Thanks to the unrelenting juxtaposition of the sparse and relatively untainted Siberian landscape with the towering, industrialised metropolis of Tokyo, Japan presents the perfect backdrop for a story that explores the harsh reality of a thriving modeling industry that connects two socially and economically disparate regions. Following the complex supply chain between Siberia, Japan and the US, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model (2011) tells its story through the eyes of former model-turn talent scout, Ashley Arbaugh and 13-year-old Siberian model Nadya.
From the outset a bias is evident: as the viewer, we are to assume the role of judge, passing judgement on the scouts and agents that can be seen promising the world to young and innocent models as they are paraded around like cattle in a market. In fact, without such direction it would be hard not to see this world in a negative light; frail and skinny children appear to be exploited for the financial gain of westerners and hard-headed Siberian and Japanese businessmen. Nonetheless, even with such strong conviction in its angle and its take on a somewhat hidden world, a few issues arise that detract from Girl Model’s overriding impact on the audience.
Throughout, it is all too apparent that the people who occupy our attention are far too aware of the camera’s presence, and are therefore inevitably guarded when being filmed. Also, the talking-head sections seem ineffectual, as the sometimes irrelevant dialogue and the ramblings of talent-scout Arbaugh add little emphasis to the overall point being made by the director.
What Girl Model does provide however, is an expose of the exploitative world of model trafficking in the region; the young girls that get caught in its web and the families that support them see it as a way out of the relative poverty they endure every day, and as a result they commit to contracts they do not even understand, essentially binding their children to work that rarely delivers on its promise of riches and a better quality of life.
One of the successes of Girl Model is its incisive portrayal of the traumatic experiences of Nadya, who despite being obviously intelligent beyond her years is still very naïve and innocent. Arriving in Tokyo alone, it becomes immediately apparent that she is unaware as to what she has let herself in for; almost immediately the film’s crew have to step in to help her get to her hotel, leaving us, the audience, somewhat relieved at their presence.
Regardless, Girl Model’s failings mean that its potential impact was quelled, leaving a long list of questions. Ultimately, it features a profoundly interesting story, with harrowing and distressing undertones but the film’s inability to press issues further and delve deeper into its subject matter makes it somewhat of a rubber stamp.