Interested in the end results of globalization, David Redmond and Ashley Sabin previously chronicled the end product of Mardi Gras party beads in Mardi Gras: Made in China. Their latest film, Girl Models, follows Ashley Arbaugh whose previous experience as a model working in Japan has led her to recruit Nadya, a 13-year old who bares a striking resemblance to actress Sarah Polley. Selected from a group of young women in a remote Siberian village – in a JonBenet Ramsey-type of contest to find the most appealing girl for the Japanese market – she is sent overseas on a two project modeling contract, the requisite for acquiring a Japanese work visa.
Redmond and Sabin chronicle an industry without commentary calling the overt sexualization of minors exploitation, a factor that may not register in Japan (or even in the US fashion world, judging by how certain designers choose to represent their brand). Taking a direct cinema approach, they limit the on-camera interviews and build an exceptional level of trust and access amongst both Arbaugh and Nadya.
It is remarkable the filmmakers were given access to the world of Nadya, who also meets the same unfortunate level of slavery many artists undergo early in a career: working to pay off the investment the agency has made in you. There are a million pretty women in the world and that is the problem. It is the only moment in which the filmmakers break their silence to ask directly of a subject: how do you make money on new models?
The economy is tricky. There are agencies set up throughout Russia, tracking the development of girls from as young as 10. One such self-proclaimed hero running a smaller agency is Tigram. He runs Noah Models; “Noah” he names the agency, because he views himself as a savior of models, helping girls escape from poverty and training them to have dignity not to veer off into drugs or prostitution. Arbaugh respects Tigram but has fears regarding young women that are paid to use their bodies taking the next step for payment. I’m not sure if she feels guilt, nor is she asked to repent for her work.
Redmond and Sabin hold the line. Ashley Arbaugh a former model has kept an explicit video diary recalling her travels in Japan, which include a near-mental breakdown. The film is powerful but not quite perspective changing. It is not an advocacy film, but shows much growth from the team who are also producing and distributing documentaries.