Despite a lack of obvious similarities between Siberia and Tokyo, a thriving model industry connects these distant regions. GIRL MODEL follows two protagonists involved in this industry: Ashley, a deeply ambivalent model scout who scours the Siberian countryside looking for fresh faces to send to the Japanese market, and one of her discoveries, Nadya, a thirteen year-old plucked from the Siberian countryside and dropped into the center of Tokyo with promises of a profitable career. After Ashley's initial discovery of Nadya, the two rarely meet again, but their stories are inextricably bound. As Nadya's optimism about rescuing her family from their financial difficulties grows, her dreams contrast against Ashley's more jaded outlook about the industry's corrosive influence.
GIRL MODEL is a lyrical exploration of a world defined by glass surfaces and camera lenses, reflecting back differing versions of reality to the young women caught in their scope. As we enter further into this world, it more and more resembles a hall of mirrors, where appearances can't be trusted, perception become distorted, and there is no clear way out. Will Nadya, and the other girls like her, be able to find anyone to help them navigate this maze, or will they follow a path like Ashley's, having learned the tricks of the labyrinth but unable to escape its lure? (Written by Kristina Aikens)
Girl Model, a new documentary that has its U.S. premiere this weekend at SXSW and a planned theatrical release this summer, is an unflinching look at the international modeling circuit, and the complicated networks of mother agencies, booking agencies, and scouts that bring girls as young as 12 from impoverished regions of Russia to highly unstable (but potentially lucrative) modeling contracts overseas. Specifically, the film follows a scout named Ashley Arbaugh — an American ex-model with a mortgage to pay and deeply conflicted feelings about the industry — and a 13-year-old model named Nadya Vall. Nadya, a shy strawberry blonde who lives in a ramshackle house in Novosibirsk with her grandmother, parents, and siblings, catches Arbaugh's eye at an open call — Arbaugh notes approvingly that Nadja looks "like almost prepubescent" — and wins a prize: a trip to Tokyo, where she will earn a guaranteed minimum of $8,000 for two months work. Or so she is told.
The film, by co-directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, is harrowing in parts. It isn't quite Lilya 4-Ever, but then again, this is nonfiction. The modeling business is deliberately opaque — nobody wants people to know how old that girl in the magazine really is, lest the reader start thinking about whether she should be in school rather than, say, how nice it could be to own that lipstick — and Redmon and Sabin do an admirable job of peeling back some of the layers.
To be fair, many industries have practices that, if they were showcased on a big screen, would draw ire or concern — just think about the food industry — but the frankness with which Arbaugh and the agencies she works with assess and commoditize these children is frankly a little disturbing. Here, where the scouted girls are poorest and the markets (Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, and other Asian centers) are the least internationally prestigious, not to mention the least regulated, is the modeling industry in its nakedest form: the exchange of capital for and around young women's bodies. And Arbaugh makes no bones about scouting very young girls. "You can't be young enough," she says; it's what the market demands. "Youth is beautiful, there's a luminosity, and that is what my eye is trained to see." But she also says, "The modeling business is based on nothing."
Perhaps most misleadingly, Arbaugh tells a reporter for a Russian TV station that is covering one of her castings that the Japanese market "is a very safe market. Unlike other markets, the girls never go into debt."
In these exclusive clips, Nadya's story begins to unfold. Here, her deeply creepy Siberian mother agent, Tigran Khachatrian, explains what he thinks is special about 12- and 13-year-old girls: they have "dignity," unlike, he goes on to say, those older girls who are motivated by money (and who, he hints, may be prostitutable). Khachatrian conceives of his job in Biblical terms. "Noah saved the animals two by two," he says at one point. "I'm saving these girls one by one."
Nadya sets off for Tokyo. This is her chance at a better life. She's never been overseas before, and she has to make the journey alone. In Japan, her agency will tell clients she is 15. She spends her two-month stay broke, lonely, living in a tiny agency-owned apartment (for which she pays the agency rent) and struggling to communicate with a Japanese-Russian phrasebook. She befriends another young Russian model, Madlen, but Madlen is sent home, $2000 in debt, for gaining 1cm and therefore breaching her contract.
Back in Siberia, Arbaugh rejects a slightly older girl. Her hips, she says, are too big.
The Place Is the Thing - Trans-Siberian 'Girl Model'
The Siberian cold swirls in the opening shot of the documentary Girl Model, but we are quickly thrown under the bright lights of a crowded room as paper-thin girls clad in bikinis squirm, sashay, and longingly smile into the camera as it works its way past them.
"The secret of a successful modeling career is to start at ages 5 to 10," a man says as he and model scout Ashley cull the crowd for girls prepubescent enough, fresh enough, thin enough for the Japanese modeling market. "She looks, like, 25 already," Ashley says disapprovingly of one possibility.
