DOXA 2012: Girl Model illuminates the dark side of the fashion industry

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If you don’t work in the fashion or modelling industries, there’s a good chance that this is what you think a model’s life is like: travelling to the world’s fashion capitals, having access to designer clothes, posing for prominent photographers, and getting recognized by fashion bloggers.

In actual fact, this is reality for just a small percentage of models—those known as supermodels. For the rest of the women trying to make a living in the modelling industry—many of them barely out of their teens—their experiences are far less glamorous and often dangerous.

In David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s 2011 documentary Girl Model, audiences get a look into the harsh realities of modelling through the eyes of Nadya Vall, a 13-year-old Russian who travels to Japan in the hope of becoming a fashion model, and American Ashley Arbaugh, a model scout who finds Caucasian female models for the Japanese fashion industry.

“In 2007, Ashley Arbaugh, the main scout in the film, approached us, both my partner and I, to make the film. She posed the project as about modelling and prostitution,” Sabin told the Georgia Straight by phone from Toronto, where her and Redmon’s most recent film, Downeast, was screening at the Hot Docs festival. “That’s how she had posed the project, which, for various reasons, it became a very different film.”

Arbaugh and Sabin had taken several art-history classes together at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, but Sabin said they had very little contact before Arbaugh pitched her idea to the filmmakers, who had directed Kamp Katrina (2007) and Intimidad (2008) together before starting Girl Model.

“I guess you could say she scouted us,” Sabin said. “I had no connections to the modelling industry prior to making Girl Model, so everything was a surprise, everything as small and banal as the terminology they use, up to the ages of the girls. It was sort of new material that we were coming across.”

The 77-minute documentary opens at a model casting call in Siberia, where hundreds of teenage girls wearing only bikinis and high heels are lined up against the mirrored walls of a large room. One by one, they cross a makeshift stage to be examined by a team of model scouts led by Arbaugh.

“She looks fresh, almost a prepubescent girl,” Arbaugh remarks to her colleagues about one girl.

Arbaugh, who worked as a model in Tokyo during her late teens almost a decade ago, is scouting for the Japanese fashion market, which values youthful girls who are not too tall and have fair skin and an innocent, wide-eyed look. “I look at beauty and I think of young girls,” Arbaugh says in the film.

When the scout notices Vall’s potential, the young village girl is promptly flown to Tokyo without much more than a single suitcase and a Russian-to-English dictionary in her hands. Vall is optimistic that her modelling contract, which she is told pays $8,000, will help her family rise above their rural surroundings. However, her positive outlook is almost instantly crushed when she doesn’t get hired for jobs, has no money for food, and finds she cannot communicate with anyone besides her equally unhappy Russian roommate, who is in Japan on a similar modelling contract.

“I was most surprised by the ages—the fact that they’re finding girls starting at 12 years old. I think after showing the film to a number of different models within the fashion industry, that’s actually universal within the fashion world, around the world,” Sabin said. “To me, that’s pretty shocking when you have children modelling adult clothing.”

Arbaugh’s on-screen ambivalence toward the fashion industry is supported by the inclusion of footage Arbaugh recorded of herself during the years she was modelling in Japan. As a successful scout—one who appears lonely and yearning for something more—Arbaugh is still conflicted over the role she plays in an industry “obsessed with youth”.

“The business of modelling is not something I’m all that passionate about, because it has no weight,” she says in one scene. In another, Arbaugh seems concerned about Vall’s living quarters in Tokyo but does nothing to help.

“Audiences have a variety of emotions when they watch the film and how they react to her,” Sabin said about Arbaugh—although she was hesitant to comment much further, other than saying Arbaugh is “incredibly complicated”.

Although it’s unclear whether Arbaugh and Sabin crossed paths after the filming of Girl Model ended, it’s clear they share a changed perspective on the modelling industry. The director—who admitted that making a documentary under conditions stipulated by Arbaugh wasn’t something she or Redmon were entirely comfortable with, and would not do again—said she walked away with a new point of view on the business.

“I look at the images in magazines and billboards in a completely different way. I wonder about the labour—what got this woman or young girl to this image, who is this person, where did they come from, what is their background?” she said. “So instead of just looking at the glamour and being enamoured by it, I do carry with me the stories we came across and the experiences we came across, and it makes it more personal.”

DOXA presents Girl Model on May 12 at 4 p.m. at Pacific Cinémathèque.


Watch the trailer for Girl Model.

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