The documentary Girl Model (coming to POV in 2012) follows model scouts who travel to remote Siberian villages looking for young teens suitable for modeling jobs in Japan. Rachel Blais, an experienced model who appears in the film, told POV’s blog about the reaction from the audience at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.
A couple of months ago I traveled to Estonia to participate in a Q&A for Girl Model at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. After the sold-out screening, the audience was given the chance to ask questions or comment on the film. The Q&A began with an uncomfortable silence, but thankfully, it was broken by a woman inquiring, “What questions do people usually ask?” I spontaneously answered, “Is Ashley [one of the characters in the film] normal?” A nervous laugh was heard and a sense of relief was felt throughout the cinema.
Many questions were soon raised over the practicality of being a model: How much do models usually make? What expenses are paid by an agency? (None!) Which costs do models have to cover themselves without it being advanced? Are contracts always unfair? Does the film accurately portray the reality of being an international model?
The audience knew about the media’s glamorous portrayal of models and the worrying issue of models’ sizes, but they hadn’t linked those issues to the ages of the girls. As consumers, we are exposed to many of these girls on a daily basis, but they have slowly started to represent our conception of the perfect woman: a child disguised as an adult.
Agencies sell a dream and assure models’ families they’ll be making a lot of money. But among the thousands of girls who travel internationally, only a few of them will make the money promised verbally by agencies when they sign up, and many will end their careers in debt from their trips. For many girls, years pass before they are told their careers are over, and that they haven’t made enough to save for university — that is, if they qualify for university. (Many are pulled out of high school.)
Another question that generated a lot of interest was, “Did Nadya get paid to be in the documentary?” When informed that she wasn’t paid, the question followed, “What did she have to gain by appearing in the documentary?” To me, the film gives a clear sense that Nadya was helped, and somehow protected, by having the filmmakers accompany her. But by participating in the film, Nadya is helping to raise awareness for stories like hers, which will hopefully save girls from entering these damaging situations in the future.
I was able to speak with some audience members personally after the screening, including a young woman who modeled in Russia when she was a minor. When I spoke of how agencies refuse to use models older than 18, she told me, with wide eyes and an unsettling sincerity, “All models are scared. Please keep speaking out for them.”
Girl Model has its U.S. premiere on Saturday, March 10, 2012, at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. Check out the full screening schedule for the film here and subscribe to POV’s blog for updates on the screenings.