Austin Translation: Ashley Sabin and Rachel Blais, “Girl Model”

As hard-hitting fashion industry doc Girl Model gets its U.S. premiere at SXSW, the film's co-director Ashley Sabin (left) and one of its subjects Rachel Blais (right) talk to realscreen about audience reactions to the film, and discuss Sabin's upcoming Tribeca doc Downeast.
March 16, 2012

After getting its world premiere at TIFF in Toronto last fall, Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s doc Girl Model this week had its U.S. premiere at SXSW in Texas, with First Run Features simultaneously announcing that it would be picking up U.S. rights for the film.

The film was recently released by Dogwoof in the UK, and First Run will roll out the doc theatrically in the States this summer, with a DVD and VoD release set for the autumn, to coincide with the film’s broadcast premiere on PBS’s ‘POV.’

Girl Model follows a modeling scout and the young Siberian girl she discovers, as they make their way through the murky realm of the modeling industry in the Far East. It received funding through the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Cinereach, Puffin Foundation, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, IFP, Chicken and Egg Pictures and the Fledgling Fund.

Here, Sabin (pictured left), the film’s co-director, and Rachel Blais (right), one of the models featured in the film, talk to realscreen.

How is your SXSW going so far?

Sabin: Well, we’ve just had the premiere at the Ritz and it was the first time it showed in the U.S., and it was fantastic – we had a sold out audience. The Q&A is always interesting afterwards because we’ve traveled to a bunch of locations in Europe, and I was really curious to see how people were going to respond here. It seemed like a lot of the questions were about the ethics of the documentary and making the film. To me, that’s really interesting.

Has there been a notable difference in reaction from North American audiences and European audiences?

Sabin: The difference really lies in how people really understand the main talent scout, and whether they connect with or disconnect from her storyline, and also how they view us as filmmakers. From my experience of screening in North America, it seems it like it is a lot about ethics.

‘How did you get that footage? Did you help [the main model in the film] Nadya? Did you pay Nadya?’ [are the sorts of questions asked]. And that latter question really comes out of concern that we were taking advantage of the situation. Whereas I feel in Europe it was more about storytelling, and the technical questions were really about how we composed the story and the nuances. So it has been a little bit different.

Blais: I think that the question as to whether [Nadya] was paid came up at IDFA as well, and it came up in Estonia too. To me, it depends who the audience is. We did a screening in London where the audience was mainly people from fashion, and that was quite different. The questions became quite different.

Rachel, what’s been your experience of traveling with David and Ashley’s documentary? And are you still working as a model?

Blais: Well, ever since the premiere at Toronto, work has gone down quite a bit actually. Maybe it’s pure coincidence, but when it goes on for quite a few months, it kind of feels like they’re trying to censor me in a certain way.

But I am still working as a model, and I have a few clients here and there that still book me and are also aware of what I’m doing [promoting Girl Model] and really respect what I’m doing, and don’t want to work with young children anymore because they think it’s wrong. Even though they can’t really say that.

Altogether, I think it has been a really good way of taking the experiences I’ve had through modeling and the knowledge I’ve gained, and it’s great to be out there and talking to people. It can be a very difficult film to watch.

What are your impressions of SXSW?

Sabin: Well, [David Redmon and I have] been here before with two other films, and we came once without a film, so this is our fourth time, and it has grown an unbelievable amount in the last couple of years. When we first screened here, the audience was not anywhere near the capacity it is now.

It’s really fascinating to see the Interactive side grow, and I think that’s where a lot of the audience has come out of. Our experiences have really changed because the first few times we screened here we were lucky to fill half the house, and now you have a packed house. It’s really become vibrant in the past couple of years, and really come on the radar – not just for people within the U.S., but different markets are starting to really recognize it as place that’s important for premieres.

You and David have another film premiering next month at Tribeca in New York, can you tell me a little bit about it?

Sabin: It’s called Downeast and it’s shot in Downeast, Maine, and it is sort of about the wind and boats – we followed this man in his pursuit to open a lobster processing facility in the last sardine cannery that closed about a year ago. So it’s sort of a portrait of a small town and how the local economy is really important to the town’s survival and keeping it alive.

How did you fund Downeast?

Sabin: David was in charge of the funding of that film, which basically means full steam ahead and not applying for grants [laughs]. Whereas with Girl Model – funding cycles are interesting because you get in this cycle where you apply and then the funders aren’t quite sure, you develop more footage, and you apply a second a time… you’re reforming your idea.

With Girl Model we were lucky because we were working on that project for four years, whereas with Downeast being such a quick project – it took us about a year and a half – there wasn’t enough time, in a sense, to apply for all these grants because your story is not fully developed at that point. We’re still editing so we’re still finding what we have.

Do you think, on reflection, that Girl Model has made or will make any difference to the practices of the modeling industry?

Sabin: I think we’re at beginning of something really exciting, which is [that] between Equity in the UK and the Model Alliance in New York, the film can now be used as a social tool to promote a conversation about regulation.

At the very least we can say, ‘Why are these young girls in the industry and if they are there and they’re vulnerable, let’s regulate it so that difficult and trying situations don’t happen, and you don’t have variables.’ At the very least that’s exciting for me.

We don’t make films to simplify issues or make them easily digestible. Our films are always about those grey areas, and they challenge audiences to say, ‘These issues are extremely complicated, so how do you feel about it?’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.