It’s bitterly cold in Siberia where Ashley Sabin and David Redmon first find the subject for their latest film “Girl Model” and yet inside a warehouse like a group of cattle lined up for the slaughter, an endless parade of far thinner teenage girls line up in skimpy bathing suits. There is little glamour in the process – talent scouts don’t lower their voices when remarking that one is “nothing special” right after the next – and the young women don’t look all that thrilled to be there, lured mainly by the promise of being able to support their families if they hit the lottery and score a contract guaranteeing them a couple gigs abroad with the potential to earn more.
While the glib and cynical comments of the scouts suggest the day’s call-in will leave them with slim pickings, Sabin and Redmon hone in on their two subjects pretty quickly. One is Nadya, an emaciated 13-year-old with wide oval eyes and sandy blonde hair nearly as translucent as her skin, and the other is Ashley, the American scout who believes Nadya’s demure appearance could be right for the Japanese market. A former model herself, the latter clearly is deeply ambivalent about the work she does, yet forges ahead since she appears to be drained of the desire to do something else, or of anything really.
That Ashley is the de facto guide into the unpleasant underground Sabin and Redmon expose in “Girl Model” makes it so that even after Nadya is approved to leave Siberia for Toyko, the chill doesn’t entirely thaw from the film. Yet that hardly makes what transpires any less fascinating. In trailing Nadya from the cramped quarters of her family’s house where she spent years in her grandmother’s bed before sleeping at her mother’s side to a dimly lit dorm in Japan, “Girl Model” shows the tragic contradiction of what is essentially a legitimized black market – not only that the path to becoming a working in the beauty business can be ugly, but that the freedom of leaving a poor life in the country for a supposedly richer one in the big city can be even more confining.
Unfortunately, Nadya finds all this out the hard way, especially since Ashley is all but relieved of any responsibility she has for her discovery once she gets on the plane. Since they’re inextricably tied, the film caroms between both women’s equally lonely lives – Nadya in a country where she can’t speak the language and becomes rightfully suspicious she’s not getting all the auditions she should be under the terms of her deal and Ashley in an empty house with only naked plastic babies around (that she occasionally dissects) to comfort her when she’s not on the road.
Ashley’s self-imposed isolation make her an interesting counterpoint to Nadya, who gives the film a clear protagonist and a story arc as an innocent thrust into a system trying to exploit her at every turn. But whether Ashley is an antagonist was what I couldn’t stop thinking about as the film ended, as Sabin and Redmon allow her moral ambiguity to set the tone for the film. At one point, she grows more proactive when she prodding Tigran, the owner of Nadya’s agency to lay out all the terrible things that happen under his watch in the industry, and at another, she hardly registers much emotion when describing the not unusual circumstance of modeling videos to be circulated around prostitution rings. Early video diaries from her own modeling days hint that Ashley’s desire to self-document may have led to her participation in the documentary, underlining a less than altruistic motive to let cameras in. Intended or not, it felt like an incredible metaphor for a world built on images that don’t represent the reality behind them.
"Girl Model" will play at SXSW three more times on Sunday, March 11th at the Violet Crown 2, Monday, March 12th at the Alamo Ritz 1 and Thursday, March 15th at the Alamo Lamar A. It will soon play in New York on March 20th as part of the Stranger Than Fiction series at the IFC Center before airing on PBS' POV later this year.