In Girl Model, an alarming documentary about the trafficking of Russian child models to the Japanese fashion market, a garrulous modeling agent explains his philosophy: To expiate his own past bad behavior, he says with papal solemnity, he approaches model recruitment as a religious calling, not to mention a fatherly responsibility to do right by the girls, give them a better life than they have now and protect them from harm.
This apparently includes hauling novices off to the city morgue to see how badly things can end for a recruit who doesn't do as she's told. As the rest of the film shows in quietly terrifying detail, it also involves dispatching barely pubescent girls to Tokyo without their parents, dumping them in sparsely furnished apartments without supervision and leaving them to fend for themselves as they run from casting calls to photo shoots without actually earning a penny.
Most of the girls are under 15 years of age. No doubt one or two make it in the business. The lucky ones make it home, severely in debt but physically unhurt.
The movie, made by Massachusetts filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, doesn't directly address the legality of this slimy operation. But unless this disingenuous creep of an agent actually believes his own propaganda, you have to wonder what possessed him to open himself to scrutiny by two filmmakers who are well-known for expose docs like Mardi Gras: Made in China and Camp Katrina.
Oddly enough, the idea for Girl Model came from the agent's chief scout, an American former model named Ashley Arbaugh, who's credited as a "creative consultant." Arbaugh, who went to college with Redmon, has a horribly compelling role in the movie: She plucks a 13-year-old Serbian beauty named Nadya from her home in a village near Novosibirsk and sends her to Tokyo. There, we learn, the demand for leggy innocents is endless.
Watching Nadya and hundreds of other skinny, bikini-clad hopefuls line up before scouts who mull their flaws in front of them as if they were fresh meat — "Her hips are too big," "She's nothing special," and so on — you wonder also whether any of the gathering public outrage in the West over the abuse of underage models has percolated through to the Eastern bloc.
If it has, it's not getting in the families' way. Nadya doesn't come from wealth, but it's far from clear that her loving parents are destitute; they want to build a more spacious house. For her part, this touchingly sweet kid is bemusedly thrilled to win the cheesy crown that makes her "Miss Elite Star." Basically, though, she wants things "to be good at home."
Nadya's euphoria doesn't last. In Tokyo, she must find her way alone to the rundown flat she shares with a slightly more well-heeled Russian girl who's soon sent packing for gaining a few ounces. As Nadya trudges through casting calls that bear no fruit, weeps through intermittent phone conversations with her mother when she can find a phone, and exhibits childish delight when she finally finds a magazine photo of herself all but hidden under a garish wig, her loneliness is pretty devastating.
But the emotional isolation of the brittle scout Ashley, a vision of Nadya's future if she's "lucky," made me want to throw myself off a cliff. A former model herself, Ashley is bright, articulate and seemingly crippled by ambivalence toward the lucrative living she earns as a de facto procurer for a man she knows is just this side of a pimp. She has grown wealthy on the proceeds, and it's a perverse visual gift to the filmmakers that she lives in a glass house in Connecticut, alone save for a couple of naked plastic dolls — "I had a third, but I dissected it" — that represent the babies she plans to have, though it's unclear with whom.
Is Ashley a sad case in a whole different way from the innocent Nadya, or an accomplished self-promoter, every bit as corrupt as her boss? She claims to hate the world that she sees as a velvet prison, yet at times Girl Model feels like Ashley's private vanity project. (Do we need to see before-and-after footage of her stomach when she has surgery to remove the fibroid tumors that are preventing her pregnancy?)
She describes the slide of many would-be models into prostitution — it "may be easier than being a model," she says — with something disturbingly like relish. And by the end of the movie, she has exhausted our sympathy by showing herself to be a smoothly practiced liar, snowing the anxious parents of a fresh batch of recruits with promises that their daughters will all be successful and never get into debt. By now we know enough that, when a postscript tells us what Nadya will do next, we're filled with dread.