Documentary filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin offer this illuminating – and often disturbing – look at the challenges faced by young, aspiring Russian models determined to break into the fashion industry. Ashley (not Sabin) is a former American model who has parleyed her experience in front of the camera into a lucrative job scouting young girls in Siberia. The lucky few who Ashley selects to move on are then offered the opportunity to model in Japan. Ashley’s latest discovery is Nadya, a 13 year old, self-described “grey mouse” who possesses a striking natural beauty, and who endeavors to pull her family out of poverty through her modeling career. Upon arriving in Japan and attempting to navigate the strange new world without the benefit of speaking the language, however, Nadya and homesick fellow model Madlen soon realize that nothing is what they thought it would be, and that the work they were “guaranteed” back home seems frustratingly hard to come by. Meanwhile, surreptitious contract clauses stipulate that the girls could quickly be sent home at a moment’s notice, and wind up deeply in debt to the same company who promised them the opportunity of a lifetime.
The odd thing about this documentary is that much of the story feels as though a possible crime is being committed. There are many different things hinted at that are all totally unfit for a young 13 yr. old, but the documentarians remain behind the camera and seemingly invisible. While this is revealing some seedy goings on, there are times when you wonder why they do not help the young girl. (Perhaps they do behind the scenes but it is not clearly shown in the movie)
The young girl, Nadya, is picked from a whole auditorium full of tiny girls that all look very similar. The Japanese are looking for girls that are fresh, different and young. Eventually the girls lie about their ages in order to meet the demands of what is being asked of them. This allows much younger girls to make it through and seemingly have a better chance at stardom. Ashley Arbaugh is the agent that is actually a former model herself. She picks Nadya from among the many gals, and at least shows perfunctory interest in keeping her safe.
The family of Nady is thrilled with the opportunity as they seem desperate for a break in life. They pack the young girl off for Tokyo with tears but hope in their eyes. She arrives and is immediately overwhelmed (who wouldn’t be at 13?) by the language barrier, directions and various other things. Eventually she arrives at her apartment that she will share with another confused teen like herself.
Ultimately few of these gals actually end up making the cut and nefarious deeds are hinted at. There are girls that come in and end up owing the agency after working rather than finding the big break they are looking for. Some make it, and most do not. Those that do not sometimes end up turning to prostitution according to the former model Arbaugh, but she admits nothing where she is concerned in that area. While these things are all mentioned and hinted at, they are not investigated in any manner. That is the one major knock on this film from a documentary standpoint in my eyes.
If I were there, I would simply have to find out what happens to Nadya. I would have to dig and find the dirt if it is indeed there. Redmon and Sabin simply roll the cameras and let the chips fall where they may. That is certainly understandable on some levels. If they had dug too hard, perhaps nothing would have come to light as everyone would have simply shut down or went underground. Whatever the case, the film is riveting in its own sadness.
Despite tons of reasons to feel angry, sad and upset at this documentary, you do walk away feeling as though you were made privy to something important. In much the same way as you might feel watching a documentary on prostitution or homelessness, you feel for those on the screen but feel overwhelmed about what to do about it. At least Girl Model opens the curtain and allows us a peek at what is wrong in this particular area of the industry.