The documentary Girl Model is really about models who are still girls. Not about adult women looking like a girl. The main protagonist, Nadya, is only 13 years old when she is scouted in Siberia to become a model in Japan. For her and her parents, this seems a great chance to leave Siberia and earn some money for the family. Nadya’s father shows the film makers the structure of the house he wants to build for his family: “this is where Nadya will sleep, this will be the bedroom of her brothers, and here is the room for my wife and me.” At least, when Nadya brings back enough money so he can afford to continue building…
Lost in Translation
Nadya’s mother explains to her before she leaves, that in Japan she might have a shower instead of a bath tube, and that she needs to make sure to keep her room clean. This good advice does not help Nadya much when she stands alone at the airport in Tokyo. She does not speak a word of English. She shares a tiny room with another young Russian girl, Madlen. Together they are taken to about 4 castings every day, hoping to be booked, but instead facing many rejections. Nadya gets a job once, posing with a large black wig that covers her entire head but her mouth and chin. As no one tells her where the photos are published, she visits the book shop every day to check out the fashion magazines until she finds her own picture. Nadya and Madlen are figuratively and literally lost. One moment you watch the girls sitting together staring at a map of Tokyo, trying to find their street name, to at least find out where in the city they are located. Sometimes someone lends them a phone to call their parents which inevitably ends in a teary conversation.
The Model Scout
There is an interesting twist to this documentary: we also follow Ashley, the model scout who has picked Nadya and arranged her trip to Japan. In fact, Ashley herself initially approached the documentary makers and convinced them to make a documentary about this topic. When watching the film, you sometimes wonder why: on the one hand it is clear that Ashley is really sceptical about the business, on the other hand, she has built her life around it and is complicit in its perpetuation. At some point when she talks to one of the directors of the modelling agency she works for, a man she claims to admire, he confides to her that he takes strong-headed models to the morgue in Saint Petersburg and forces them to look at corpses of young heroine addicts, as a means to educate them. The documentary shows old footage of Ashley as a young model talking about how modelling made her so depressed and anxious, that she could not leave her house anymore. Now she facilitates even younger girls to go through that same experience, or worse. Ashley admits that the modelling and prostitution business often go hand in hand, and that the girls’ pictures circulate more widely than just among modelling agencies. Is it Ashley’s own trauma that makes her so disconcertedly hard and alienated?
Madlen leaves Tokyo and leaves Nadya behind. Madlen is fired by the agency for having gained 2 centimetres around her hips. Is this a failure or a victory? Earlier in the film, Madlen, who knows a little English, shows the film crew her ‘favourite part of her contract’: the sentence that reads that the agency is allowed to terminate her contract when she gains weight. Madlen decides her strategy and starts eating as much as she can… Her return to Russia is however also marked with a debt of 2000 dollars to the agency for not having managed to get photo shoots. Nadya eventually returns to Siberia as well, with a similar debt. The happy reunification with her parents leaves a nasty aftertaste when we read at the end of the film that Nadya goes back to Japan shortly afterwards to try to earn some money again. Her debt only increases after that trip, and after that she travels to China to try her luck… caught in a vicious circle.
Sara de Jong is researcher at Aletta E-Quality, Institute for Women's History and Gender Equality