A long line of very young girls in bathing suits winds in and around the backstage of a theater. As the camera weaves through the queue each girl notices it, reflexively smiling or pivoting towards it and adopting a less natural pose than prior to their awareness of being captured by its lens. Thus begins Girl Model, the new documentary by David Redmon (Mardi Gras: Made in China) and Ashley Sabin (Intimidad), about the recruitment, exploitation, and, in many cases, abandonment of underage Siberian girls by unscrupulous modeling agencies seeking to sate the Japanese market's hunger for images of budding femininity.
Watching that opening, one is reminded of a cattle sale or the 4H tent at a state fair, as each girl lands the stage to be judged by former model Ashley Arbaugh and her fellow modeling scouts. Arbaugh becomes our guide through this world. She's a complex character, still suffering from the memories of her own journey through the meat grinder that is this trade, while continuing, despite her qualms, to supply the industry with young flesh to photograph. At this particular audition, Arbaugh ends up picking up 13-year old Nadya Vall for a contract on the Japanese market.
Like many of these girls, Nadya comes from an extremely poor family. We get to see how little she has at home and how the promise of riches from a successful modeling career could mean a lot to both her and her family. Even if she isn't able to find work, Nadya's agency is required by immigration to guarantee her at least two modeling jobs and a lump sum. But, once she arrives in Japan, it's an entirely different picture. She bunks with another model her age in a dreary, box-sized apartment, leaving each day to audition for gigs she can't book. Instead of working, we learn that Nadya and her roommate's debts to the agency are growing, promoting the already niggling feeling that these girls have been sold into some form of slavery.
Girl Model is an anguishing, anxiety-inducing view of an unethical and, for all intents and purposes, unregulated trade dealing in human flesh. As a product of this system, Arbaugh becomes both the victim and unlikely villain of this story, as whatever sympathy the viewer harbors for her eventually fades away after being exposed to her callous statements and complicit behaviors. Though she provides much insight into the psychic damage that can be wrought on young girls in the industry, she strikes a pose not unlike Cruella De Vil during much of the film. To a certain extent, the conflicts exhibited within Arbaugh paint an ugly picture of what Nadya and others like her might expect to become at the end of their journeys.
Directors Redmon and Sabin have crafted a disturbing look at a reality worth confronting, even if it enrages one's sensibilities as it engages with its subject. It would be a stretch to laud Girl Model as a pleasure to behold, but it does pull the viewer into spaces rarely explored, evoking questions and concerns, which is all you really can ask of a socially minded doc.
Girl Model opens at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday, September 5th. It will play locally at the Clinton Street Theater beginning November 30th. More info available here.
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