The Place Is the Thing
Trans-Siberian: 'Girl Model'
The Siberian cold swirls in the opening shot of the documentary Girl Model, but we are quickly thrown under the bright lights of a crowded room as paper-thin girls clad in bikinis squirm, sashay, and longingly smile into the camera as it works its way past them.
"The secret of a successful modeling career is to start at ages 5 to 10," a man says as he and model scout Ashley cull the crowd for girls prepubescent enough, fresh enough, thin enough for the Japanese modeling market. "She looks, like, 25 already," Ashley says disapprovingly of one possibility.
The final choice is Nadya, a curveless 13-year-old with doe eyes and shiny rivers of blond hair. With this, the often grim documentary from Ashley Sabin and David Redmon is off and running between two worlds of extremes.
Despite our hazy former Cold War expectations, Siberia is the land of warmth here, of plucking berries from grandma's currant garden, of patched-together homes – if Nadya earns good modeling bucks, Dad can finally finish building her new bedroom – of family safety and love. Japan, in contrast, is cool business: the stark white cell Nadya shares with another blond modelling hopeful amid promises of fame and money, the blur of faces, cars, and modeling auditions set in motion by a Japanese agency owner named Messiah.
"We wanted to know, 'Why is she leaving this?' What is it about Japan?" says Sabin, who began the project at the request of model scout Ashley, with whom she shares a first name but little else. "Making a film is always difficult, but the fashion world is a very funny place. We didn't come from a fashion background. We felt like we were stuck in this strange fun house where you're not sure what you're looking at."
And our tour guide is model scout Ashley, herself a model in Japan once upon a time, who alternates between flirting with the camera and bemoaning a modeling world that "has no weight. It's based on nothing." This Ashley is creepy and compelling as she encourages the young girls' overly optimistic dreams then goes home to a stark house adorned with two anatomically correct dolls (she had a third one but dissected it).
We are shown home movies of an 18-year-old Ashley, troubled, addressing the camera like a lover, and we realize she was indeed much like these girls she collects at the behest of a Siberian businessman named Tigran, who sees himself as on an almost religious journey but admits to his own darker past. Ashley remains teasingly aloof. Although the film was her idea, her onscreen persona is ambivalent. "In a lot of ways, she's damaged," Sabin says. "She's a good representation of a number of people in the fashion industry. She sees things she knows are not right, but she's not able to take a hard look at them."
"The whole modeling industry and the young girls involved in it are such a recipe for disaster," Sabin says. "I feel like in many ways we document a disaster." That disaster's name is the American dream exported to the world, with promises of overnight success, lavish riches, and the love of countless strangers. Surprisingly, both Nadya and Ashley continue their involvement in the industry, Sabin says, and have pulled back from the film project.
For the filmmakers, the experience has been a sort of documentary boot camp much more intense than their previous movies, including 2007's Kamp Katrina. "David has said all along that after making this film, we can make anything," Sabin remarks. But the movie emphasizes character more than it pushes any agenda. "We wanted the audience to experience it as we experienced it," Sabin says. "It was an important decision because it allows audiences to respond the way they feel. It's a meditation on that gray area. Life is complex and there are different ways to interpret it." – Joe O'Connell
Saturday, March 10, 1pm, Alamo Ritz
Sunday, March 11, 10:30pm, Violet Crown
Monday, March 12, 11:15am, Alamo Ritz
Thursday, March 15, 7pm, Alamo Lamar