SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 20, 2012
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model is not a Frontline exposé of the modeling industry; the purpose of this documentary is to construct a complex portrait of their subjects without pointing fingers or condemning anyone. The project was conceived when Ashley — a teen model scout — contacted them.
Through Ashley, Redmon and Sabin meet Nadya, a 13-year-old model from Siberia, as she is recruited to model in Tokyo. With no adults to watch over her — and no knowledge of Japanese or English — Nadya is unable to communicate with anyone except her equally scared roommate (but at least she knows some English). Nadya is lost and frightened, but she tries her best to establish herself as a waifish young model in the youth-obsessed Japanese market. Nadya is not necessarily doing this for fame and fortune, as we would assume of a model — she is merely trying to support her economically-strapped family back in Siberia. Unfortunately, nobody paid attention to the contract she signed. (Read more of our SXSW 2012 review of Girl Model.)
Smells Like Screen Spirit met with Redmon and Sabin at the Austin Convention Center during SXSW 2012 for a conversation about Girl Model…
Don Simpson: What attracted you to this subject?
Ashley Sabin: In 2007, Ashley [Arbaugh] approached us to make a film. The way that she had phrased it, she had access to a story about modeling and prostitution. After hearing that and knowing our style of filmmaking — which is verite — we had serious concerns about filming young girls being prostituted or prostituting themselves. After many conversations with Ashley we decided that we would follow the commodity chain — similar to Mardi Gras: Made in China — starting in China (because Ashley was designing clothes for Victoria’s Secret in China) and follow those clothes to the models (whom Ashley scouted) wearing them. We got to China and it became very clear that was not going to be the story. The story really was about Ashley as a model scout and former model; then when Ashley scouted Nadya, their two lives began to run parallel but separate at the same time.
DS: How did you pick Nadya as the model whom you would follow?
AS: It was a timing thing. There was another model who was scouted before Nadya and we were going to follow her, but the timing just didn’t work. We really wanted to be there for every part of the process. To see what it would be like when she said goodbye to her family, and capture how her expectations met with reality.
DS: As documentary filmmakers, you tend to keep your distance from your subjects; but Nadya seems so helpless at times that there are occasions in Girl Model that you need to step in and help her. Can you explain your relationship with Nadya?
David Redmon: Did you see Seeking Asian Female? We could have made a film like that. We could have put ourselves in the story, and by doing so we would have become characters. But this story was not about us, it was about the two characters — Ashley and Nadya — who only interact twice in their whole lives, yet their patterns and trajectories are set in motion because they met each other. For that reason, we felt it was important to maintain distance from Nadya, but move forward with conscious optimism. At the same time, since we didn’t know what the agency was about or what they were doing, we had to assert ourselves a little bit and be present in order to figure out what was going on. If we intervened and helped Nadya all of the time it would create a sense of dependency. She would become dependent on us and we would feel obligated to assist her. If we didn’t assist, then it would be difficult to watch her go through some of those situations and just film her, because she is a child. We had to find a balance in between. If something dangerous was going to happen then we weren’t going to film that.
AS: It was not always the breaking point when we did decide to intervene. We needed to build trust with Nadya, and Nadya with us. With any kind of relationship, I think it is important to push boundaries, but at the same time you can’t push them to the point of no return.
DR: Another reason we didn’t put ourselves in the film with Nadya was because we wanted the audience to be present with her as well. We are trying to plant questions into the audience’s mind: “Would I just watch a young girl girl through this right now?” “What would I do?” And sometimes they redirect their anger towards us and ask “Why didn’t you help her more?” Well, how do you know that we didn’t? We wanted to get the audience to generate these kinds of questions and eventually say, “Look at the bigger picture, there are hundreds — maybe thousands — of girls who do this every year!” We wanted audiences to feel the anxiety as well. If we show us intervening, then it lets the audience off the hook. They know that she is safe because the filmmakers will protect her. But it was a big deal, there was a lot of material that we were not able to shoot.
DS: How did you get permission to film Nadya?
AS: It was very important to us that Nadya’s parents would understand what we were doing and become comfortable with us filming their daughter. We went on the 10-day scouting trip where Nadya was selected, then we returned to New York City and had a translator call Nadya’s family and ask if we could visit them. It was Nadya’s family, Madeline’s family and a girl who did not make it in the film (except for appearing as the last image of the film). For each one of those girls we went back for three weeks with a translator and spent time with their families, so they could ask us questions and we could ask them questions; to build up a transparency of understanding about why we wanted to film, what our intentions were. We made a concerted effort to reach out to them. Even after the film we did, but its complicated since Nadya is still modeling they don’t want us to ask any more questions.
DS: How much interaction have you had with Nadya since you finished filming?
AS: After Japan, we had someone who lives in Russia visit Nadya’s family, to ask a number of questions, take a look at her contracts, ask about the agency she was working for in Russia. After that we were told that we had to stop asking questions, the family did not want to get into trouble. We realized that we had to respect that, but we also realized that our relationship could never be completely honest since we had serious concerns. But we do stay in touch with Nadya and we are trying to arrange it so that she can watch the film and have someone there to talk with her afterwards. But our relationship is pretty tricky at this point.
DS: Has Ashley seen the film?
