Today: February 29, 2024

Girl Model

The concept behind this feature-length documentary is extremely interesting, which goes some way towards making up for the hit-and-miss production values.

By Helen Coffey

The concept behind
this feature-length documentary is extremely interesting, which goes some way
towards making up for the hit-and-miss production values.
Shaky camerawork,
badly-lit scenes and excerpts from one of the cast’s own home videos make Girl Model often appear less than

However, despite its failings in terms of quality, it
features fascinating characters and an intriguing premise, giving us an
in-depth look at the Siberian modelling industry where girls (and they really
are girls) are trained up, scouted
and shipped off to Japan, supposedly to make their dreams come true.

The film follows Nadya,
a sweet, fresh-faced 13-year-old, as she embarks on a quest to become a
professional model in a bid to raise her family’s fortunes. In this strange
world of pre-pubescent girls being bought and sold by jaded professionals,
Nadya is one of the only redeeming characters. With the startling naivety that
only children possess, she says that beauty only really comes from the inside
and that if you are beautiful on the inside, it radiates from you – it doesn’t
matter what you look like on the outside. And what’s more, you can tell she
actually believes this sentiment wholeheartedly. It’s like watching a lamb
trussed up for slaughter as we see her juvenile beauty spotted by ex-model and
talent scout Ashley, who makes all her dreams come true by sending her to Japan
to pursue her modelling career. You just know it’s going to end badly.

Ashley, the other
main character featured throughout, is an American scout who trawls the
increasingly young wannabes of Eastern Europe for blonde, cute,
youthful-looking girls to send over for her Japanese clients. The Asian market
seems to value youth above all else – anyone over 16 is deemed over the hill,
with 12 and 13-year-olds preferred. Ashley is a complex, at times bizarre,
character. Having modelled herself as younger woman, she feels, at best,
ambivalence for the industry. She sees it as a chance to make good money and
travel the world, nothing more – and while not hostile, she seems to feel very
little affection or sense of duty towards her young charges. In one particularly
awkward scene, she goes to visit Nadya and her roommate in their tiny Japanese
apartment, and the lack of warmth and connection between her and the girls is
almost palpable.

Just as expected, Nadya’s modelling dreams are not realised
in Japan. Nor does it seem anyone else’s are either. Despite a contract that
promises two paid jobs, Nadya and her roommate remain out of work. In the small
print of their contract (that it transpires they haven’t read before they get
to Japan), it stipulates that they can get sent home with no money for any
number of reasons, including gaining an inch on the waist, hips or bust. Oh,
and there’s also a clause saying that the agency can change the rules however
they like at any time. Of course there is.

It is somewhat heartbreaking to watch Nadya, essentially a
kid, homesick and desperately unhappy, living alone in a country where she
doesn’t speak the language. Perhaps it might feel more worthwhile if it allowed
her to provide for her family but Nadya, as with most of the girls, eventually
returns home in debt to the agency to the tune of a few thousand dollars. It is
exploitation, pure and simple, and with the girls being too young to know their
rights and their families so desperate for them to have a ‘better life’, there
will always be thousands willing to offer themselves up. The industry plays on
the eternal hope of these people, and takes whatever it can from them, before
spitting them back out.

It is Ashley who says it out loud, the question you’ve been
asking yourself for the duration of the film. What happens to all these girls
afterwards, with their big modelling debts and their failed dreams? Her answer:
well, they’re young, they’re beautiful. Prostitution is the natural next step.

For all its shortcomings, Girl Model is a thought-provoking and somewhat worrying film,
telling a story that needs to be told.

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