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Girl Model: an interview with filmmaker Ashley Sabin

by Seila Rizvic

Girl Model is a documentary by filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmond that explores what goes on behind the images we see in magazines. Specifically, the film recounts the story of Nadya, a 13-year-old girl who is found by model scouts scouring her home region of Siberia for “fresh” talent to send to the Japanese fashion market. The deceit and exploitation that follows is in stark contrast to what many girls might expect when they dream of seeing themselves in magazines.

Sabin and Redmond along with their fashion industry advisor Rachel Blais, have successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to go towards audience engagement initiatives coinciding with their September U.S. theatrical release in hopes of bringing change to working standards in the fashion industry.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Ashley Sabin about the need to change industry standards, the appeal of the pre-pubescent aesthetic and the responses the film has garnered from the fashion industry.

When you started filming were you surprised by what you found?

Absolutely. Our interest in this film wasn’t to make an expose, it wasn’t to point fingers, it was more to tell a story. So whatever way that story went, our camera would follow. What really surprised me was the age of the girls auditioning, who were then being sent abroad.

What kind of responses have you gotten from people in the fashion industry?

It’s been a total grab bag I would say. The majority of responses have been incredibly strong and people have been very receptive to the film. They’ll take their own experiences and things that they’ve seen and during the Q&A we can have these conversations about things that have bothered them that they haven’t had a platform to talk about before. So that’s all really positive and great. I would say the only negative pushback is if people say, “Well that’s not what I experienced” or, “I don’t see any of that.” And that’s great if people don’t experience it, that’s fantastic.

Have you noticed a difference between the responses you’ve gotten from people who work as, let’s say, fashion editors or model scouts, compared to the responses of models?

That’s a good question. I haven’t thought about it in that way. We did this screening at the Model’s Alliance in New York, which is an organization that’s meant to protect models’ rights. That’s what was surprising to me, almost the majority of models said, “Yup, this is what goes on.” So I guess one of the more obvious differences would be that the models really see it and they really understand it and they can read into the film with very little and really understand based on their experiences, what’s going on. Whereas, maybe someone from the other end of it has a different perspective, just because they haven’t experienced the industry that way. But I guess that’s a question for a model or someone from the industry.

Tell us a little bit about what kind of audience engagement you’d like to promote. You said you did a screening at the Model’s Alliance, will there be more of that kind of thing?

Yes, were hoping to do more of that, but not only for the industry but also for high school students, colleges, and non-profits like SPARK or Hardy Girls Healthy Women. It sort of takes the film from a space of just a viewer just watching a film and walking away, to taking it to an organization that has the experience and the passion and ability to maybe making an impact on the industry that way. Or at the very least, letting people see a different side of what’s going on behind the image.

On that note, of giving a different image of what the fashion industry is like, in the film we see that Nadya’s contract stipulates that she must not gain a centimeter in her bust, hips or waist, which is almost impossible for a growing 13-year-old body. Why do you think there is such a fascination with increasingly younger and thinner bodies in fashion?

I don’t understand it from a taste perspective, that’s something I have a really hard time grasping. But on a more practical level, who is going to be the person who’s not going to ask any questions? Or is unable to ask any questions because they don’t speak the language? So you start looking at it that way thinking, “Well why are they choosing young girls?” Well, they can control them better and they ask less questions so there’s less resistance. That’s the only reason from my perspective why they would choose young girls. From an aesthetic level it’s baffling to me. They’re not modeling for children’s magazines; they’re modeling for adult fashion. So you have these, what I would call children, someone who’s still developing, and she’s modeling fashion for adults. It’s kind of bizarre.

So you’re saying this is coming more from the industry and the scouts, rather than there being an actual demand for this from the public?

I mean, I’m only saying this based off of our experience showing the film. Overwhelmingly people are shocked and outraged that children are being used in magazines. So, maybe I’m optimistic, but I would think that if more people knew that that’s what they’re looking at in the magazines and they had a better understanding of the labour and everything that was involved to get that image to where it is, that would not be the image of choice. Maybe that is being overly optimistic, but I think that it is something internal from the industry. They use that word “fresh” a lot, but what does “fresh” mean? “Fresh” is…I don’t know, I guess you’d have to ask someone from the industry. That’s what I mean by taste, maybe it’s a taste thing.

