Wreaking a gamut of damage that runs from the health of its participants to the self-esteem of its consumers, there is little to love about the modeling industry at the best of times. Girl Model takes a look at the more exploitative aspects of the business, tracing the journey of 13-year-old Nadya Vall, who is plucked from the grinding poverty of her Siberian village and given a shot at becoming big in Japan. (That’s figuratively, not literally, big – put on a centimeter around the waist and these adolescents are sent packing in debt and disgrace.)
Nadya and her family are typical of the naïve teens and their hard-up relatives who willingly provide the fresh flesh craved by fashion markets such as Japan, which fetishize pre-pubescent looks. More interesting are the characters that trawl rural Russia in search of the next waifs to ship to the Far East, in a process that bears a strong resemblance to sex-trafficking. The documentary’s most intriguing personality is the American Ashley Arbaugh, a model-turned-scout who scours Siberia for nubile female fodder for an industry she professes to despise. Her dual career has gained her a minimalist Connecticut mansion and a heap of psychological problems: in one scene we see her try to piece together photos of various body parts of would-be models that she has taken without their knowledge, like some sort of pervert’s jigsaw puzzle. Other players in this murky trade include a Russian former soldier and confessed killer who sees his role recruiting models as religious atonement for past sins, and a Japanese agency head called “Messiah” who, Arbaugh says ominously, “really likes models”.
While the documentary leaves a very unpleasant taste and avoids leading the viewer – there is no voiceover – it could have been harder on this disturbing trade. Arbaugh mentions that some of the girls end up in prostitution but this is not followed up. Some of the scenes showing Nadya and her roommate getting upset, bored and lost in Tokyo could be the response of any homesick youngster – an exchange student, for example – and the teenager has since enjoyed success in international modeling and distanced herself from the documentary.
Nonetheless, Girl Model is still a powerful watch, laying bare the callous way vulnerable children are dispatched into a tough, adult world where their welfare counts for little and promises of runway stardom and riches rapidly give way to rejection and debt. Anyone who still believes the fashion industry is going to solve their problems ought to heed this warning. Although, given the bleak Siberian vistas that permeate the film and the hardscrabble existence these rural Russian teens endure, it’s easy to see why they line dreary provincial function rooms wearing nothing but cheap bikinis and nervous smiles, hoping to follow Nadia east.
Directors: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin Starring: Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh On at: Cinema Corso (17 March, 8pm)