It begins on a monotone day in Siberia, where young girls awkwardly pose in their swim suits inside an local gym in front of international modeling scouts who ruthlessly judge them. Among the judges is Ashley, who isn’t afraid to say that the girls aren’t young or thin enough for the Tokyo market.
It’s easy to guess Ashley is a former model from the beginning. She’s pretty, but she’s also jaded by the industry, which she somehow can’t seem to get out of. The most baffling thing this documentary reveals about the industry is how easily models can become trapped in it. As much as Ashley says she resents the industry, she continues to work in it by finding these young girls and condemning them to the same life.
One of the girls she recruits is Nadya, a 13-year-old who wants to become a model to help support her family and do something different with her life. She’s a shy, quiet girl from a farm, and she’s thrust into the middle of Tokyo with the promise of work and money. Of course, it turns out the contract she signed is absolutely worthless, as the scouting company screws her over. There’s no one to protect her, she can’t speak the language, and it’s almost impossible for her to contact her family.
Ashley and Nadya rarely interact after the former chooses the latter to send to her boss in Tokyo. As Ashley tried to describe the head of the operation, Tigran, all she can say is “he really likes models.” She knows how this man scams these young girls, yet she brings them to Tigran and leaves them alone. In one of the few scenes where Ashley and Nadya interact, Ashley visits Nadya and her roommate Madlen to check up on them. The communication barrier only adds to the tension between them, as the girls try to explain that they have no work and Ashley denies the obvious and insists they are confused. She barely even tried to cover up the scam that this whole operation really is.
Within Bill Nichols’s modes of documentary, Girl Model is mostly observational. The filmmakers allow the events to unfold as they film, save for a few instances where the subjects speak directly to the camera. With no narration or participation from the filmmakers, the viewer is able to bask in the awkward silences that punctuate the bleak reality of this film.
Although the reality of modeling and the lack of rights to protect young girls from it are main themes in this documentary, what makes it most interesting is the insight into Ashley’s life. She lives alone in a giant house with glass walls, keeps dolls as company, and struggles with the fact that she can’t be a mother. That, plus the ethically questionable job she does for modeling companies, make her a confusing and fascinating subject to watch.
To get the full picture, you’ll have to just watch the documentary. It’s available on Netflix Instant, and it’s worth watching, if only to learn about the unglamorous world that exists beneath a glamorous industry.