One of the most difficult tasks for a critic is to review content that is morally repugnant. Watching Girl Model, a shocking American documentary that follows a New York model scout and the 13-year-old Siberian girl she sends unchaperoned to Tokyo, it is hard to know whether to applaud directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin for exposing the underside of the fashion business – or demand they abandon their documentarian stance and rescue young Nadya on the spot.
The documentary begins as Ashley Arbaugh (not to be confused with the co-director) arrives in Novosibirsk to review an auditorium full of pencil-thin girls. She is scouting for the Japanese market, where they want them new and "fresh" – young enough that we will eventually hear them being coached to lie about their ages. A former model herself, Arbaugh is dismissive of her work, claiming the ever-shifting aesthetics are based on nothing at all, while she dredges up concern for the girls that seems merely pro forma.
Arbaugh's finds include Nadya, whose family is delighted for her opportunity and tearfully but joyfully pack the coltish teen onto a plane. Arriving alone in Tokyo, Nadya attempts to get directions from a bemused airline employee – one suspects the woman is as confused by the attendant camera crew as by the unilingual Russian – and can be heard asking Redmon himself for help. (Later, when she fails to navigate the phone system at the Japanese modelling agency, he actually lends her his phone for a heart-wrenching call to her mother.) Somehow, she does wind up at the minuscule apartment she will share with another Russian model, a girl who spent four hours lost in the Tokyo subway when she arrived.
Getting lost in a strange land is bad enough, but the dramatic tension here depends on the viewer fearing far worse for Nadya and her ilk. The owner of the Japanese agency "really likes models" according to Arbaugh, and can give the filmmakers no clear answer as to why he imports inexperienced girls who mainly get rejected by potential clients. Perhaps they are merely suffering a tough initiation into modelling at their own financial expense – we are told Nadya did continue modelling in Asia, despite her horrible trip to Tokyo – but Arbaugh also admits that some of the unsuccessful take the short step to prostitution. Of course, she knows nothing about that side of the business.
It is typical of Redmon's and Sabin's approach that they simply let those comments stand without investigating: The doc does not include any narration and does not directly judge the participants. No need with Arbaugh, who is all too happy to hand over the rope with which a viewer can hang her. Back at the lavish modernist house she owns in Connecticut, she appears as a confused narcissist ready to share anything, including photographs of a benign growth removed from her abdomen and her own sad video diaries from her modelling days.
Perhaps she is merely a cog in a large machine operated by society's glamorization of youth, but still, she openly lies to prospective models, telling them nobody who goes to Japan runs into debt. Meanwhile, having been promised work that never materializes and signed contracts that can be terminated for any reason including the slightest weight gain, both Nadya and her roommate are sent home about $2,000 in debt.
Arbaugh yearns for a child, but one presumes she would never want to see it treated like this. The directors of Girl Model have said in an interview they are surprised by the media's characterization of their documentary as an exposé, having intended it as a study of two characters whose parallel lives intersect only in the moment of scouting. Indeed, a scene where Arbaugh actually visits the models' apartment appears as staged as her concern about the place. Typically, she takes no action. If the documentarians are not to risk consignment to the same ambivalent category, they should be embracing the notion their film is an exposé and be giving us more information onscreen about some of the allegations it implies.
Girl Model begins a limited run on Friday at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
- Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
- Classification: PG
- 2 stars