Girl Model Directors Ashley Sabin And David Redmon
In both narrative and documentary film, the character of the fashion model has long been a symbol of not only glamor but also a kind of post-modern alienation. Depicting a Russian teen model casting and one young girl’s travel to Japan for modeling work, Girl Model, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s absolutely riveting new documentary, is set in a morally adrift culture in which the image of childhood is a globally traded commodity. Nadya is an innocent-looking, blonde 13-year-old for whom modeling work is both a dream and way out of the poverty she’s grown up with in Siberia. But the modeling contract she signs is full of loopholes and onerous clauses (if she gains a centimeter around her waist, it’s void, for example), and, with her parents remaining in Russia, she has no real protectors in Japan.
As a character, Nadya is both heartbreaking but also something of a heroine, refusing to be beaten down by the world she’s found herself in. Fascinating for different reasons is the film’s other main character, Ashley. A former model in the 1990s, Ashley is the scout who organizes the casting, selects Nadya, and brings her to Japan. Intelligent and beautiful but also conflicted and mysterious, Ashley comes off as both predator and victim, a woman smart enough to understand the moral dilemmas of her world while being unable to stop working within it. In Girl Model Redmon and Sabin illuminate both these characters while using their stories to create a hauntingly lonely film that in its poetic reach is about much more than one corner of the modeling world.
I spoke to Sabin via Skype while Redmon worked in the background and joined in to answer a couple of my questions.
Filmmaker: Let me start by asking you what came first with this movie — was it the idea of following girl models in general, or was it one of the subjects?
Sabin: What came first was the main scout, Ashley. She approached us after watching two of our films at MoMA. She was interested in us making a film about the process of [models] casting. That’s how we got introduced to this whole world, which we had no knowledge of before.
Filmmaker: What films of yours did she watch?
Sabin: She watched Intimidad and Kamp Katrina.
Filmmaker: Is she a documentary film fan? How did she happen to be at MoMA?
Sabin: We actually went to school together at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She was getting her masters in art history, and I was getting my undergrad. I didn’t really know her that well, but we had a few classes together. So I guess you could say she was following our work. She was scouting us!
Filmmaker: I found her a completely fascinating character. There are moments in the film where she’s suddenly very self revealing, particularly in the webcam footage. I wondered how you were able to build that intimacy with her so quickly.
Sabin: Our relationship with Ashley is pretty complex and contentious. We had to really work to figure out what was truth and what wasn’t truth. There was a lot of push and pull with her. I really wish that we could have even gotten a little bit deeper, but she put up a lot of walls. But that kind of makes it interesting for the film because it creates this dynamic where the audience questions her. She becomes somewhat mysterious.
Filmmaker: “Mysterious” is a good word to describe her. To stay on her for a moment, why do you think she wanted to do the movie?
Sabin: I think there are a few reasons, and they are sort of conflicting. But the biggest reason is that she was involved in an industry that she wanted to sort of expose.
Filmmaker: And how did your complex relationship with her affect the shooting of the doucumentary as a whole?
Redmond: It was a difficult story to traverse, you know? I’ll give you a simple example. When we went to the castings in Russia, it was pretty clear that we were there to make a documentary film. We had release forms, we had airline tickets, we had numerous conversations about where we were going. And when we got there and turned on the cameras to start filming, suddenly the scout, Ashley, introduces us as her assistants in Japan. Then she pulled us to the side and said, “Don’t say anything. You’re my assistants. You work for me in Japan.” I mean, right there, within the first hours of starting this documentary, we were thinking, “What the hell is going on here!”
Sabin: Really early on, we knew she was going to be a central character [in the film], so it became this really tricky [question] of, how do you tell a story about a person who is also your access point? She was really controlling with what she wanted portrayed in the film. Sometimes you can see her looking at the camera through the corner of her eye. Because she was a model, she’s really aware [of the camera], and she’s super aware of how her image is going to be portrayed. So one of the things that she controlled was not having her family or any of her background in the film. We tried to respect that even though I think it would have added to the whole story. But even going into the [personal] spaces [like her house] that we did go into with her — there were not many pictures on the wall, there weren’t many personal items. There’d be a bed, and a lot of times there were these really white walls. Cold spaces. So I think in a way she does that to herself. It’s like she’s interested in the past, but then she’s not. She’s interested in telling everything, and then she’s not. So again, that push and pull with her was really difficult because as a documentary filmmaker you want to bring out different metaphors and themes coming from personal stories and connections to your characters. We really worried that without any of that background or understanding of her personal life people wouldn’t connect with her.
