August 31 2014

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Girl Model: A Not-So-Pretty Picture


For all the glitter and glamour the modeling industry offers, there’s an equal and opposite dark side: the threat of exploitation, unfair contracts, and poor working conditions. But rarely has the industry looked as dark as it does in Girl Model, Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s new documentary, which debuts on PBS on March 24. Focusing on Ashley Arbaugh, a former American model-turned-scout who specializes in finding Russian girls for work in Japan, and 13-year-old Nadya Vall, her latest discovery, the film offers a stinging critique of one of the industry’s shadowy quarters—which Sabin says is far more wide-reaching than the film’s narrow focus suggests. Here, Sabin speaks to about the upcoming documentary.

How did you see Nadya change from the beginning of the film to the end?
David and I like to see the film as an initiation process. When you take these young girls out of their social support, their social network, and school, and you put them into a foreign environment without very many adults to guide them, it sort of conditions them to believe that those negative feelings they are having are OK and normal. So the transition that we saw with Nadya was that she was starting to accept what we saw as not appropriate. At the same time, I hope Nadya does well, and I hope that she is able to make money from her career. But if she doesn’t make money, without any schooling, she doesn’t really have any alternative.

The story the film tells is a specific one. Do you think such practices are widespread throughout the industry?
I think it even exists in New York. I think it exists in Paris. I think it exists in Italy. The reason I think that is because we did a bunch of screenings with the Model Alliance, and afterward the comments that we would get—from models, agents, fashion designers, fashion photographers—were not only the same story, they were worse. That surprised me—that there are all these people in this industry who are maybe forced to turn a blind eye. Maybe they don’t participate in this act, but they know about it.

What surprised you most while making the film?
What surprised me is a pretty obvious part of the story: the ages of the girls. I had no idea that when you open a magazine that’s meant for adults, you could have children modeling [the products]. I can’t look at an advertisement or a billboard in the same way now.

What was Ashley’s reaction to the finished documentary?
Her main criticism was that her experiences in Japan were positive and we portrayed them negatively, which is really interesting when you look at her personal diary footage. It’s totally contrary to what she said. We’re not in touch anymore. She really started pushing back on the film, so we just parted ways. Her reaction seemed really appropriate to her position, which was that she didn’t want to look at the situation very hard.

What do you hope is the impact of the film?
The film doesn’t say don’t model. What we’re advocating for is: If these parents and their daughters decide to get involved in the industry, that they know their rights and know there is protection. [We are trying to tell them]: These are the questions you should be asking about your contract. Don’t have the agency translate it; insist that it’s in your local language. That’s what we’re really hoping comes out of [the film], because we know the industry is going to continue. It has a really high turnover rate. There are going to be young girls who step up in the place of the Nadyas, so really, it’s just about informing people and empowering people so they can make the right decision and so they’re not taken advantage of.

Photos: Joshua Weinstein (A. Sabin and David Redmon); A. Sabin (Nadya Vall)