Girl Model (2011)
dir. David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Much has been documented about the appalling sexual exploitation of women in Eastern Europe - the out and out chicanery that amounts to kidnapping women of all ages and forcing them into sexual slavery the world over. What has not been adequately detailed is the "legal" entrapment of similar young women - desperate to end the crushing poverty they and their families experience in the relatively new "capitalism" of former Soviet countries. Girl Model is just such a film. This extremely harrowing depiction of a perverse business connection that links Siberia to Japan exposes a brutal reality that sadly still exists.
Japan, it seems, always needs meat - fresh, tender, young meat. In the Land of Nippon, the vast publishing industry can never get enough young models to feed the bottomless pit of periodicals that place emphasis upon extolling the virtues of creamy, white, wide-eyed, innocent and highly sexualized female flesh. And as this chilling documentary points out - the younger the better.
In fact, a look of pre-pubescence is what's very often admired. There's certainly nothing ethnocentric or racist in pointing this out. Much of Japan's manga and anime constantly sexualizes innocence of young women - quite openly and with nary a shred of objection. Lord knows I've seen my fair share of it - everything from simple tales of love amongst burgeoning sexuality to wide-eyed animated little girls in school uniforms being pursued and often raped by demons bearing huge snake-like penises.
The film follows two subjects.
The first is Nadya, an innocent 13-year-old girl from Siberia who participates in a modelling cattle-call. She is eventually flown to Japan and endures endless, gruelling "casting" sessions, hoping she'll strike it rich as a model.
The second is Ashley, a beautiful though world-weary former child model from America who ten years earlier worked in Japan and now makes a very good living as a talent scout - plucking these stunningly gorgeous kids from their squalid villages and plunging them before the expert Japanese oglers looking to place these children on and within the pages of the cornucopia of fashion magazines filling shelf space in every conceivable retail outlet.
Nadya's parents naively sign an insane contract in languages (English and Japanese) they do not even understand which includes legalese designed to favour the exploitation of their child. When Nadya arrives in Japan, nobody is there to meet her at the airport and there isn't anyone who can speak Russian. How or where she might have ended up is anyone's guess. It's clear the presence of the filmmakers is what gets her where she needs to be.
Nadya is flung from one casting session to another and there's every indication that some of the photos ARE being bought and sold, but that she's not getting a penny. She's broke, in debt to the agency, achingly lonely and desperately homesick to the point where she breaks down in tears more than once.
Ashley speaks about the freedom her current work as a scout brings her, but within her eyes we see the pain she endured during her own childhood indenture in Japan. She shares her video diaries from that period where she is clearly going through a similar experience that Nadya is now in.
She even questions why she is drawn to luring these children into what she herself suffered. At one point she talks about how these young women need to be on top of the game to make a living from modelling and even admits that those less savvy will use their bodies as strippers or prostitutes.
Interviewed in her American home, what we see is even more horrendous. Ashley's house is clearly modern and upscale, but its interior is utterly bereft of anything representing a personality - those little touches that give either a sense of warmth or character.
The only personal touches are two grotesque looking unclothed baby dolls that she dotes over (she admits there used to be a third that she destroyed limb from plastic limb) and we then follow Ashley into a medical procedure wherein cantelope-sized tumours are removed from her belly - resembling deformed progeny that almost symbolize her desire to have a baby growing in her stomach instead.
One of the most reprehensible figures in the movie is an agency middleman, the Russian-speaking Tigran who, with the straight-faced intonations of a zealot trying to hide the truth from himself and others, claims that he is devoted to saving these young girls from their lot in post-Soviet-Russian life.
If he wasn't adorned in the garb viewed by most North Americans of Eastern European heritage as strictly chic by Old-Country-boys-at-heart standards and if it wasn't for the thin, almost indistinguishable layer of metaphorical slime coating his body, we might actually believe him when he claims that his work is akin to being a "religious matter" - that he is a saviour instead of the glorified pimp really is.
I almost expected Tigran to morph into Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in the back of the cab with Rod Steiger's Charley in On the Waterfront - paraphrasing the famous Budd Schulberg-scribed speech as something like, "I could'a bin' a saviour, 'stead of a pimp, which is what I yam!"
I watched Girl Model with my 11-year-old daughter. She was riveted throughout, though occasionally gasping open-mouthed and both commenting and questioning how little girls not much older than her were being paraded about as sexual objects. "Are you sure this is real, Dad?" she asked at one point. I nodded. "How can they do this to kids? This is so sick," she responded.
She's right. These are kids. Children. And they are being exploited in a fashion as reprehensible as if they were being immediately tossed into the streets to turn tricks.
Though the film brilliantly doesn't go out of its way to slant the material, it goes a step further in capturing the proceedings with an objective eye - proving, once again, that objectivity can be the harshest point of view of all.
This is a movie that demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. It especially demands to be seen by those who only want the best for women in a world which is not changing as rapidly for them as some might believe it is.
See Girl Model.
See it with your daughters.
For your daughters.
"Girl Model" is currently in theatrical release from Kinosmith. In Toronto it can be seen at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema.