Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Girl Model

Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin.
2011. Not Rated, 78 minutes.
Ashley Arbaugh
Nadya Vall
Tigran Khachatrian
Rachel Blais

The very first thing we see is a room filled with hundreds of very young, hopeful Russian girls in bikinis. Most of them are tall and frighteningly thin. There are some adults giving them the once-over. They say things like “She’s too short,” and “Her hips are too wide.” Soon, we meet Nadya. She is a thirteen year old girl from Siberia who meets the criteria better than any of the other girls. Her prize for winning the genetic lottery is a professional modeling contract. She is flown from Russia to Japan because, as Ashley puts it, she’s perfect for the Japanese market. Indeed, her facial features are quite like a female character in anime. More to Ashley’s point, she’s not only very young, she looks it. Since immigration laws in Japan require anyone wishing to stay in the country to be employed, Nadya is given a contract that guarantees her at least two modeling jobs and $8000 (USD). Her family could definitely use the money.

You may have noticed I mentioned the name Ashley. She is a scout and hand-picked Nadya. She travels all over the globe searching for models, most of which she sends to Japan. She receives a commission from Switch Modeling Agency for every girl sent. Ashley is also deeply conflicted about what she does for a living. Once a model, she understands the lifestyle is not all glitz and glamour. She knows that the modeling industry chews girls up and spits them out at an alarming rate. Now she helps feed the beast. It is a job she doesn’t seem to like. Through old footage that she took of herself back in 1999, we gather she didn’t much like being a model, either. Then why do what she does? It’s so simple, I’ve already given you the answer. That commission she is paid is a handsome one. It has enabled her to buy a large secluded house in the hills of Connecticut. There is also the allure of all that globe trotting.

We follow both Ashley and Nadya, getting to see both sides of the coin. Largely, it boils down to us watching Nadya get exploited, along with roommate and fellow Ashley recruit Madlen, then seeing Ashley speak sadly about her role in that exploitation while trying unsuccessfully to take inventory of her emotions. On the other hand, we see her smile broadly in the face of clients and models. She also gives a television interview where every word she says is a blatant lie. Occasionally, we see the heads of two agencies. The Russian guy, Tigran, at least pretends, maybe even believes that he’s doing a good thing for these girls. His Japanese counterpart, oddly named Messiah, just says things no one with even just an inkling of the way the world works would possibly think are true. It all adds up to a powerful dissertation on the corrupting power of money and the shameless mistreatment of young girls. To call what we see unethical business practices is understating it quite a bit. For instance, Nadya’s contract includes a clause that the agency can change it any time they want for any reason, with or without her knowledge or consent. Of course, this includes what they will actually pay her.

For the most part, the filmmakers stay out of the way. This works as a way to let the story tell itself. However, there are a number of occasions where I wanted them to inject themselves a bit more. For starters, let’s go back to that moment with the head of the Japanese agency. He says some damning things when they pressed him just a bit. A little more might really have been revealing. The movie also only hints at, but never really explores the overwhelming sense of pedophilia that seems to be driving things. The constant push for newer and younger girls is disturbing. It gets mentioned a few times by some interviewees, Ashley included, but they mainly shrug it off as if to say “Oh well, what can you do?” No effort is made to dive any deeper than that.

Girl Model also resists the urge to become a rant on what affect the industry has on the self-esteem of girls worldwide. That’s certainly a worthy topic, but not one that fits here. However, we do see the girls purposely rebelling against the strict standards they are kept to concerning their bodies. For example, Nadya and Madlen gorge themselves on candy in an effort to be sent home since their modeling gig is not what they thought it was. They are aware that those wonderful contracts they signed says that they can be released if they gain as little as one centimeter on any of the measurements taken of them when they first arrived in Japan.

We finish the movie with a deep dislike for just about everyone on the business side of the industry. Our strongest feelings are reserved for Ashley. She seems to know she’s part of a slimy machine, but always rationalizes her actions with her own selfish reasoning. We’re not so sure how to feel about Nadya and her family. Because of their financial situation, we struggle whether to blame them for being complicit in her exploitation. Furthermore, does it cease to even be exploitation if she is one of the few who make it big. Tough questions are raised and that’s precisely why GM deserves to be seen. However, it is not all it can be because it doesn’t really try to answer any of them.

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