Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s disquieting film GIRL MODEL can easily be read as a scathing indictment of modern culture’s ever-narrowing definition of beauty, at least as it’s determined by the modeling and fashion industries. In its never-ending quest for a theoretical ideal of aesthetic perfection, the fashion world has seen fit to manipulate naive, teenaged aspiring models and their families, often by dangling the carrot of a huge payday that may never materialize. It’s difficult to fully comprehend the average consumer’s complicity in this process, which takes young girls from their homes and forces them to fend for themselves against uncaring agencies and clients (and in worst-case scenarios, sexual predators). The absence of any regulation or unionization leaves the young models exposed to rank exploitation by those willing to trade on their innocence for an easy buck. It makes sense, then, that GIRL MODEL relies on a color palette and score that sometimes reads tonally as something close to a horror film—horror is the only rational response to the sexualization of a child for profit. GIRL MODEL was co-presented with the PBS documentary series POV. Following the screening, POV Executive Director Simon Kilmurry spoke with directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, along with model Rachel Blais and Model Alliance staff members Sara Ziff and Jenna Sauers. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.
Simon Kilmurry: I’ve seen this film a number of times, but this is the first time I’ve seen this film on the big screen, and it’s incredibly powerful. It’s an emotional watch, just spending time with Nadya. How did you find the story? How did you find Ashley and end up in Siberia filming this young girl?
Ashley Sabin: In 2007 we were approached by Ashley to make this film. She had seen two of our films previously in different venues in New York. She posed it as a film about modeling and prostitution, or the foggy line that exists between the two. For us, we’re not investigative journalists. We’re not there to dig up dirt or to tell that sort of investigative story. So it was really important for us to find a story that would be compelling enough to carry a film. We started, actually, in China, because Ashley is a designer as well. So she brought us to this factory in China. We thought it would be this whole global commodity chain, and that wasn’t really the case. Then we found ourselves in Russia, and that’s where we first came across Nadya. She had scouted Nadya and that’s what brought us to the story. We felt really strongly that the two parallel stories would complement and contrast each other really well.
Kilmurry: It’s an ethically and morally challenging film. There are lots of moments where you see this young girl reaching out for help or needing help. Where you see your main character Ashley say things which you, as an audience member, sometimes want to question or challenge. I want to ask about your role as filmmakers in both inserting yourself into the film, and holding back. And how you made those decisions.
David Redmon: The movie is structured and unfolds in a way where the filmmaker doesn’t seem like we’re very involved in what’s happening. We’re just sort of there observing what’s happening. But we could have easily made another film about our involvement in the story. I saw a movie this weekend at South by Southwest called SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE where the filmmaker puts herself in the story, and it works quite well. The way we edited the story is the way we experienced it, the way Nadya experienced it and the way Ashley experienced it. We’re trying to portray it that way so you, as an audience, will also experience it that way and ask these questions. What’s going on here? Something’s kind of off. Should I intervene? Why is she here? Why are we there? We’re hoping that the audience will ask these kinds of questions and walk away wondering what they would have done. But also, understand the bigger picture as well.
Kilmurry: Were those conscious decisions made when you were in the moment?
Redmon: In the moment, we didn’t really know what was going to happen. You’re pushed away, but you work on a film for four years, so you don’t really go away. So you push back. And you just step into the middle of a situation with a camera and record it as delicately as possible. But you also have to have persistence. So if Nadya is going to be in trouble, there’s no way we’re going to film that. We’re going to intervene and provide assistance, but we’re not going to put that in the movie. In those situations we’re conscious in the moment, but also conscious when we’re done shooting. And we did follow-ups. We hired somebody to go to Russia. We went to Russia three times as well, to meet with her family and Nadya. We hired someone to go there and find out more about what was going on, to find out why she went back to Japan, to find out how she got there. Then they sent her to China, then to Taiwan, and back to China. It was just too much to keep up with, and was becoming too expensive to follow.
Kilmurry: Rachel, you’re still involved in the business. Can you talk a little about your experience—both working in Japan and the business more broadly. And is Nadya’s a common story that you’ve seen in the business?
