By Helen Adkins | February 2012
The Director chats exclusively to Junsui Films about her latest film, GIRL MODEL, a revealing, poignant documentary on the inner workings of the International modelling world…
Junsui Films: Let’s begin with your background in the arts. How did you and (co-director) David Redmon meet and what led you to start a creative partnership?
Ashley Sabin: Neither of us have a film background as such. We met at Emerson College in Boston. David is a sociologist and I was doing Art History. We got together and I became involved in the documentary film business serendipitously. David used to be a sociology professor and actually taught the subjects he went on to make films about. He was working on a documentary, Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005) when I met him. I’ve always been involved in fine arts so we gelled and thus became creative partners.
JF: Your latest film Girl Model explores the underbelly of the modelling world. How did the project come about?
This film was different from any of the other films we’d done because it came to us. An American model scout and ex-model Ashley Arbaugh approached us and pitched the story about her job, which involves travelling to Russia to pick up young girls for the Japanese modelling market.
It’s difficult to say why Ashley approached us in the first place. Initially she was getting out of the industry. We felt she had a story to tell, although as the film progressed she got further into the industry.
The ending is open, however. One thing we didn’t want to do was end on a definitive statement. We never do that. We like to leave things open for our audiences.
JF: Tell us about the creative and collaborative process you had with Ashley [Arbaugh].
It was hard. At first she was very cynical about her role in the business, but I think part of the reason she wanted to be filmed was because she wanted to be listened (and paid attention) to. Ultimately the collaborative process fell in on itself when it got to the point that she wanted to be in control. Transparency is very important to David and myself.
JF: Nadya, one of the film’s central protagonists, was only thirteen at the time of shooting. There are moments during the film when her loneliness and isolation is painfully apparent. As filmmakers, how difficult was it building and sustaining an impartial relationship with her?
We began by going to Russia for three weeks and spent time with her family. Our priority was that her parents understood what our intentions were and agreed to participate in the documentary. It was challenging for us then because Nadya and her family only spoke Russian. We had translators but it was still very difficult to communicate.
When we got to Japan, we often had to put down the camera just to help Nadya out. We could have made two films about the struggles we had with her. We were genuinely concerned for her and wanted to convey those concerns as well as help her out with the sheer practicalities of life in a country like Japan. Things like changing money; everyday things that were hard for her to deal with alone.
We also stopped filming quite a bit because of her age. There was an innocence about Nadya that though compelling was hard to watch.
JF: The contrast between the starved Siberian countryside and the ravenous centre of Tokyo serves as a stark visual metaphor for Nadya’s quest for stardom. Tell us about the shoot and the challenges you encountered.
Shooting the landscape was the easy part. It was mainly the people that were the challenge. There were so many different personalities to deal with during the making of the film and we never really knew if certain personalities were telling the truth. Of course, there were challenges with the landscape at times, but the hardest thing to capture was the psychology.
We went through two different editors, and trying to figure out how to convey ideas and concepts without telling them was a real struggle. We had a whole list of films we respected and we consulted the director/editors. We asked them to respond to raw footage and brainstormed scene structures, storyline, and character development. All in all the film took about three years to edit.
JF: How has the film been received in the fashion and modelling industry?
I guess we’ll see in London but it’s a hard thing to ascertain. The fashion industry is broken up geographically so it’s similar in a way to the Festival Circuit. Some people respond and connect to the film while others pick it apart because they see themselves in it.
Ashley [Arbaugh] has seen the film. However her interpretation was as if she saw a completely different film to the one that was up on the screen. It made me feel secure in how we presented the situation. Her analysis proved to me that she is in denial.
JF: How has the Festival Circuit responded to the film?
Fantastic. The interesting thing is that wherever we go, people have responded in very similar ways. The response has been strong. It’s our fifth film and because the fashion and modelling world is surrounded by such mystique, people want to see it.
JF: What next for Ashley Sabin and David Redmon?
We’re currently working on a new project but I can’t really say too much at the moment. Me and David are always working on something. It keeps us going.
Girl Model is out now and reviewed here.