AS: She watched the film but didn’t say anything extraordinary about it. She just said, “What’s the big deal?” We took out some footage of her outing people for doing illegal behaviors or crimes and she didn’t say anything about it, it was really odd. She was wondering why we didn’t focus more on the safety concerns — but there weren’t any safety concerns, they just put the girls in a room at night and picked them up every morning. Ashley was okay with the stuff that makes her seem quirky because that said that’s who she is. I feel like it was important to make a film that didn’t slam her, but created a portrait of someone who was deeply conflicted in their decision-making process. I hope audiences see that complexity, but I do realize that the initial response to her is anger. I am hoping that as people think about the film they will realize that it is not such a simple issue, it is pretty complex. And its not all Ashley. It was not the point of the film to point fingers at Ashley or Switch or the industry or the models or the families, it was really to have an understanding that we are all part of this issue, we are all complicit in this industry of glamor. How does it affect us? What do we feel about it — especially after we watch this film? It is interesting that people want to blame someone — typically they want to blame Ashley, but she is just one person in a very big industry. There are thousands of other Ashley’s in that industry.
DS: Why do you think critics are categorizing Girl Model as an expose?
DR: I have no idea. Article after article says that it uncovers the underbelly of the modeling industry. I think the film is more of a lyrical exploration of these two people and how their lives vaguely intersect. In the first shot of the movie — we start with the stage then we go behind the curtain to the backstage. We are trying to let the audience know that this is all we are doing. If it was an expose, we would have been narrating and interviewing about who did what, and what is really going on here, and got to the hard truth of the matter. But you can read about that anywhere.
AS: And I think exposes, for our tastes, seem very simplistic. They are doing the exact opposite of what our intentions are. They are pointing fingers. We are interested in the more systemic problems, and how we are all part of it. But it is hard when you have characters who are difficult to relate to or are conflicted in their involvement. That is why people are calling it an expose — because they are uncomfortable with these individuals. That is not our framework of storytelling. It is almost as if they are responding to how the media works now, and using that as a framework of understanding our storytelling.
DS: Can you talk on a more philosophical level about your style of documentary filmmaking and your quest for the cinematic truth?
DR: There is a lot of waiting. I think that is important. We go there and we stay as long as we can and we wait. We spend time with people. A lot of the story comes together as we are shooting it, but also as we are editing it. Downeast (which is premiering at Tribeca 2012) was an accident. We set out to document the last remaining sardine factory in the United States and were going to document what was going to happen to that factory. Then someone came in and bought it, so we approached him and asked to follow him to see what happens. Ashley studied Art History and I studied Sociology, so we definitely have a social framework for what we are seeing — maybe not what we are looking for, but what we are observing. We seem to almost always capture characters who are in transitional moments. That is exciting to us. In transitional moments there is always a possibility of something happening, things are in flux. We somehow navigate towards those moments and wait and see what happens. It would be easy to make a film to set out to find what we want to see. There is no surprise in that. Or there might be, but you close that off if you already have your mind made up concerning what the story is.
DS: The only directorial stamp I see on your films is in your editing. You are obviously choosing what we see out of all of he footage you shot, and you sculpt that narrative from that footage.
AS: And I think it is a narrative. We are definitely not a fly on the wall like Frederick Wiseman’s films. We make a distinct decision in the beginning to tell these stories and let them unfold in a narrative sense. The editing is where we exist. We are involved in the day to day of these stories, but we remove all of that. Then all of the energy goes into how we construct the story and edit the scenes. I think it is even just as small as — if you are in tuned to it — the front stage/back stage, just different shots that really help (even subconsciously) to bring the story out and help the audience have an immersive, emotional experience.
DR: There are some very delicate cuts, such as when Ashley is in the hospital. She just had her cyst removed — which is a statement in itself, the film is about this gut feeling and how are you experiencing the film — and there is a label on the table beside her that reads “Your right to know.” She is getting instructions on her rights and what she needs to know, but Nadya is going through experiences with no idea about what is happening. Then, in the very last part of the hospital scene, Ashley talks about wanting to be a mother; says that she will go to the hospital and they will cut her open and take it out. She makes a cutting motion and it is very mechanical. The very next cut is to Nadya — and that is our imprint right there. If you notice, in a lot of the movies we make, there are scenes of confusion. Some audiences want us to process that confusion for them, figure out what is happening and then tell them what is really going on. It is those moments of confusion and transition that help get to the moments of truth. We are showing Nadya when she is confused; Ashley when she is confused.
DS: How do you approach making films together?
DR: We go back and forth all of the time. There is a lot of conflict and tension between us, but love as well.
AS: I think we balance each other out in a lot of ways. I tend to like the process of editing. I shoot a little bit, but not nearly as much as David, that is clearly David’s strength. When it comes to the editing, that is where we have more conflict because it is two different people trying to tell a story that they have very different impressions of. We will both be on our computers editing — David is a night person and I am a morning person — so we are working on different cuts and putting them into the main timeline, then the other person takes it out. So its push and pull, but I think that tension really helps push the work and our creative vision. If you are being challenged on whether a scene or character is necessary, then you have to challenge yourself to determine why you think it is necessary. I think that really helps us construct and define the story.
DR: There are a lot of scenes that I really wanted in this film that are going to end up as DVD extras. There is one scene in which all of the model scouts go to an animal farm in the middle of Russia. It is a retreat. They start dangling carrots in front of the animals. Ashley thought it was too heavy handed. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. The characters brought us there, we didn’t set it up.
AS: I also feel like each film that we have made, one of us has become more attached to; it becomes a labor of love for one of us. Downeast was David’s labor of love and Girl Model was mine.