“Girl Model” opens not on a Fashion Week runway in New York or Paris, but in about the last place we would expect to find the starting point of this film: Siberia. Indeed, the sad, eye-opening documentary from directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin seems to revel in subverting this expectation of what constitutes the fashion industry, starting with ground zero for new talent. Here, in deep Siberia, far from a Vogue photo shoot, a cluster of pale, rail-thin teenagers, many in matching black bikini tops and bottoms, gamely smile as photographers shoot away, and Redmon and Sabin’s camera pans across their wide-eyed, startlingly young faces. As the film’s title appears onscreen, the girls are marched cattle-style, before being called individually before the scouts. Some continue to smile at the directors’ camera, while others eye the lens suspiciously.
“I feel like her hips are too big,” says Ashley, a former model-turned-scout seeking new talent for the Japanese market. The casual judgments of Ashley and her fellow scouts are devastating in their nonchalance. (“What’s the size of your hips? … We’ll put you on a diet.” “Pimple problems. You have to treat it.”) The comments are uttered so matter-of-factly that I occasionally wondered if I’d misheard Ashley or misread a subtitle. This, perhaps, is one of Redmon and Sabin’s goals: To cut through the BS-PR-speak that accompanies the fashion world and zero in on its dark, cutting reality. Sometimes, it’s a bit obvious; at the opening scouting call, a PA announcer’s booming voice rattles off the supposed life lessons from modeling for the girls and their parents before proclaiming, “Who wouldn’t want their children to possess these qualities?” as a tiny waist is measured. The announcer adds, ominously, “If you haven’t decided what your child should’ve been doing yet, then perhaps you can offer them a modeling career.”
One girl, a tiny blonde named Nadya, walks sheepishly before Ashley, whose eyes sparkle as she says, “She looks young, almost like a pre-pubescent girl,” before reminding us that in Japan, “Young is very important.” We cut from the fluorescent headache glow of the tryout setting to a town that looks like Twin Peaks minus the charm, or a bit like The Zone in Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” if the grass stopped growing. This is the home town of Nadya, who calls herself “a gray mouse, an ordinary country girl.” We see her simple family life, and glimpse her shy personality. She lives with her grandmother, mother, father, and brothers in a small house, one her father says will be expanded, “If Nadya makes money.”
Ashley, the scout, works for a Russian named Tigran, a businessman with contacts across the country. He and Ashley are the gateway to modeling work in Japan, and in his eyes, he is offering something important — a way out. “The only thing I wish for her…is independence. I’m trying to save these young girls. That’s what I’m doing.” For better or worse, that’s what going to Japan offers them, and morality notwithstanding, it’s left to the viewer to determine if that trade-off is worth it. As Nadya leaves the family home to fly overseas, Ashley travels by train to the next stop on her scouting mission. “The industry changes minute by minute, and it’s based on nothing,” she says, before a jarring jump-cut to herself at 18 — modeling in Japan.
Ashley is among the more interesting characters to emerge in recent documentary cinema. Nadya is a blank slate, but Ashley is the conflicted master, a tired, cagey vet of the model meat market saddled with scary medical issues and the sad recognition that she is still in the industry. At one point, she refers to the dark cloud hovering over the film — prostitution — and while she says she has no first-hand knowledge of it herself, it is clear she is aware that this is the fate of many of the girls, perhaps even those she has sent to Japan. The fate of young Nadya in the film’s mostly Japan-set second half, is not so dire. But the filmmakers demonstrate with precision how a far more severe outcome could come to pass. Nadya, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones.
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin directed, produced, edited, and photographed five previous documentaries, but “Girl Model” should be their most widely seen yet. In fact, it deserves to be shown to teenagers, not necessarily as a warning, but at least as an eye-opener: This is how it works, kids. And it ain’t pretty. And if “Girl Model” doesn’t necessarily break new ground, it does confirm the suspicions many of us have about the industry. As such, the film’s ending seems inevitable and bleak. In fact, our slight sigh of relief over Nadya’s fate is undercut with a final update that makes us shake our heads, and then wonder what we would do in her small shoes. Nadya is a girl, but as “Girl Model” demonstrates with grim clarity, she has entered the world of adults, and there’s no going back. [A-]