The final choice is Nadya, a curveless 13-year-old with doe eyes and shiny rivers of blond hair. With this, the often grim documentary from Ashley Sabin and David Redmon is off and running between two worlds of extremes.
Despite our hazy former Cold War expectations, Siberia is the land of warmth here, of plucking berries from grandma's currant garden, of patched-together homes – if Nadya earns good modeling bucks, Dad can finally finish building her new bedroom – of family safety and love. Japan, in contrast, is cool business: the stark white cell Nadya shares with another blond modelling hopeful amid promises of fame and money, the blur of faces, cars, and modeling auditions set in motion by a Japanese agency owner named Messiah.
"We wanted to know, 'Why is she leaving this?' What is it about Japan?" says Sabin, who began the project at the request of model scout Ashley, with whom she shares a first name but little else. "Making a film is always difficult, but the fashion world is a very funny place. We didn't come from a fashion background. We felt like we were stuck in this strange fun house where you're not sure what you're looking at."
And our tour guide is model scout Ashley, herself a model in Japan once upon a time, who alternates between flirting with the camera and bemoaning a modeling world that "has no weight. It's based on nothing." This Ashley is creepy and compelling as she encourages the young girls' overly optimistic dreams then goes home to a stark house adorned with two anatomically correct dolls (she had a third one but dissected it).
We are shown home movies of an 18-year-old Ashley, troubled, addressing the camera like a lover, and we realize she was indeed much like these girls she collects at the behest of a Siberian businessman named Tigran, who sees himself as on an almost religious journey but admits to his own darker past. Ashley remains teasingly aloof. Although the film was her idea, her onscreen persona is ambivalent. "In a lot of ways, she's damaged," Sabin says. "She's a good representation of a number of people in the fashion industry. She sees things she knows are not right, but she's not able to take a hard look at them."
"The whole modeling industry and the young girls involved in it are such a recipe for disaster," Sabin says. "I feel like in many ways we document a disaster." That disaster's name is the American dream exported to the world, with promises of overnight success, lavish riches, and the love of countless strangers. Surprisingly, both Nadya and Ashley continue their involvement in the industry, Sabin says, and have pulled back from the film project.
For the filmmakers, the experience has been a sort of documentary boot camp much more intense than their previous movies, including 2007's Kamp Katrina. "David has said all along that after making this film, we can make anything," Sabin remarks. But the movie emphasizes character more than it pushes any agenda. "We wanted the audience to experience it as we experienced it," Sabin says. "It was an important decision because it allows audiences to respond the way they feel. It's a meditation on that gray area. Life is complex and there are different ways to interpret it." – Joe O'Connell
The Complicated Backstory Behind New Doc Girl Model: Why Its Subject, Model Nadya Vall, Is Furious Over Her Portrayal
By Hayley Phelan
Girl Model, a new documentary which debuted earlier this month at SXSW, has already caused quite a stir for it’s bald portrayal of the modeling industry–specifically the industry’s practice of scouting and employing young teen girls. The film follows 13-year-old Siberian model Nadya Vall through the ups-and-downs of her first year working–from getting scouted in her small hometown, to being sent unsupervised to Tokyo for her first gig. In the trailer alone, one can’t help but feel bad for Vall as she grapples with the language barrier in Tokyo, is told to lie about her age on a shoot, and winds up crying for her mother as the trailer comes to an end.
But what’s even more shocking is the backstory. After speaking with directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, it’s clear they never set out to make an exposé of the modeling industry–even if that was the end result. We also spoke with model Rachel Blais, who also appears in the film and served as a kind of consultant on the modeling industry to the film’s directors. She says she’s stopped getting as much work since the film was released. Finally, we spoke to Nadya Vall, now 17, at the center of it all, who has never even seen the film. She’s still working as a model and her agency is furious with the way she’s been portrayed in the film. Vall told us over email that she is confused and frustrated to learn, via letters and the internet, that she’s been depicted as a victim.
Hear everyone’s side:
The Filmmakers’ Intentions
When I spoke with directors Redmon and Sabin on the phone last week, one of the things they kept reiterating about the film is that they weren’t trying to create a moralizing portrait of the modeling industry–nor did they set out to change the industry. “It was really important for us, for our process, not to make it like an exposé,” Sabin told us. “It’s been a bit disconcerting for us because journalists have painted the film that way [but] our intentions were to show the experience between a young girl [Nadya] and [casting director] Ashley [Arbaugh], an older woman, and the nuances, and the complexities that lie in that relationship.”
“It’s really about an audience feeling deeply conflicted, walking away from the film with questions,” she added. “It’s not to slam the fashion industry. It’s more about inviting a participatory space to have a conversation.”
Whether it was their intention or not, the film has certainly raised concerns about the industry’s working conditions, particularly the young age at which most models begin working. Here, the directors’ took a stance: “I think that [the modeling industry's practice of using young girls] is extremely problematic because there are no regulations in the industry,” Sabin told us. “These girls are usually from rural, poor backgrounds and they hope of making more money, yet so few of them actually do.”
