came over the pair as they observed their vulnerable subjects.

“That was when things really switched,” Sabin said, referring to the moment that Nadya left for Tokyo.

“It became really complicated for us because we both cared about her well being, but we also wanted to document the situation. That said there were many times where we would step in. Nadya would use our phone to make a call home or we would give her money to buy food, whatever it was to make sure her situation was less stressful. From the moment she arrived in Japan until the moment she left, Nadya became more and more depressed and that was really difficult to watch such a young person go through.”

Those scenes are emotionally challenging to view, but it seemed to be one of many twists and turns in Girl Model as new depths of confusion are constantly brought to light.

The idea for the documentary actually came from Ashley Arbaugh contacting Sabin and Redmon, and it was from here that their project evolved. By the end, this actually made sense. In the first few scenes, Ashley appears as a desensitised scout whose focus was on finding the “perfect girl”, but as the film progresses Arbaugh was slowly revealed to be a troubled and affected young woman herself.

In the midst of the documentary Ashley was seen in her sterile and preserved home, adjusting the position of two baby dolls on her sofa. It was a telling action to observe.

“At the start of the process, Girl Model was an opportunity for Ashley to speak out about the fashion industry. But by the end, she became more interested in trying to protect her own image,” Sabin clarified.

“We felt like a lot of the time our hands were tied.”

I asked about Ashley’s own photographs and videos of the modelling world which were featured in their documentary.

“We were surprised,” Sabin began. “In addition Arbaugh also has hundreds of dictaphone tapes that she’s used to speak into. The interesting thing about her video footage is that it’s all in camera cuts, so she’s actually editing her life as she goes. It’s really well shot, I was pretty surprised, but it makes sense that she is incredibly connected to media. Arbaugh wanted to save that footage to do something with in the future, and that’s where we came in to play.”

What I was hearing, that Arbaugh had wanted her life to be shown and explored on film yet also desired a serious element of control, felt scandalous. When she first approached Sabin and Redmon, Arbaugh sent them her collection of tapes yet claimed she didn’t know what was on them. But this no longer rang true.

I also felt as though Arbaugh’s initial suggestion of the idea was more of a cry for help and attempt to redeem herself from any guilt she might feel. Credit to Redmon and Sabin, they managed to reveal that secondary layer with their persistent and professional filmmaking.

All these suspicions were confirmed when Sabin curiously kept talking, “Let’s just say the footage we put in was the lighter stuff.”

Again, more questions evolved.

The pair explained that they still felt pretty baffled and confused about the world in which they observed for three years, with Redmon honestly confessing “there was a lot of confusion and no resolution”.

I felt that mirrored a lot of the plot, even the moment when Arbaugh was filmed in a property in Connecticut that generated the idea she was financially stable. I asked whether they felt this scene contradicted the underlying message of Girl Model, that the modelling industry wasn’t a guarantee of financial gain. Redmon returned with a powerful answer.

“I don’t know if Arbaugh actually owned it, she resided there. But if she made money from the industry and spent that on buying a property to invest in her future, that’s the honest story for us to tell.”

The tale of Girl Model is the saddening experience of watching young girls being robbed of their childhoods, to be replaced by unrealistic idealisation and isolation miles away from any kind of attainable success.

And it was clear that Sabin and Redmon knew this too, as one shot focuses on the image of a model’s agency picture being repeatedly churned out from a photocopier over and over again.

“I kind of like that idea,” explained Redmon.

“Whilst in the agency I was paying attention to the sounds that I was hearing, and there were so many sounds from this photocopying machine. I had this idea of introducing the notion of reproduction, so you hear the reproduction of each girl over and over and over again. It’s just a copy of a copy of a copy.”

I couldn’t help but ask if Sabin and Redmon had seen any of the British modelling shows like the Model Agency or Britain’s Next Top Model?

“Sure have,” Redmon replied.

“They’re pretty much scripted and, to some extent, are meant to mock the characters involved; so the audience are shocked, left aghast or laugh. But at the same time, it’s an attempt to glamorise it [the modelling industry]. It’s a very samey presentation of people’s lives, where there’s a competitive element as to who’s going to get cut.”

When I asked if Nadya or her family had seen the finished edit of Girl Model the answer was no, although they’d like it if she did.

“We make people think about an issue or a subject matter in a different way,” the pair added. “They don’t leave with the answers, only more questions.”

Freya Hill

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February 2012
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