Turns out that part of the Japanese fashion advertising industry relies on young Russian girls to model their wares. The story picks up in Siberia during a casting session where scouts review girl after girl for possible jobs in Japan. The masterful opening shot visually walks through the cattle call as these young woman wait for a chance. A chance for what though? The promise for the few selected is riches and a career abroad. Opportunity that seems to be in short supply for most of them. It's clear from the setup that all these promises won't be fulfilled. Even without the stylistic cues objective observers who aren't forced to make the hard choices of their parents will recognize the seductive siren song of the long con at play here. What's less obvious is what the crash will look like, who's in on it, and if there truly might be a pot of gold waiting for a rare few.
The girls of the title are truly girls with one of the "winners" (and the film's core subject) being just 13 or 14. Nadya Vall is tall, with long blond hair and beautiful - or will be in a more adult way when she's older. We're told over and over by recruiter Ashley Arbaugh (and the film's more fascinating subject) that the Japanese market is looking for fresh young faces. The emphasis on young. Prepubescent might not be entirely unfair shorthand. Along the way we meet some other colorful characters. Notables include the Russian ex-military man who now runs the largest model mill in Siberia along with some sketchy version of scared straight involving live autopsy shock therapy. As well as Messiah the owner of the Japanese agency the girls are sent to. Neither of which in the limited onscreen interviews is ready to admit they're not model citizens. The Russian's story about how he's helping these girls is so strong I'm almost inclined to believe he buys his own fiction.
The filmmakers follow Nadya on her trip to Japan and tag along as she tries to get booked for a shoot. Things are not surprisingly tougher than the marketing material Nadya's parents were given. No money is guaranteed, support for the girls is minimal and it's more than easy to come back in debt. More or less the exact opposite of what we watch parents being told. Even if they do get work it's not clear they'll get paid. In what feels like a nod to record company stories of old the agencies will cheat them out of whatever they can get away with. Something we suspect even before it's laid out by one of the somewhat older models on your.
Then there's Ashley Arbaugh who is one of the most interesting and perplexing characters I've seen in a doc in quite some time. A former model herself there is footage inter-cut from her teens in Japan where she expresses nothing but contempt for the business. Clearly she must know that the bright future she pitches in Russia is just a mirage for most of the girls. Jumping back and forth between a degree of forthrightness and what looks like wholesale denial there's a lot of complexity on display. She emerges as a damaged but not that sympathetic character who funds her lifestyle selling a false set of dreams. Shots of her meticulously clean and sterile home wiped of traces of emotion further suggest a stand alone documentary about her would be fascinating. I've read she's the one who pitched the story to the filmmakers, further fueling my interest.
If one is to quibble with something it'd like be with the amount of detail that's not there. Such as what are the true financial incentives of the large players and is something even seamier going on outside of camera range. Conversations with Arbaugh hint at these things. But perhaps one of the charms though occasionally maddening bits about Girl Model is that the film leaves many such questions open. Personally I like that sort of thing. Others may feel differently on that count. Definitely think it's worth a watch at SXSW. The Q&A should be especially fascinating. And again if they did a film strictly focused on Arbaugh they might have a true (if very sad) hit on their hands. Or at least the subject of someone's psychology dissertation.