How do you feel about other aspects of the fashion industry that give a skewed view of what beauty is, such as Photoshopping?

The fact that these images are being reproduced and the sense that it’s creating in our minds of what the predominate vision of real beauty is, that’s the problem. That’s actually how I found SPARK was because of the young girl [Julia Bluhm] who went to Seventeen and said “Let’s see real girls in magazines.” I mean, bravo. That’s exactly it.

To their credit, and this is why we don’t like to point fingers in our film, they’re a business and they’re about marketing and selling their product, so they can make whatever decisions they want. But I think we as a public have a right to chime in once in a while, or a lot, and say, “Hey listen, this is not really representing anything that’s a part of my world. And I read your magazine, and I consume it, so lets see more of something that’s real.”

I think in the end, our film is really meant as a starting point, it’s a question, we’re not really pointing fingers and I think that’s important for our film. It’s not an easy issue.

In May, Vogue came out with a statement saying that they would not work with models who were under 16 or who appeared to have an eating disorder. Is this enough? Do you think 16 is still too young? Your Kickstarter states that 18 would be the preferred age of work. 

I think it’s a step in the right direction, it’s important that they’re acknowledging that there is a problem that exists, but I do think 18 should be the minimum age. I mean that’s the United Nations minimum age of an adult, and I think if you’re talking about adult clothing, adults should be modeling it.

The only other issue I have with that is, it’s fantastic that they’re monitoring on their end, but what about all the advertisers that are in their magazines? Who’s monitoring that? I think the bigger problem really has to do with regulation. The fashion industry as a whole is self-regulating, and so when you don’t have a third party like a union, which is why the Model’s Alliance and Equity in the UK are great, you need that party that’s really going to stand in and say, “You’re not really following and abiding by what you said you were going to do.” So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens, it’s a step in the right direction but I think there’s still a lot to do.

You mentioned how young girls are being featured in these adult magazines, but then what about teen magazines? These guidelines that Vogue came out with applied to their international brands, like Vogue UK and Vogue France, but they didn’t apply to Teen Vogue. What kind of regulations is it fair to expect from teen magazines?

Well there are modeling agencies that deal with children as their models, the important distinction then is to work with those agencies. There’s a different set of rules that exist and regulations for these models -it’s like child acting. You can’t skip school, you have to have supervision, those sort of things I think are important when you’re on set, because you have a lot of adults around and it just becomes sort of really slippery. So I think for that, you would go to an agency and say, “Hey listen, we need age 15-16 year olds for our shoot” as opposed to going to these adult agencies and saying, “We need 15-16 year olds for this shoot.” But I think you’re right, it’s Seventeen…

It makes sense that they would have teen models.

Yeah, it’s stating what it is. The irony is that you could essentially call Vogue “Seventeen”. Why is that not called Seventeen? It’s kind of ironic.

At the same time, a lot of these teen fashion magazines seem to feature a more grown-up look and young girls across all kinds of media are sexualized and made to look older than they are. So when you’re younger you’re expected to look older and when you’re older you’re expected to look younger. So you never seem to be in the right place.

Yes, exactly.

Girl Model is set for its US theatrical release September 5th. You can also check for a screening near you here.

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2 Responses to “Girl Model: an interview with filmmaker Ashley Sabin”

  1. mike says:

    hard to believe that this director spent so much time making this movie but still has no clue about the demand for child models.

    the japanese, in particular, heavily fetishize young girls. if you look at their porn they often dress up adult girls as young schoolgirls. also, many of their clothes are designed to project a schoolgirl look.

    sure, the young girls are easier to exploit. but it’s crazy to think that the scouts and the agencies are the ones creating the demand for child models…

    • SPARKsummit says:

      Actually Mike, the film does cover that aspect–there are entire conversations about where to place the “blame” for the demand and what’s driving it. The film isn’t putting blame on the scouts or agencies alone, but it is highlighting the way that scouts & agencies often take advantage of their models in order to fill the demand.

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