Monday, 1 October 2012

15 Second Review: Girl Model (2011)

A couple of weeks ago, I would have pegged Into the Abyss as my strongest contender for ”creepy documentary of the year”. However, that was until I saw the innocuous sounding Girl Model.
Anyone horrified by the infantilisation of women in contemporary culture, the prevalence of eating disorders, pedophilia or child sexualisation will be disturbed from the outset. The first shots are of what seems to be hundreds of scrawny, half-naked,
barely pubescent girls being critiqued by agents at a model casting. This is an environment in which the young women are spoken about as if they are not present, and so have to stand by while their appearances are judged. One girl is rejected for having hips that are too big, for example. This wouldn’t be so bad if she had hips. What the talent scouts mean is that her pelvis is the wrong shape.
The system of beauty they herald exposes how flawed the idea of “natural beauty” is. The agents reject the model on the basis of her natural attributes – her bone-structure - which she is unable to amend. Simultaneously, this regime version of beauty is a highly artificial construction. The models edit their own bodies in the sense that they must remain thin. Those boundaries are stringently enforced. Once signed, the models are contractually obliged to regulate their vital statistics, ensuring that they do not gain a centimetre on any of those dimensions. The agents also construct beauty by imposing their own aesthetic criteria, and by editing the field: a very particular look is opted for. Documentary is the perfect medium via which to expose such tensions since its method of relaying these themes inherently entails selection and juxtaposition.
A model called Nadya is “lucky” enough to triumph over her fellow teens this bastard version of Siberia’s Next Top Model. To say she ‘wins’ a modelling contract is like painting a trip to Abu Ghraib as a romantic weekend getaway. The 13 year old, who speaks only her native tongue, is sent to Japan…alone. From that point on, the film implicitly challenges the viewer to pick out their most disturbing moment, which is no easy matter. Each incident that unfolds seems to actively vie for that title. For me, the pinnacle was when Nadya was filmed by her Japanese agent and told to say to camera that she was 15. Presumably the footage would be stored as evidence against future legal recourse, but she naively complies. The punchline is that from that point on, she simply is 15 according to the agency. Their control over what Nadya represents is all-encompassing. This minor decision resonates in her first contracted photoshoot for the company in which her face is entirely covered, and for which she is not paid.
To make matters worse, Ashley, the talent scout that selected Nadya, supplies a running commentary regarding her own experiences as a teen model, which is intercut with self-shot footage from that point in her life. At first I thought this might humanise Ashley, who is essentially a professional human trafficker. Yet her understanding of the girls’ plights only augments Ashley’s monstrousness. The sequences come off not as vindication, but as confession. In one sense, it is tragic that her experiences have deadened her empathy. In another, her comments make it seem as if she is taking her own hideous experiences out on a generation of teens who share the ambitions she once had. The propagatory nature of Ashley’s path is echoed in the film’s final shot of a new model being selected.
That inexorability is the film’s rub. The teens are never physically abused, but that does not make the systemic violence the documentarians capture any less pernicious. As the film explicitly states, no one person in the chain can ultimately be blamed for what occurs: the whole structure is an injurious, yet apparently ceaseless cycle of decay. One of the most disturbing aspects of the documentary then, is that seemingly nothing can be done to hinder the machine: the film is upsetting, but the shock it inspires is encoded as being futile. This is not a campaign-piece that asks the audience to protest the models’ plights. Instead, it reflects the powerlessness felt by girls trapped within that system.

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