Filmmaker: I absolutely did wonder about her personal life. I guess what you’re saying is that there’s stuff about Ashley you don’t know yourselves.
Sabin: Right, exactly. I can make assumptions, but I don’t actually know. At the beginning, we didn’t want to push too much. Because if you start pushing really early on, demanding answers to your questions, you push the person away.
Filmmaker: Well, as I said before, I found Ashley fascinating.
Redmond: She plays the femme fatale extremely well. She’s really knowledgeable about cameras, she’s savvy, cunning, and a good businesswoman.
Filmmaker: That webcam footage, did she shoot that herself, away from the production?
Sabin: Yes, those miniDV tapes were some of the first stuff she gave us. That was actually sort of how we got to know Ashley, through her younger footage.
Filmmaker: David, tell me about the cinematography and color palette. It’s partly due to the landscapes you shot in, but the film has a kind of blue-grey palette that winds up accentuating the film’s lonely qualities. And the camera is often very close to peoples’ faces. Were these choices an outgrowth of your previous work, or constructed in relation to the subject matter?
Redmond: The cinematography developed over the course of making the film. For example, in Russia, in Siberia especially, so much of the winter landscape is empty and open. At first we were doing a lot of wide shots without any close-ups at all. And then when we began to see the redundancy of the castings taking place with Ashley, the hundreds of girls moving in and out, we tried to get closer to that experience. It was important to get closer as we begin to follow the girls [Ashley] selected to become models. So that’s how we developed the project — wide shot, and then closer and closer. And then of course there is the whole metaphor of interior world and exterior world. The interior world of the models who can’t communicate with the Japanese because they speak incompatible languages — we had to really tease that out through visual images. I think that’s where the close-ups came into play especially.
Filmaker: Since this is a documentary about models, did you give thought to the film’s relationship – or perhaps non-relationship — to glamour?
Sabin: I think that David and I always sort of start off at the surface level but then we want to go deeper. We don’t seek out the darkness, but in this story, there was an underbelly to the glamor and we realized pretty early on after we finished shooting that we were going to show that side. You watch all of these model and fashion programs, and they are sort of flashy and glamorous. We recognized that it wasn’t going to be this way. [The business] was sort of mundane, and parts of it were even boring and slow — and dark.That was the story that came out to us, not catwalks with mirrors reflecting back beautiful images. It’s a bit rougher.
Filmmaker: Your subjects are so young — 13 and 14 years old — so their objectification by the fashion business is particularly disturbing. But I want to ask you about your relationship to Nadia, the main model. It’s clear that her parents aren’t going to Japan with her and that she’s kind of there on her own. There are a lot of scenes where it’s just her and her friend hanging out. You don’t get a sense that Ashley is present every second either. So, you guys must have been a little bit of an emotional lifeline for Nadia. Did you ever feel that you were not just filmmakers but that you had drifted into kind of a parental role with her?
Sabin: The difficulty was her age. It is hard to watch someone go through such an emotional roller coaster, and there were times when she would ask for our help. But then we are also filmmakers. We would go between, “When do we help and when do we not help?” A good example is [when Nadia was stranded] at the airport. On the one hand, we don’t want her to be stuck for hours and hours at the airport and film it. But on the other hand we’re bringing her into a situation that we’re facilitating, and we don’t know what’s at the other end. We’re bringing her to the agency. Well, what’s going to happen to her when she gets there? When we were on the bus with her, we helped to get her ticket. There were a lot of times where we felt it was not appropriate to film. There’s a language barrier as well. We don’t speak Russian, and we didn’t have a translator. So we’d be flipping through the dictionary, trying to connect [to her]. We were also starting to understand what was going on [with the modeling agency], and that was really hard to convey. I mean, what do you do, tell someone who’s being taken advantage of, “You’re being taken advantage of,” when they don’t see it that way?
Filmmaker: Did you wind up saying that?
Sabin: Well, we expressed that concern fairly early on to the parents because the parents read the contract. In Russia, [Nadia] kept saying, “Eight thousand dollars! We’re getting eight thousand dollars,” and she would point to the contract, which was in English and Japanese, and they spoke neither. David looked at it and said, “No, that’s when costs are taken out. And it’s not indicated what the costs are going to be.” That was one of the early red flags. We [said to the parents], “Have you asked these questions?” But you can only say so much because they were so excited. And, on the one hand, maybe yeah, it does provide them an opportunity. There’s the chance that they will make money. But I think a lot of these young girls don’t.