Ashley Sabin is co-director and co-producer Girl Model which follows the journey of Nadya, a Russian adolescent girl, from her Siberian village to castings in Japan and back again. Nadya’s future rests in the hands of Ashley Arbaugh, the hard-to-watch American casting agent whose confused monologues and musings on her modelling past shed light on the issues of unresolved insecurities plaguing girls who enter the working world at such a young age.
Girl Model makes for both a chilling and disconcerting watch and holds a mirror up to an industry complicit in child labour, where no one knows who to blame when things turn ugly. Sabin talks about handling Arbaugh’s difficult character, tackling language barriers from Russia to Tokyo and the creepiest parts of modelling that inspired the project.
Where did the idea for the film come from? We heard that Ashley Arbaugh, the casting agent the story follows, apparently pitched it to you and David.
Yes, it’s the first film someone’s approached us to make. In 2007 she’d seen two of our previous films called Mardi Gras: Made In China and Kamp Katrina and emailed to say ‘I have this story and I’d like to talk to you about the possibility of documenting it’.
How did the storyline end up coming together?
Well it’s interesting: the narrative in the film is pretty much how things happened. First we went to China with Ashley (though that footage isn’t in the film) because she said she was a designer and would get clothes manufactured there for the girls to wear. That was an initial bigger scope for the project but when we realised that wasn’t really the case it started narrowing down on Ashley and the castings which you see in the film.
It was those casting trips in Siberia that brought Nadya to us, as part of the natural (well, you could call it that though it isn’t for me) casting process.
What about the modelling industry drew you in enough to accept the pitch, then?
Well, I should preface that I wanted to make the film whereas my partner David Redmon, with whom I co-produce and co-direct, did not want to pursue this project [she laughs]. It was fairly difficult to make, mostly because of the different personalities involved.
But the reason I got drawn into the story was the footage of castings in this stack of DVDs Ashley gave us. It really unnerved me: the camerawork, the way the girls looked into the camera, how old they seemed and how old the pieces of paper said they were.
After seeing that footage I felt I had to share this story, to know who these girls were, who their parents were; I had to know why they were at these castings. I think that footage is the very thing that pushed David away because he knew how difficult it would be and how we’d have to navigate a lot of tricky situations making the film.
So how did you manage to confront and overcome the obstacle of trust, one which I feel would be central to making this film?
That’s a really interesting question, and I do think that with this film where we’re dealing with minors in a very adult world, a number of questions arise. As a human being, you instinctively step in. But as filmmakers we’re documenting the story so we aren’t out to dig up dirt or find a darker story, but just to document what’s happening.
We had a very large presence in Nayda’s experience, though not all of that comes across in the film, and she had one in ours. It was a relationship which, at that point, was based on trust. She was so young.
What insights did you pick up from this global supply chain for labour in modelling, across those three borders?
That’s such a great term, the global supply chain, because that’s something our first film really touches on (but with Mardi Gras beads). As much as we are documenting a situation, it was impossible to remain neutral in any shape or form. I think what was really unnerving for myself was just how young these girls were. That youthfulness, and the hopes both the girls and their families had, was used and taken advantage of.
I think when you put youth in a business it’s sort of a recipe for disaster, and with such a quick turn-over the emotional and psychological things the girls encounter aren’t taken care of.
Yeah, I think we see that quite clearly in Ashley’s mental immaturity. Though she’s a central focus, you never really feel like she’s being honest with the camera. How did you and David deal with that?
Gosh, you’re asking some really great questions [she laughs]. Ashley’s a tricky person and in retrospect she’s probably one of the more difficult people we’ve ever filmed. There’s a lot about her modelling past that she doesn’t want to confront, which I think is why she’s able to continue to work in the industry: she doesn’t really want to think about how she’s implicated in this global commodity chain, as you described it.