Girl Model, a new documentary that has its U.S. premiere this weekend at SXSW and a planned theatrical release this summer, is an unflinching look at the international modeling circuit, and the complicated networks of mother agencies, booking agencies, and scouts that bring girls as young as 12 from impoverished regions of Russia to highly unstable (but potentially lucrative) modeling contracts overseas. Specifically, the film follows a scout named Ashley Arbaugh — an American ex-model with a mortgage to pay and deeply conflicted feelings about the industry — and a 13-year-old model named Nadya Vall. Nadya, a shy strawberry blonde who lives in a ramshackle house in Novosibirsk with her grandmother, parents, and siblings, catches Arbaugh's eye at an open call — Arbaugh notes approvingly that Nadja looks "like almost prepubescent" — and wins a prize: a trip to Tokyo, where she will earn a guaranteed minimum of $8,000 for two months work. Or so she is told.
The film, by co-directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, is harrowing in parts. It isn't quite Lilya 4-Ever, but then again, this is nonfiction. The modeling business is deliberately opaque — nobody wants people to know how old that girl in the magazine really is, lest the reader start thinking about whether she should be in school rather than, say, how nice it could be to own that lipstick — and Redmon and Sabin do an admirable job of peeling back some of the layers.
To be fair, many industries have practices that, if they were showcased on a big screen, would draw ire or concern — just think about the food industry — but the frankness with which Arbaugh and the agencies she works with assess and commoditize these children is frankly a little disturbing. Here, where the scouted girls are poorest and the markets (Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, and other Asian centers) are the least internationally prestigious, not to mention the least regulated, is the modeling industry in its nakedest form: the exchange of capital for and around young women's bodies. And Arbaugh makes no bones about scouting very young girls. "You can't be young enough," she says; it's what the market demands. "Youth is beautiful, there's a luminosity, and that is what my eye is trained to see." But she also says, "The modeling business is based on nothing."
Perhaps most misleadingly, Arbaugh tells a reporter for a Russian TV station that is covering one of her castings that the Japanese market "is a very safe market. Unlike other markets, the girls never go into debt."
In these exclusive clips, Nadya's story begins to unfold. Here, her deeply creepy Siberian mother agent, Tigran Khachatrian, explains what he thinks is special about 12- and 13-year-old girls: they have "dignity," unlike, he goes on to say, those older girls who are motivated by money (and who, he hints, may be prostitutable). Khachatrian conceives of his job in Biblical terms. "Noah saved the animals two by two," he says at one point. "I'm saving these girls one by one."
Nadya sets off for Tokyo. This is her chance at a better life. She's never been overseas before, and she has to make the journey alone. In Japan, her agency will tell clients she is 15. She spends her two-month stay broke, lonely, living in a tiny agency-owned apartment (for which she pays the agency rent) and struggling to communicate with a Japanese-Russian phrasebook. She befriends another young Russian model, Madlen, but Madlen is sent home, $2000 in debt, for gaining 1cm and therefore breaching her contract.
Back in Siberia, Arbaugh rejects a slightly older girl. Her hips, she says, are too big.