SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 15, 2012
Directors: David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
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…
While Nadya certainly earns our unwavering sympathy, Ashley concurrently evolves into an infinitely complex subject. Ashley first entered the modeling industry 15 years ago as a teen model. Despite being unable to admit to any affinity to the modeling world, Ashley jumped directly from modeling to scouting. She works for a Russian man named Tigram, who sees himself as a savior for the young models, enabling them financial security and self-improvement; despite her personal experiences, Ashley does not seem to disagree with Tigram’s perspective. That is not to say Ashley has not witnessed and experienced some truly horrible things during the last 15 years of her life (heck, she even has an operation to get the evil that has festered inside her gut removed).
Shot in an uncompromising cinéma vérité style, Girl Model does not rely upon any of the falsifying flourishes that so many modern documentaries utilize. With no on-camera presence, voiceover narration, graphics or reenactments to increase the “entertainment value,” Redmon and Sabin’s directorial influence barely registers on our radar. There are only two scenes during which we are reminded that Redmon and Sabin are present — when Nadya needs help navigating her way out of the airport and when she borrows Redmon’s cellphone to talk with her family.
That said — we are always aware that we are experiencing Girl Model from the perspective of Redmon and Sabin’s kino eyes. Redmon and Sabin spent countless months documenting their subjects with keen observational insight and they sculpted Girl Model from that footage. This is where their true genius comes into play — the way they shape and structure the narrative during the editing process. Girl Model is saturated with visual metaphors and cinematic comments on the onscreen events; and, though quite profound, Redmon and Sabin do this with such subtlety that it never comes off as cheeky or snarky. Redmon and Sabin do this to make us aware that they are cognizant of the onscreen events; so, they are not just flies on the wall after all…
(Also be sure to check out our SXSW 2012 interview with David Redmon and Ashley Sabin.)