Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Girl Model

Film Review: Girl Model

Girl Model (2011; Directed by David Redmon & Ashley Sabin)

From the snowbound boreal desolation row of Siberia to the glittering technocratic metropolis of Tokyo, this border-crossing documentary paints an unnervingly intimate portrait of the underaged modelling industry. Girl Model finds that bookers, agents, photographers, and nearly everyone else who crosses the path of the pretty, slight Russian ingenue Nadya Vall is basically exploiting her for their own gain. Even her parents are counting on her putative modelling earnings to pay for improvements to their painfully modest cabin-like abode in Novosibirsk. There is much riding on her beauty, but at 13, she cannot fully grasp how much.

From its opening sequence of pale, waif-like, bikini-clad teenage Siberian girls queuing in an auditorium for an audition of a few scant seconds in front of a talent scout to the pathos of scenes of Nadya’s struggles in Japan, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s camera pushes right up to the faces and bodies of its female subjects. The close-ups become unsettling and even intrusive, but reflect the similar unsettling, intrusive voyeurism that lurks just behind the flashbulbs of the fashion world.

Even the professional participants in this meat market of modelling minors are exposed in uncomfortably blemished detail, and hold grave doubts about its underlying immorality. The aforementioned talent scout who “discovers” Nadya in Novosibirsk, former model Ashley Arbaugh, is the main such figure in the film. The central narrative thread of the disillusionment of the innocent Nadya is interrupted by interludes with Arbaugh that become increasingly baroque in their combination of weirdness and pathetic, guilt-ridden dissembling.

Arbaugh cultivates the sympathy of the audience early on, as she is filmed on the Trans-Siberian Railway expressing profound doubts about the moral and even existential value of the industry she works in, even owning up to completely hating the whole of it when she herself was a working model. Self-filmed footage from her modelling days gets unsettlingly intimate, and suggests considerable mental distress on her part. Then the cameras follow her to her antiseptic modern manse in Connecticut, where she keeps shoeboxes full of photos of her model friends’ bodies, some of them dismembered by the frame and never quite matching properly. The corporeal dismemberment theme becomes more pronounced when she produces two baby dolls that she bought from a dollar store when she moved into the house; there used to be a third doll, but she confesses to dissecting it.

The mutilation of the human body is also invoked by one of Girl Model‘s cartoon-villain model agents, a hyper-Russian self-promoter named Tigran who manages Nadya’s ill-fated transfer to Tokyo. He presents such an outsized vision of himself as a morally-upright paladin who uplifts his naive young girls that it has clearly never occured to anyone who deals with him to call him on its obvious inaccuracy. Before speculating that he must have been a bad military type who killed many people in a past life to be allowed to do so much good in this one, Tigran reveals that he regularly brings his models to the morgue to look upon the corpses of drug addicts and other non-beautiful unfortunates, even parading them past autopsies if the need for indoctrination is dire enough. As we guffaw in disbelief, Arbaugh looks on, baffled but still admiring of Tigran’s “professionalism”. She’s buying what he’s selling, it seems.

Girl Model is content to present Arbaugh, Tigran, Nadya, and other peripheral figures in the story (there’s a swaggering Japanese agent named Messiah whose douchebaggery could likely have eclipsed all others with more screentime) in particulars if never quite in isolation. Redmon and Sabin run on-screen subtitles which hint that Nadya’s Japanese experience (waiting days for auditions and brief unpaid photo shoots before eventually being sent home in considerable debt to her various agents) is not an uncommon one, and show another model absolving all involved parties of blame for any exploitation that takes place. Indeed, the chain of agencies and individual players which pass Nadya and her image back and forth between themselves seems constructed in the interest of diluting legal responsibility as well as potential compensation for the model herself.

The sadness pours out of her eyes…

But Girl Model‘s visual intimacy substitutes indelible yet subtle emotion for detailed systematic critiques. Nadya, fair-haired and frail with the impossibly wide eyeballs of an extraterrestrial doe, suffers but never quite loses her innocent hopes for a brighter future opened up by her natural gifts. Arbaugh is her opposite, a pretty shell mourning the death of her own innocence, her eyes suffused with elegiac guilt at perpetuating a cycle of exploitation. When she raises the spectre of underaged prostitution walking hand-in-hand with underaged modelling, she’s being literal and metaphoric at the same time. In a superficial world of harsh, classifying gazes and discriminatory beauty standards, the female body is always already being sold, and all that’s left to negotiate is the extent and the specific price.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman
    February 20, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    I found this documentary to be very disturbing. The individuals supposedly representing these very young girls are predators, pathological and seriously criminal in what they do…..which is lure these little girls into far-away countries where NO ONE represented their interests, and even opened them up to the world of “child prostitution” as Ashley Arbaugh admitted ON FILM. I can easily see Arbaugh lying about what she does or doesn’t know of that sick activity, where she would gain massive amounts of money for pimping the girls out to the highest bidder. She’s pathological enough to do that. I believe she could and should be prosecuted in the USA for the criminal activity she has and is performing. At the very least, an investigation into all her activities, especially online, should be performed by competant child-abuse authorities in her state, and by INTERPOL as it involves other countries.

  1. May 22, 2012 at 6:57 am
  2. September 6, 2012 at 10:35 pm
  3. December 31, 2012 at 8:52 am

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