Girl Model opens on what looks to be a group of young teens waiting for an Undereaters Anonymous swimming lesson. 13 and 14 year old girls standing awkwardly in their swim-wear, all painfully thin, desperately young and wide-eyed with innocence, they wait in a mirrored room to have their photograph taken by a woman named Ashley. She, we soon learn, is a model scout specialising in the Japanese market, and it turns out that this particular market like their girls young. She spots a kid with a lot of potential, a shy Siberian teen named Nadya, and from their meeting the narrative splits into two; we follow both Nadya’s first steps into the Japanese modelling industry, as well as joining Ashley as she travels the globe looking for more fresh talent. It’s hard to say which side ends up looking more terrifying.
You can’t blame Nadya for wanting to get out. Living in a ramshackle bungalow in Siberia, it’s clear both she and her family see her sudden good looks as her only chance for a life free from aching banality. When she wins an opportunity to travel to Tokyo her parents’ mixture of pride and sadness is heartbreaking; it’s clear even from the optimistic opening that they cannot help but fear for the safety of their child. Nadya says very little, smiling shyly at the camera from behind her thick hair. It’s clear she’s unready to leave her family at all, never mind travelling alone to Tokyo in order to work in the most unforgiving industry in the world.
Arriving in Japan with no English, no friends and absolutely no idea what to do, it takes the documentary crew stepping in even to get her to her two-room apartment. Told to tell the head of Switch Models (the company taking her on) that she’s 15 rather than 13, Nadya is shoved into an utterly incomprehensible world of total dehumanisation, where she and her room-mate (another young teen shipped over from Russia) are carted from casting to casting, talked about and left entirely to fend for themslevs, with rather more binding contractual agreements, hidden clauses and fine print than her parents ever thought to look for. It’s hard to say what’s more difficult to watch, Nadya’s slow descent into hopeless, utterly confused despair, or the unforgiving exchanges between those looking to make money out of her. Treated not as the child that she is, but rather as a commodity to reap reward from, every scene we witness is laced with an unspoken menace, made all the more poignant for the fact that no-one seems to see it.
Meanwhile, Ashley is on the trans-Siberian express, steeling herself against yet another trip of seeking out fresh faces. Unlike Nadya, Ashley has a lot to say about her career of choice, and treats the cameras as a confessional – unloading years worth of bitterness about modelling onto the silent crew. She was, we learn, a model herself, but decided to become a scout in order to claw back a little control. She is without doubt the most fascinating – not to mention bizarre – figure we meet on this journey; simultaneously naive, hardened, resentful of and addicted to the industry that has defined her ever since she was 18. We learn her story from a mixture of documentary footage and video diaries she’s kept over the years, and it transpires that this project was her idea – though its difficult to see why she’d want such an account of her dubious life achievements committed to film. Possibly the most harrowing, not to mention telling, moment of our time with her comes when she asks the head of Switch models about how he keeps the girls on the straight and narrow; he unblinkingly relates that he shows them the bodies of girls who have succumbed to fatal amounts of sex, drugs and alcohol. He does this to help them, you see, to make these children understand that they must do as they are told, or suffer the inevitable consequences. Ashley takes these comments as she no doubt takes everything she witnesses in this ghoulish industry – with a detached smile and blank eyes.
Girl Model offers no solutions to the monstrous things it witnesses, allowing its silence on the matter to stand as an indication of the hopelessness of the situation. Whilst there is money to be made from these beautiful girls, the over-arching point seems to be, this morally bankrupt industry will thrive. Hard to think of an uglier message.