Rachel Blais, a working 26-year-old model who Sabin told me acted as their “liaison in understanding the industry,” has a much bleaker outlook on modeling. “These [young] girls are getting abused, whether it’s financial, sexual or emotional,” she told me bluntly.
“You have these young girls being sent far away from home, and a lot of times–most of the time–they can’t even understand the language,” she said. “They live with other models, who are also all minors and it kind of normalizes these things that are not normal, because all the girls are going through the same thing.”
“All agents will tell the young girl that if they sign with the agency that they will be a supermodel and make a lot of money,” she added. “And the agents foster this competitive climate, so models are also reluctant to talk about their experiences with one another.”
Another Bid To Raise the Minimum Modeling Age
Even something as basic as signing a contract with an agency is fraught with problems. Blais told me that many models are given contracts in languages they cannot understand, and that, being 13, uneducated on legal contracts and goaded by agents, they sign them without really reading them.
Another problem with employing 13-and-14-year-old models is that agents cannot be sure how the girl’s body will develop. If her body doesn’t develop the way it is expected to, it can lead to drastic measures on the part of the agency and the model. “A lot of girls have boob jobs, nose job when they’re not even 18 years old…Agencies will actually advance [money for the surgeries], but then the models are even more in debt and there’s even more pressure for them to keep up a certain physical appearance,” Blais told us, adding that she was asked to get liposuction when she was just 18.
Most shocking, however, is Blais’ belief that young models are at risk for becoming prostitutes. “It happens for sure that young models fall prey to prostitution, whether it’s by their own will or being forced into it.”
“Through having these young girls traveling the world unsupervised and getting visas easily, you’re putting them in danger and there is of course going to be some bad people who will take advantage of that,” she said.
Because of everything she’s seen, Blais firmly believes that the minimum age a model should begin working internationally should be 18–not 16. “As long as it’s going to be 16 you’re still going to get a lot of girls starting to work at 13 and then going overseas at 16,” she said. “We need to give them a chance to finish school, and so that models who choose to go to university don’t have to feel like grandmas when they decide to start their career at 21.”
While Girl Model has spurred some important discussions about problems in the modeling industry, there’s been little mention of the girl at the center of the story: Nadya Vall. We reached out to now-17-year-old Nadya through her agency, NOAH, and well, the response was pretty surprising.
“Nadya and her parents are humiliated with this as well as our whole NOAH team and it’s not going to be left without the lawful actions against this libel,” an agency rep wrote back to us.
When we finally got in touch with Nadya (she is living and working temporarily in Asia), the young model reiterated her agency’s sentiment. “I have not seen the movie, but I read the comments and a description for this film, recordings, and was unpleasantly shocked!” she wrote in an email.
“My agency Noah Models always sends me to good agencies abroad! do not deceive us and always care about us! [sic] in general I can say that I do not agree with the way modeling life is presented in the movie.”
We can imagine how hard it must be to have a difficult part of your life captured on film, for all to see (and judge), particularly at such a young age. However, it’s worth emphasizing that Nadya has still not actually seen the film (and we’ve only seen clips), so it’s hard to differentiate between the movie’s actual content and the media’s (often sensationalized) coverage of it.
It’s also worth noting that models are discouraged from speaking out, given their precarious position as freelancers–their jobs are on the line. (Blais, for one, told us she’s “working way less since the film came out.”)
When I spoke with the directors, Redmon told me he was trying to get the film translated into Russian so Nadya could actually see the film. He also told me that they had hired someone to go to Russia, in an attempt to get back in touch with the young model, and the investigator had reported back that they “should stop asking questions.”
“So, we stopped asking questions,” Redmon said. “We didn’t want to get in trouble and we didn’t want Nadya to get in any trouble.”
When we asked Nadya if she had had any contact with the filmmakers, she responded:
“after the release of this film, I wrote him a short message asking why I kept on getting letters from unknown people from different countries . They were offering me help considering me a victim and asking if I wanted to get the film to watch it full. he replied that he didn’t understand why people wrote to me this kind of messages, and promised to send me the movie after in Russian. but so far I have not got anything from him! In any case I’m not going to have any possible communication with these horrible people who did such a junk out of a real story. They are NOT TO TRUST!!!!”
Redmon and Sabin are adamant that there was no trickery involved when filming. “Ashley [Arbaugh] was the one who selected Nadya, because she scouted her, and we basically just followed up,” Sabin told me. “We went back and spoke with the family about whether they were comfortable with us filming her daughter. That was important to us.”
Despite the directors’ initial intentions, Girl Model is clearly making changes in the modeling industry–and though most of them are positive, they may have been at the expense of Nadya. Or at least that seems to be how Nadya feels. What’s your take?