Review - A bleak portrait of hope and misery

6th July 2012 at 01:00

Girl Model is, quite possibly, the most depressing piece of television that you will see this year.

The one-off BBC Four documentary begins in Siberia, where teenage girls in bikinis are being inspected by model scouts. Among them is 13-year-old Nadya. She looks very young, very scared and slightly cold. Ashley thinks this is all great.

Ashley is scouting for models for the Japanese market. "Young," she says. "Young is very important." In Siberia, where families are desperate to improve their circumstances - Nadya lives in a wooden shack on a dirt road - youth is not a problem.

And so Nadya flies to Japan, while Ashley makes her own way over by Trans-Siberian Railway. Ashley is astonishingly beautiful, even in transit: it turns out that she, too, used to model in Japan. "I was the person who hated this business more than anyone," she says, thoughtfully. "And now I'm 15 years into it." She runs her hand through her hair and laughs nervously.

Arriving alone in Tokyo, Nadya attempts to ask for help at the airport information desk. "Billet? Ticket?" she says. The woman at the desk looks at her blankly. But she is lucky: she can ask the documentary-maker for help. Her room-mate, Madlen, ends up wandering the Tokyo subway system for four hours.

While Nadya settles into their tiny apartment, Ashley takes the cameras around her huge, glass-backed house in Connecticut, US. She lives here alone, with only two plastic babies for company. "When I bought the house, I bought the babies at the same time," she says. "I felt like I had a home, so I should have a baby, too."

Despite meeting the Japanese aesthetic - they are both blonde and barely pubescent - Nadya and Madlen are struggling to find work. Their contract forbids them from travelling, swimming or tanning, thus ruling out any free-time fun. But Madlen spots a clause stipulating that they will be sent home if they gain more than a centimetre at the waist. And so the two girls spend an evening bingeing on sweets and chocolate.

Then Ashley visits them. "Oh my gosh. That is a pretty bad one," she says, inspecting their bathroom. Then she laughs, for far, far too long. "But I guess it's OK?"

Like I said: depressing. As relentlessly depressing, in fact, as the Siberian steppe. But the film is also compelling in its truth: there is no glibness here, no cliche. Instead, it is an almost beautiful portrait of human hope and misery, in their various forms.

And so Nadya returns to Siberia without having earned any money. And Ashley is seen addressing a new batch of girls. "Every model has success in Japan," she says, wide-eyed. "They only win."

Girl Model is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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