Rachel Blais: It’s kind of hard, because every girl has a different story. But there are many elements that happened to Nadya—just going away from home and the depression she goes through, certain things that she doesn’t understand and people not explaining it to her, financially being told one thing and experiencing another—that is common for all models. Not all girls start traveling internationally at 13, but most girls start getting scouted at the age of 13-14, which is a bit weird thinking about the fact that these girls are being scouted to become women models. What are we projecting as being the image of a perfect woman in our society. Why does the story affect us, and why is it in our daily life? As a model, I’ve traveled almost 10 years now, internationally. I’ve lived in Japan for about a year all together. I was in Japan when Nadya was in Japan, and met her when I was going to casting. But Nadya is one girl that was there in 2009, but I’ve met many girls before and after that were 12, 13, 14 year old girls in Japan. But there are 12, 13, 14 year old girls in the U.S. and Europe. Yes, there are girls that keep modeling at 18, 20 and are in magazines, but I’m a very old model at 26 years old. So it’s a bit wrong, I feel.
Kilmurry: There’s a couple of moments in this film where there are kind of shocking clauses that are exposed in the contract. At one point Nadya is 13, and then suddenly she’s 15? This is something that you work on at the Model Alliance. Can you talk about your work and how it relates to working with younger models?
Sara Ziff: First, I’d like to thank Ashley and David for inviting us here. We think this is a really important film. Most people, they see the glamour of the fashion and modeling industries, but they often don’t have any first-hand experience of it. And they don’t see the day-to-day realities that can be less than glamorous. I’ve worked as a model since I was 14 years old. I’m almost 30 now, so I’ve been in the industry for a long time. I made a film about my experiences called PICTURE ME that came out a year and a half ago. In working as a model and making that film and identifying common areas of concern when speaking with other models who’ve had difficult experiences, I realized that I needed to do something. Essentially the modeling industry is unregulated. Models are one of the only groups of performers that don’t have a union. You look at actors, or musicians or dancers, and they all have strong unions protecting them. Models don’t have anything like that. And on top of that, models are independent contractors, so in the U.S., the laws in terms of workplace standards essentially don’t exist for us. There’s no minimum wage, sexual harassment law does not apply. And, of course, you’re dealing with a labor force of children. So you’re dealing with a very vulnerable demographic. The Model Alliance just launched last month, and we’re working to give models a voice in the American fashion industry. We’re still very new, but so far we’ve gotten a lot of support, not only from models but from agencies and designers, photographers—different stakeholders in the business. Certainly, the extreme youth of many of these girls is a problem. I think one of the most disturbing scenes in the film for me was seeing a video reel of Nadya posing very seductively. This is a 13 year old child, and I think a lot of people, when they look at images of models, they don’t stop to consider how old these kids are, and how vulnerable they are. Our first initiative was to set up model support. We’re working with two unions, AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists, and Actors Equity. And we’re basically establishing a confidential agreement service for our members, models who’ve experienced sexual harassment or any kind of abuse.
Kilmurry: Rachel, at one point in the film you said something to the effect of the fact that the agent doesn’t take responsibility, the client doesn’t take responsibility. Where does responsibility lie ultimately?
Blais: No one is responsible so if no one is responsible I would think that everyone is responsible, in a way, of accepting the way things are or not speaking about it. But people are not aware, that’s why I feel GIRL MODEL is really important. After doing a lot of Q&As I’m just realizing how people were not aware. So it’s hard to blame people. And even people in the industry seem disconnected to the fact that having underage girls, they don’t understand what it implies to have all of these kids around. In a way, everyone is to blame, but not everyone is aware, so it’s kind of a fine line. I believe that if all agencies said, we’re not going to take any girls under 18 to do women’s modeling, and companies just go to children’s and teenage agencies that are already well-regulated, that would be good. I’ve been told by an agent that that will never happen, the clients won’t respect it and the agency won’t respect it. So the way to go is through the governments, internationally. I’m on the board of [actors’ union] Equity in the UK, so they opened our doors to us. We’re starting in the UK and will hopefully move to the U.S. and work with the Model Alliance. It will be a while, but I think GIRL MODEL is doing an amazing job of creating that awareness that’s needed for people to try to do something about it.
Kilmurry: Jenna, is there anything you would say to follow up on that?
