Girl Model is an extraordinarily delicate, expertly observed and ultimately very disturbing fly-on-the-wall documentary that focuses on Nadya, a 13-year-old aspiring fashion model from a remote Siberia village, and Ashley, the seemingly morally bankrupt American model scout who plucks Nadya from her impoverished family home and sends her off to Japan.
Nadya is promised $8000 dollars worth of modeling work (the minimum requirement for a Japanese work visa). Her apprehensive family spend their meagre savings to send their daughter abroad, because upon her return, the money she makes modeling will pay for them to build a much-needed addition to their cramped home. Their pretty, wide-eyed daughter’s dreams are their dreams, too, for she represents their only escape from living the way they do.
Upon her arrival at Narita Airport, the young girl—who can speak no Japanese, let alone any English—panics when there is no one there to meet her. Thing go downhill rapidly for Nadya from there.
Ashley is a former model herself. Her role as a scout is to descend on Eastern European countries looking for the type of tall, skinny, barely pubescent young girls that are in-demand with the Japanese modeling agencies. Although we see footage that Ashley shot of herself in a mirror at the age of 19, pouring her soul out to her video camera about how much she hates the modeling world, like a dutiful gear in the machine of the fashion industry, she still performs her function to flatter, entice, seduce, and basically lie to young girls and their families about the money and glamor that awaits them in Japan. What happens to them when they get there is really not her concern.
In Girl Model the audience watches helplessly as a child’s dreams are smashed against the cold reality of the fashion industry, in a heart-breaking head-on collision. Although Nadya does attend many “go sees” and even does one photo shoot in Tokyo that she sees printed in a glossy fashion magazine, she returns to her family in Siberia with a crushing $2000 debt.
Co-directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon were initially approached by Ashley herself—she was a fan of their prior documentary work—regarding making a film about the young Russian models who are often exploited in Japan. One can’t help concluding that Ashley offered her story to the directors in an effort to somehow exonerate herself for her deeds. She is not successful.
She is a fascinating figure—obviously she’s terribly conflicted about her own role in the exploitation of these girls—but in the end, Ashley reveals herself to be a psychic vampire as we see her performing her spiel about modeling in Japan for an Eastern European TV television crew, as Sabin and Redmon focus their cameras on her next young victims’ faces.
Below, Dangerous Minds spoke to co-director Ashley Sabin about Girl Model at the SXSW festival: