Girl Model

PBS Premiere: March 24, 2013Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words, what is Girl Model about?

Sabin:Girl Model follows Ashley, the scout, and the interesting thing is that Ashley is also a former model so it has that juxtaposition of her having experienced the same things as the young girls that she's bringing into this world. She then goes to Siberia and finds a young girl, Nadya, who then goes to Japan and experiences a city, and her hopes of what are going to happen are contrasted against the reality of what actually happens.

Redmon: But the film also opens with a series of mirrors, and so I feel like that's very much what the story is about as well. There's a bunch of refractions and reflections and you don't really know who to trust. You don't know if, as a viewer, you can even trust what you're watching.

POV: So how were you introduced to this story and at what point did you decide that you had to make a film on this subject?

Sabin: We came to the story of Girl Model through Ashley the scout. She approached us after seeing two of our films play at the Museum of Modern Art and we didn't jump into the project immediately. We had a lot of conversations with her about what this world is and what she thought the world was and her relationship to it.

Redmon: And in a way I think Ashley Arbaugh scouted us in a similar way to which she scouts these girls. She said she'd been following our work for two or three years. She said that she'd seen Mardi Gras: Made In China and then she watched Kamp Katrina and Intimidad at the Museum of Modern Art and then one day after our screening she was standing there waiting for us. And then that's when she approached us and said listen, I have this idea for a story, I want to tell you about it. Then when she told us about it we had deep reservations and then she handed us a stack of DVDs and on those DVDs were hundreds and hundreds of girls, teenagers in Russia being filmed. But you don't exactly know who is filming, all you can hear is Russian language and the girls' sizes, their ages, and sometimes their phone numbers. And then she said this is what I do and then we took it from there.

Sabin: She framed the film or the project that she had in mind as a film about modeling and prostitution, or the foggy lines that exists between the two. So when we heard that, that's where our reservations came from. It wasn't as if we came in and thought there would be all these dark sort of spots to the story. It was really because that's how she presented it to us off the bat.

POV: So Ashley Arbaugh is obviously your intro into this subject and this story but Nadya, a 13 year-old girl from Siberia is your other main character. Who is Nadya, where does she come from, what's her family like?

Sabin: Nadya is from Ob, which is outside of Novosibirsk and it's a small village. She would take a bus to these castings, after she joined the modeling agency. She's 13 — she has similar desires that most 13 year-olds have, I think, in trying to understand themselves and the world around them. Her family supports her journey, which I think is another thing audiences have a lot of difficulty understanding: why a family would send their daughter abroad? But I think that they were really naïve to the situation and what was actually going to happen. They were also told a number of things, like Nadya would have a translator and a personal manager. So when you think that the young girl is being taken care of, you wouldn't ask as many questions perhaps. She's like any other 13 year-old, a 13 year-old girl and then put into this adult world.

POV: What about Nadya's family? What are their hopes for her? You see these casting sessions in which there are hundreds of teenage girls lined up. What are they looking for?

Redmon: Well, there's a scene in the movie where Nadya is crowned, she wins Miss Elite Stars which is the scouting company in Novosibirsk and when she's crowned you hear a voice in the background of a man saying, "the last year's model who won Miss Elite Stars was able to buy her family a new car and contribute to building a home" and all this. So I think for many of those young girls, hundreds of them who come, it's almost like hitting the lottery. It's like the jackpot. They're going to win. But there's so many girls who end up in Japan, not only from Russia but from Brazil as well, and they don't know this. So when they arrive suddenly they're in competition with all these other hundreds of girls in Japan and so few of them actually rise to the top.

Sabin: And I think they also see it as an opportunity to travel because the family knows that they can't provide that opportunity to Nadya. They see it as any other kind of experience, like a study abroad so it allows Nadya to see the world and get outside of her small village in Siberia.

POV: Why Japan? What is it about young, skinny Russian models in Japan? Is this a look that is you know just popular in Japan or is it in other countries as well?

Redmon: We had the same question when we arrived. You know you have a population of people who are you know Japanese and yet almost all the billboards in Tokyo and Osaka are these young, white girls made to look like they're adults and we just didn't understand why? Did we ever get an answer?

Sabin: The only thing I can really sort of understand is the fashion industry uses the word fresh a lot so maybe there's something about the look of a young girl that's considered fresh? But because we're not from that world, it is hard to understand what it is about that look that is so appealing. But there's obviously something and I don't think it's specific to Japan, I think it's actually a worldwide thing. You could walk around Soho and look up at the billboards and those are the same girls that are looking down at you, so I don't think it's just specific to Japan.

POV: So Nadya is a doe-eyed child with high hopes of success as the international model, she gets a prepaid ticket to Japan and free housing, but as the story evolves, she's confronted with a starker reality. What happens?

Redmon: She arrives to the airport and she's given instructions in English once again which she can't read, explaining to her when you arrive to the airport if immigration asks you why you're here, tell them that you're a professional model, that you have a contract, that you have health insurance, and all these other requirements that Japan sets in place. But there's absolutely no one there to pick her up. She's just sort of abandoned and left at the airport and suddenly you know she turns to us and, you know we don't speak her language, but it was clear that she didn't know where to go or what to do and suddenly we're thrust into this atmosphere of confusion and wondering do we help her? Do we facilitate her movement into this company or do we just stand here and watch her try to get herself out of it? And then that was sort of the first red flag of many more to come of what happens to her. Eventually we helped her get on a bus and find the company and then they put her in a room that she has to pay for, but she doesn't know she has to pay for it. And then immediately they just send her on all these auditions.

Sabin: Castings. And I think also it's something that became really clear to us is that everything is debt, from the piece of paper that they print out to the gas that they're using to transport the girls to the, as David said, the apartment, so it all just starts accruing to the point where you're like sinking. Nadya was sinking. I mean she had no chance unless she was to get a number of jobs which would then clear that debt, but even so, it was a lot of money — the visas, the airplane tickets, they had pocket money — it's almost like the odds are stacked against you even before you begin going to these castings.

POV: It's like a credit card that someone else is charging.

Sabin: You know there's all these smoke and mirrors and you're trying to — we were trying to figure out. It didn't even make sense to us as adults, you know, what was going on and what was debt, what did debt mean? Because you did look at the contract and think okay, she's going to get $8,000 but it does say after debt, so it didn't indicate how much debt was.

Redmon: There's no doubt that these contracts are meant to mislead and deceive and control the young girls.

POV: Who is Tigran? You introduce some other characters in the film and Tigran is the head of Noah which is the largest scouting agency in Russia. Can you talk about him and his role in your film?

Sabin: Well, Tigran is the as you said, the owner of Noah Models which is the biggest agency in Russia and he goes across all of Siberia. He goes down to Kazakhstan and he does these scouting trips where hundreds of girls show up, which is what you see in the film. And then he has essentially a database of girls which he then sends all over the world from New York to Italy, a lot of girls go to Asia. He's not a central character in the film, but I think he's an important character because he explains his belief system of how he runs his company and his sort of mission statement for Noah Models. And I think some things that he says make our audiences wonder, "how could he say this" or how could he believe this, but what we make a point tto really let him say what he believes and a pretty much unedited way — so that, you know, audiences do understand who is representing Nadya, who is the bigger force that's representing Nadya's career.

POV: So there's Tigran and the recruiters and then we see representatives from the Switch modeling agency. Who is ultimately responsible for these girls? Who is in charge of their well-being, for their welfare?

Redmon: That's a question that we came across, ultimately we were just so confused and baffled about how these girls could be led around and told where to go, given a sheet of paper saying that somebody is going to pick you up at 7 o'clock in the morning, and not having a clue who this person is. They drive up in a van, drive them away, and they come back at 11 PM at night. And there's no one there monitoring the girls. It just makes for a vulnerable, awkward and potentially explosive situation that could completely go awry. This is one thing that really just haunted us and startled us especially.

POV: Nadya has a roommate in Japan, another young Russian model, Madlen. What's her story?

Sabin: Madlen comes from sort of more upper middle class background, which we really wanted to include in the final story but we couldn't find a space for it. It's an interesting contrast, right? You have this young girl who's from sort of lower class background versus someone who is from an upper class background and they have very similar experiences, but the difference is that Madlen has a credit card and she speaks English a little bit better so she's able to navigate the system a little bit better. But still, she does have a lot of difficulties

POV: And she goes home.

Sabin: She goes home. Yeah.

Redmon: Because Madlen speaks English, she's able to read the contract and she finds this tiny clause in there that says if you gain a centimeter in your waist, this contract becomes null and void and we'll send you home. So suddenly she sees this as a moment to express herself in a way. She starts eating more and more to nullify it, to get out of the contract. And so of course every day the girls go in, they're measured. They're measured in the mornings, and they're measured when they return. And she gained weight and so they sent her home.

POV: Can you talk about the evolution of your understanding of what this film was going to be? Did you go in with a certain expectation of how things might be and how did that evolve?

Sabin: Yeah, I think we went in with certain expectations because David didn't want to make the story. I watched those DVDs that Ashley gave us and I was really deeply disturbed by the imagery and I wondered, who are these girls, where did they come from, what are their hopes and desires? Who are their, you know where's their family, what is their family thinking? Who is shooting the footage? So all those kinds of questions came up after watching the video footage and I think David had this opposite response, which was, I absolutely don't want to go anywhere near this. I don't want to know what's behind all this. So between the two of us I guess you had two different kind of responses and I went in a little bit more naïve I think to certain situations and David was much more cautious.

POV: Can you talk about your initial reaction, why you didn't want to make the film or what you were afraid of discovering?

Redmon: We do Q&A's often for our movies, and people come up to us all the time and talk to us and it's fine. But two years in, when the same woman approaches us, and then hands us a stack of DVDs with half naked girls on them and says hey, you know I've been following these girls and you know they're 12 to 15 years-old and they sometimes end up in prostitution and you know I filmed this in the Ukraine and Russia, you want to come with me and make a movie about it? You kind of know what you're getting into. You read about it in the paper often, you see it on the news quite often, and I knew it would have been a fantastic, exceptional cinematic story, there's no doubt. But I just didn't want to put ourselves in risk or in danger. That's sort of the biggest tension between us two. Of course the movie is not about us, we're rarely in the movie. We could have easily made a movie where we're in the movie and we're assisting and facilitating and asking the questions and going to see lawyers and trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but it ultimately wasn't about us. It's about those hundreds of girls who do end up in Japan, in Italy and Spain and London and Paris and New York and San Francisco and L.A. and everywhere else in the world who you almost never see. The only ones you see are the ones who are smiling and they're glamorized, and they're probably 14 years-old made to look like they're adults. And unfortunately our movie kind of cracks that surface and then lands where it lands. That's at the heart of Russia and then in the center of Tokyo. That's why I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to go to that very disturbing space.

POV: You talked about the intersection between the modeling industry and the sex trade. People mention it in the film but it's not specifically addressed and something that we're seeing the girls that your following going through. Could you just talk a little bit about your experience in that regard and the decisions that you made in terms of how you treat that subject?

Sabin: What's really important to us about the film is that it's not seen as something that's an investigative piece. We weren't trying to dig up dirt, we weren't trying to point fingers at one person. We were trying just to tell a story that showed these two women, well, a woman and a young girl and the parallel stories and the complications that come out of the gray area between them. I think is something that's more rich and more of a nuanced portrait and more real to life than…than pointing fingers or making things really black and white.

POV: Can you talk about Girl Model from a stylistic standpoint? What was the look or feel of the film that you were in for and how did you try to accomplish that?

Redmon: Well I think the way the film is edited, as I said earlier, the film is edited to remove ourselves and it almost feels like it's so objectively cold. We get viewers all the time saying, did you ever want to intervene? Didn't you just want to help out? And then we turn around and say well, that's exactly what we felt and of course we did do that, but we decided not to put it in the movie because we also wanted you as an audience to experience what we also experienced, what the girls experienced. They're kind of just thrown into this situation and there's no one there helping them out. There's always somebody telling them where to go and what to do, but the girls never really know what they're getting into so I think the viewers become almost frustrated and deeply concerned about that situation. And so we edited the movie to reflect that. Just as cold as the world in which they enter, the girls enter, is, that's how we've edited the movie as well. So we try to imitate that experience.

POV: So when we talk with filmmakers we often ask about ethical responsibility and the murky areas in which documentarians can sometimes find themselves. This film in particular as you mentioned a little bit, is filed with scenes in which I can't imagine you were anything but tortured by what unfolds in front of your cameras. A 13 year-old child 3,000 miles from home not speaking the language homesick, ignored, exploited. Can you talk a little bit about this experience and how you navigated your responsibilities as filmmakers but also as moral human beings?

Sabin: The film sort of stands as one piece in my mind and then you have all the hours that you spend with someone that the camera is not on. And so when the camera is not on, it's like anything else, you're building a relationship and you're building trust you know and mutual understanding and respect and trust with each other. I think that what happened specifically with our relationship with Nadya is that we were the adults and we were seeing what was going on. We speak English. We saw, we read the contracts, we had deep concerns and we expressed those concerns to her family and we expressed those concerns as much as we could to her. We didn't always have a translator, but at the end of the day the only thing we could really do was be there as a support system should anything happen, whether or not she needed something like money or she needed a power converter or she just needed to go for a walk or she needed space. Whatever it was, we tried to be as respectful as possible and because we are adults and we're filming a young girl, we were really conscious of the filming — not pushing too much, because in most situations as a filmmaker you push, you know you push maybe up to the edge but with a young girl you really have to be careful that you're not taking advantage of the situation too much or exasperating her any more than she needs to be. It was a constant struggle and I think that every day we would talk with each other and really try to figure out, how is she feeling today, should we not ask any interview questions? Should we just follow her around? Should we maybe not film at all today? So those were conversations that we were constantly having.

POV: There's been a little bit of press around Nadya and her family's reaction to the film. Can you talk about that and to what you attribute their response?

Sabin: Well, we showed the film at SXSW in March (2012) and we had been in the process of getting the film translated so that Nadya and her family could see the film, and we trusted a journalist, which I don't know if I'd do this again. They did this article on a fashion blog that basically tried to make our relationship really scandalous and the making of really scandalous and it really divided our relationship, our friendship that we had developed with both Nadya and her family. Time passed and they, even more so have sort of separated themselves and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Nadya is still in the industry. She still has the hopes to you know make money and build a career, and so should she affiliate herself with the film she's taking a stance against the very thing that she's trying to build up. If she were to speak out, there would be repercussions and so I think there's an element of fear there that goes on. It's unfortunate but we respect that and we hope for the best with whatever career that she has.

POV: As filmmakers what's your responsibility to your subjects? What is it that you feel obliged to convey about your subjects? Is it truth?

Sabin: I think we feel obliged to tell their truth. Whatever that may be. I guess I could be more specific and say when we were editing Ashley, it was really difficult because we had our own emotional baggage. So we hired two separate editors that separated us from our experiences and then we came back in and were able to see her experience in a new way. So I think what's really important for us in what we feel a responsibility towards is telling, whatever character is placed in front of us, their emotional experience, however it may be, even if we don't agree with it. It is who they are and it's important to be true to that.

Redmon: I just wanted to add that I think it's also important to show and situate they're own existence in this larger world that inhabits them in a way and also which they inhabit. So you see these social forces operating that are external to them against them, but at the same time their agency trying to figure out and navigate this world as well. So it's not so much the characters, the unit of analysis so to speak, but that they exist in this larger world that is also just as complicated sometimes as they are.

POV: As filmmakers, what kind of responsibility do you feel towards your audience?

Sabin: I think the responsibility that we feel towards our audience is to challenge them and not spoon feed them, not have them walk away and say this is what I was supposed to think, but in fact really walk away and have questions and wonder about the gray areas and wonder you know about the different characters and situations that they exist within. I think by challenging an audience we are trying to engage them in the story rather than having them be complacent and absorb the story.

POV: And yet, in this day and age, as consumers are we all, as consumers of clothing, things that are being advertised by these young models, complicit? And as viewers, what is our responsibility?

Redmon: Girl Model follows Nadya from her rural location outside of Novosibirsk, Siberia all the way to the end of this photo shoot for which she's never paid but it ends up in a magazine. There's thousands and thousands of these girls who end up in magazines, but perhaps they never get paid, yet on the other side are these millions of people like us who consume these images on a daily basis. We look at it and you know I buy the shirt, you buy the dress, and so these girls become part of our lives as well, these models. We look at them and think perhaps this is something that I want to buy, whether it's a refrigerator or a couch or a shirt or whatever it might be. So on the other end of the spectrum of Girl Model there's this other side of the sea which is the consumers. And there's just no way out of it. It's immersed in our lives. So at the same time as much outrage as the audience has when they watch and complete Girl Model, I think that outrage should be turned on us as well as audience members, as consumers, as buyers because we're also complicit in it. There's just no space of neutrality whatsoever.

POV: What are the most common dangers for young, international models and also is it the same in the U.S.? Do those dangers exist here as well?

Redmon: The United States government seems to have a very knowledgeable and secure surveillance system in place to monitor troublemakers and non-troublemakers alike, but at the same time, in the modeling industry, the only thing you really need to go overseas as a teenage girl or boy and participate in this company is an entertainment visa. There's almost no transparency. There's almost no regulation on paper or in action to monitor or to insure that these young kids, their rights are being protected. There's no one there on site during these photo shoots when a 12 or 13 year-old girl is in a room with three men that are three times her age, trying to entice her to look sexy or to do whatever it is that they want her to do. You just don't know about this, but yet it happens every single day, so I think one thing I would love to see is some kind of regulation or a body of people who can transmit transparency. To ensure that there's nothing wrong with modeling at all, the problem here is when these girls are taken advantage of because there's no one there in whom they can trust. I mean, who is this body of people? I just don't know.

Sabin: I think in tandem with that, until there's any kind of regulation, I think there should be a minimum working age because even if you set the minimum working age at 18, that law is still going to get violated, so there will be 16 and 17 year-olds. But at least they're 16 and 17 year-olds, instead of saying there's no minimum age and now we have 11, 12 and 13 year-olds in the industry because when you look at it, they're modeling adult clothing. But they're children. So what does that also do for adult women and our whole consumer world of what a woman looks like? I think that's also deeply troubling, so I think until there's any kind of regulation or that regulating body, there should be a minimum working age.

POV: Your film has a point of view. Thematically, if you were to describe your film, what would you say it's about?

Redmon: The film ultimately for me is a gut check. You know? I mean you watch this film and you feel something in your gut. When we were making this film for almost five years, I constantly and I still live with that emotional turmoil that's right here, right here, right below my chest, above my stomach in my gut, and the only thing I wanted to do is just cut it open and then take it out. And breathe, finally, a sigh of relief. And in fact, there is a scene like that in the movie, believe it or not, and it's not a literal scene. Ashley Arbaugh ends up in the hospital, she has, what is it called?

Sabin: A cyst.

Redmon: A cyst that's living inside her and she needs to have it removed. And here she is, this seemingly beautiful woman, who has had a successful life, a big house, property in Manhattan, everywhere, on the surface but underneath it all what is getting covered up? What is hidden? And then it comes out and you see it, and to me, that's what the movie is about. This glamour, this industry of beauty that sexualizes young girls, everywhere it goes, and then underneath it, it's just rotten. I mean at the core of it there is just something fundamentally rotten. I don't want to say wrong, but it really does need to change. Honestly.