Jenna Sauers: Honestly, the question of responsibility is a really tricky one in fashion, especially because the modeling industry has traditionally played its cards very close to its chest purposefully so that consumers don’t know where these girls come from, where the images come from , how old they are, whether they’re in school. That messes with the glamour of it all, it doesn’t make you want to buy the perfume if you’re suddenly worried that the girl is 15, or 13 as the case may be. That being said, I personally question the wisdom of consumer-directed fashion campaigns because I feel like decades of consumer pressure and letter-writing and boycotts has been focused on the fashion industry, and all of that hasn’t really changed the prevailing imagery that we see in the magazines and on the billboards. It hasn’t really led to better outcomes for the women who consume that imagery, it hasn’t led to fewer eating disorders or really had any measurable impact at all. I feel like if we tried to put more into empowering models themselves and ensuring that they were healthy, and that they had more of a voice in their work and could be a little bit older when they began their careers, that that would naturally have the effect of changing the kinds of imagery that we see. And perhaps even sharing a broader range of body types.
Audience: I was interested to learn that Ashley contacted you to make the film, and I was wondering what sort of editorial input she might have had.
Sabin: We had complete artistic control of the film. She had brought us the film. Right after we got back from China, before we were going to leave for Russia she sprung a contract on us. In that contract she had wanted artistic control. That’s absolutely, for us, unacceptable. That’s an advertisement, and paid work that you decide to embark on. And something that we’re not interested in. The only control she had was that we were unable to show her saying anything defaming a specific company or agency. But the irony behind that was that she censored herself. She never outs anyone, so we never had an issue with the editing. She did see the film right before we screened at Toronto, and the comments that she gave were that she didn’t want the fact that she works at Elite in the film. Which most people outside the industry may or may not know what Elite is. So that was an easy withdrawal. She felt like the way that Japan was put together was a negative portrayal, and she felt like her experiences were positive. What’s interesting about that comment is that you look at her personal diary footage and that’s completely the opposite of what her experiences were. I felt after we had shown her the film and the way that she responded, it could start at the end and go to the beginning and be the same film, that we accurately portrayed her as someone who is in complete denial and not able to take a hard look at how they’re implicated in an industry as participants.
Audience: I don’t think Ashley is in denial. The most disturbing part of the film for me was her complacency. I wanted to know if the models and former models could identify with that in any way. Are you activists now?
Redmon: Let me say something first. We met Rachel at the tail end of making the movie. And we just met Jenna and Sara just a few weeks ago when we found out about Model Alliance. That’s how we relate to each other.
Blais: I’m still modeling. A lot of the models never dreamt of being models. It just happened to us because we’re tall and beautiful around 14, 15 years old. You have a bunch of random people on the street that stop you and start talking to you an asking if you want to become a model. And you just kind of fall into it, and as you go through it you kind of learn what’s going on. You talk with all of the girls. But some girls, it takes them years to really understand what’s going on. Some girls don’t want to admit what’s going on to themselves. These girls are in models apartments at a very young age. They’re with other girls for whom the entire experience is being normalized. So at any time models are going in and out of the feelings that Ashley is going through herself, knowing that a lot of things are around but not being shared. I think once you know, for me it was to keep going to speak out for girls, to speak with girls at castings and tell them about Equity in the UK. Now to tell them about the Model Alliance in New York, to do that kind of work. Because if you’re still in the industry you can make a change and you can see what’s really going on. Once you start speaking you do work way less. Every time I say to the agencies, I can’t work on these days, it’s quite interesting. Then they start having a bunch of castings. Because the rest of the time I’m sitting at home waiting. And when I say I can’t work these days, without telling them why—I think they’re smart enough to know it’s for GIRL MODEL—I start getting offers for money jobs. So it’s my decision to say no on these jobs because these issues are important to be talked about. So maybe I’m an activist, I don’t know.
Audience: Why did you chose to show Ashley’s surgery? Was that to show another side of her, or to show the industry’s impact healthwise? What was your intention there?
Sabin: For us, there were a few different scenes that were like that, which were the surgery, the baby scene, the cut up imagery she has in her bathroom. She was sharing those scenes with us during the production. And what became quite clear was this relationship to the body, and dissociation with the body at the same time. For us the surgery scene is interesting and has a bigger metaphor because her industry is evaluating bodies, body parts. And this body or matter is growing within her and wanting to come out. I think it was a poetic metaphor that we were really going for.