Saturday, September 18, 2010

[SFS Talkies] Picture Me: A Model's Diary


When you think of models, you think of incredibly beautiful specimens of the human species sashaying down catwalks, gracing fashion events, being that perfect clotheshorse for fashion designers to drape their latest collection on, and being plastered on everything from glossy magazines to billboards. The nastier side of us will tend to pass snide remarks on their lack of brains as we become jealous of their looks, their fat paychecks for doing what seems to be simple (like how director and documentary subject Sara Ziff puts it, how difficult can it be walking down a runway that is straight?), and living the lifestyles that seem to be on a different stratosphere altogether.

Enter Sara Ziff, a successful fashion model and her documentary film Picture Me, which takes an autobiographical charting of her career, as well as that of her peers, inviting candid interviews done on camera as shot by her then boyfriend Ole Schell, given that expose of the industry from within, covering a wide spectrum from the time a potential model is talent scouted on the streets at a tender age, to living the life jetsetting the fashion capitals of the world week in and week out. Key to her treatment in this documentary is the portrayal of models as normal human beings rather than robots or dolls that as puppets are manipulated by almost everyone vertically in the industry, from agents right down to the makeup artists and fashion show directors.

Yes the first act sets up the unreal, fantasy world that the models live in, with their impossibly fat pay cheque in the 5-6 figure range for work that involves shooting or casting or runway walking, things that we deem are simple enough, but Ziff's documentary captures that with high income comes the inevitable high tastes, and one tends to lose that sense of reality, never mind if what seems to be a high cost of living getting charged back as debt to the models when they first start out, from the limo and the chauffeur to the rental of that swanky shared apartment. Family and friends get to express on camera how they feel about such money going around in the industry as norm, probably amounts that you and I take a lifetime to make, these models do so in a day.

That just about alienates the average us from them, though Ziff never allows us to forget that they too have simple hopes and dreams they want to live out. The documentary's never apologetic, yet didn't manage to probe deep enough into the issues raised, especially those involving the sleazier aspects of the sexploitation and drugs, choosing instead to allow peers to fleetingly talk about them in very general terms without naming names (lest a lawsuit come flying or an industry-wide black list getting imposed). Naturally one cannot expect that she burn bridges with an industry that has brought her fame and fortune, though it is good to note that Ziff herself has been advocating unionizing the models to set up protection for fellow professionals, especially the fresh-faced ones, from the unscrupulous.

Much of the clips here involve handheld cameras following Sara Ziff from place to place, even into fashion show backstages where we get candid interviews from industry players. Famous names in the industry though are not covered over here, so top fashion houses and designers get mentioned by the bucketload in name only. What I enjoyed most about the film is how it captured the highs and lows equally, with the lows especially highlighting how the industry has continued to shift its tendency to recruit younger these days, and provides that theirs is a profession that is constantly under threat all the time by new entrants who are probably taller, prettier and fresher looking that those already in the scene, eager and hungrier to prove themselves, and hence puts them into harms way.

Through the following of Ziff's developing career, one gets a feel of the superficialness of the industry, where you're only as good as your previous work, and the grueling, punishing schedule that they live their lives in, and what I thought was an automatic weight loss program for the constant lack of sleep, pressure and literally being on your toes almost all the time in those unbelievable heels, as well as to fend off unwanted attention from sleaze bags. For those looking to understand the industry a fair bit better, then perhaps Picture Me will be that recommended film to catch.

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