Girl Model was screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Image Credit: Supplied

Fashion seems to be a popular staple this week in Dubai and our capital. At the on-going Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the critically-acclaimed documentary Girl Model, which explores the seamier side of modelling — including under-age models — made its debut. Meanwhile, Dubai is gearing up for the opening day of the Dubai Fashion Week extravaganza today.

In the captial, tabloid! caught up with filmmaker of Girl Model, Ashley Sabin, and in Dubai we chatted with Australian model Rachel Rutt, who has flown into Dubai for her first DFW, to get a perspective on modelling and beyond.

The fashion outsider: Ashley Sabin, director of Girl Model

How did the idea of exploring the murky world of modelling come about?

We started this project around four years ago through an American model scout, Ashley. She introduced us to the concept of finding young girls from Siberia and sending them to Japan for modelling assignments. But what we saw in Siberia was interesting with hundreds of young girls in their early teens lining up for evaluation. That was the starting point. After Ashley finalised a few young girls, we went back to Siberia to find their families and understand why these girls chose to leave their small towns. And that led us to Japan, their difficulties and their reality of living alone for the first time when they are just 13.

How did you manage to penetrate the fashion industry, which is notoriously secretive?

We experienced that during Paris Fashion Week when they said: ‘You are not Italian Vogue, we don't care about you.' Our access point was the model scout Ashley and the modelling agency in Russia called Nova Models. During the making of the documentary, we realised that Ashley was an interesting character. She is conflicted yet in denial. On one hand, she feels a certain degree of guilt about what she is doing to these girls. At the same, she also profits from it. That duality was complex and we tried to capture that in the documentary.

Is she happy with the documentary?

No. It's always tricky when you are filming someone as their life is happening. When a camera documents your day, it throws up different points of view and realities. Ashely didn't really understand the film and said that it doesn't make any sense. Regarding her being involved in the editing process, she only asked us to make a few changes in the name of agencies. We obliged because it did not alter the impact of the story. Our relationship has become very tricky.

Were there any shocking observations?

When I saw hundreds of young girls lining up, mostly 13, being asked to lose weight it was unnerving. In a lot of their contracts, if they gain two centimetres, their contract is automatically terminated and they are sent back home. And what shocked us was the fact there was no regulation in the modelling industry per se and there is quite a bit of sexualisation of youth.

Is the model Nadia, who was plucked from Siberia and sent to Japan featured in the documentary, still in modelling?

Yes, and that shocked us because we were confident that after what we saw her go through in Japan she would never return to the modelling world. But we hear that after being sent back home, she went back to Japan again. Our intention is not to tarnish the fashion industry.

Fashion insider: Australian model Rachel Rutt, 21

How was it starting so young?

I began modelling when I was 17 and was approached for modelling when I was walking down a street. My mother accompanied me to the modelling agency and she was a part of the discussions. The country I come from, most young girls are very adult-like in their approach. They are clear about their assignments, on how much they will be paid and have a solid support system in their agencies that represent them. But it's different for each country, their cultural background. Even while going on foreign assignments, we have a person from our agency looking out for us.

Are there stringent clauses in your contract about weight gain?

In Australia, the pressure on models is a lot less because their markets don't look for tiny girls. But I have a personal trainer and I look at maintaining my weight in a healthy manner. But each market is different. In some countries it's the young girls that are preferred.

How do you all protect yourself?

The key is communication. You need to be aware of what's happening around you and get represented by a good modelling agency.

Did you know?

Dubai Fashion Week has flown in 15 international models from Australia, Asia Pacific and Africa and signed on 30 local models.

"We have a policy that girls need to be over 16 and if they are 16, they need a consent letter from their parents and their school principal. Most of our girls are 18 and above," said Simon Lock, Creative Director of DFW.