Sara Ziff and her filmmaking partner Ole Schell deserve kudos for their unusually revealing documentary about the fashion industry, “Picture Me: A Model’s Diary” (Strand Releasing Home Video).
Most of what we learn about modeling and fashion comes to us via writers and filmmakers with a vested interest in the business. They don’t want to rub powerful figures like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld the wrong way for fear of losing lucrative work.
We see the glamorous end product — those gorgeous photo lay-outs and TV ads — and are encouraged not to think so much about how those images are achieved. Or, what it might be like to be viewed purely as a physical object by agents, photographers and editors.
Ziff (above, far right) and her boyfriend Schell started making a video diary about their relationship — and her work — when she was still in her teens and just beginning to succeed as a model.
“Picture Me” starts off lightly with Ziff’s modeling seeming more like a lark than a career.
“Modeling isn’t something I chose to do. It happened to me,” she says of the after-school Manhattan street encounter with an agent who asked her, “Are you a model?”
“Picture Me” shows us the seductive power of being paid thousands of dollars simply — as Sara’s mother says — “to show up on time and look pretty.”
We see Sara at 19 flashing a check she has just received for $80,473.15 and a little later she waves around one for $111,326.42.
Barely out of her teens, Sara is able to buy a downtown Manhattan apartment, and pick up many of the tabs she and her struggling boyfriend rack up in hot restaurants and at deluxe Paris hotels.
“Picture Me” has charming, whimsical title cards announcing each new section of the film.
They prime us for the much darker second half of the film when Sara and her friends begin to tire of modeling and start breaking down under the stress of the non-stop travel and the general craziness around them.
(We don’t find out until the end of the movie that Sara made the decision at 24 to apply to Columbia University to study writing and that the decision freed her to present an uncompromising picture of the personal challenges she and her friends faced. A good alternate title for the film would be “Burning Bridges.”)
“How different is what I do from what a stripper does?,” Ziff asks rhetorically at one point. “But how do you say no to a massive check for having your picture taken?”
Once Ziff and Schell decided to turn their informal video diaries into a documentary, they gave video cameras to other models, some of whom present harrowing accounts of the sexual liberties industry people have taken with them.
One girl was shocked to be groped in a hot-tub by a naked photographer who, after she resisted, said, “Oh, are we not on the same page?”
The scared model thought to herself, “I’m 16, you’re 45, of course we’re not on the same page!” (In a promotional interview for the film, Ziff said this model’s agent told her she should have had sex with the photographer.)
Another model talks about a photographer famous for his sexual imagery, who got naked with her at an audition and then pushed her into a porn-style scene. The girl complied, but told her agent that she couldn’t take the job, fearing that if the audition was that sexual, what would the job itself be like?
“Picture Me” shows us the 14 to 16 year-old Eastern European girls who have been brought into the fashion world in recent years — uneducated and barely speaking English, they are ripe for exploitation by the industry and for throwing the fear of God into older models who expect regular salary increases.
The models are pawns in a business that is all about “the next thing.”
“We did it yesterday, so we don’t want to do it tomorrow,” one fashion executive tells Ziff.
“There’s a new girl every six months who is happy to be paid the new girl rate,” a nervous 24-year-old model notes.
“Picture Me” ends on a high note with Ziff being accepted into Columbia, telling her video diary, “Why be a prop in someone else’s story when you can tell your own?”