Wed 22 Sep 2010
Bolinas photographer Ilka Hartmann this Thursday is taking a bus to Hollywood where her son Ole Schell will celebrate his 36th birthday Friday. But that’s not the main reason she’s going.
Ole, who grew up in Bolinas and now lives in New York City, will be on hand for the West Coast premier of his documentary film Picture Me, which he directed along with former girlfriend Sara Ziff.
Ilka Hartmann reads a review of her son’s film in the German periodical Geselleschaft.
Friday’s premier is a very big deal. The documentary has been shown at film festivals in New York, Dubai, Germany, Italy, Spain and Estonia. In New York it won the documentary award at the Jen Arts Film Festival; in Milan, it won the audience award and the best fashion film award.
The film is being shown in theaters (or soon will be) in France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, and it is about to be aired on television in England.
Fashion modeling can be a glamorous, highly paid career for a lucky few, but even for them it can have a dark side, the film reveals.
Along with company-store-type debt to modeling agencies and sexual abuse by photographers, there is widespread cocaine use to fight fatigue. Even models who are grown women are pressured by the fashion industry to have figures as skinny and androgynous as an adolescent girl’s. Bulimia is all too common.
Sara got into fashion modeling at 14 when a photographer stopped her as she was walking home from school in New York. That led to assignments all over the world. She appeared in magazine ads, on billboards, and on designer runways. Not long ago, Ilka told me this week, she herself had seen a picture of Sara on a billboard South of Market. She was wearing a black leather jacket in an ad for The Gap.
Ole attended the film school at New York University and met Sara while in New York. After they became a couple, she agreed to let him follow her around with a video camera, shooting her world of glamour, high pay, and grinding exhaustion.
The film is highly nuanced. We watch an almost bláse Sara receiving $80,000 and $111,000 checks for her assignments, as well as a choked-up Sara admitting she has found herself in situations so compromising she can’t tell her parents about them.
Because Sara’s parents are also in the film, Ole’s access to her private world is striking. Nor is Sara alone in revealing for the documentary some of the abuse she has experienced as a model.
Ole and Sara as pictured in the Geselleschaft article. The headline translates from German as, “Food for the photographers.”
A model name Sena Cech tells Ole, “I’ve been modeling two years, working really hard.” Nonetheless, she adds, “I am in huge debt on my credit cards because I’ve been paying for my own food, clothes, and travel.
“I’m still in debt to all of my agencies. They fly you over [to Europe], so that goes on your debt. When you first get here, they hire you a driver [and] get you an apartment, so that goes on your debt. They have to make copies of your [model’s] book, so that goes on your debt. They send out the copies, so that goes on your debt. They have to pick their noses, so that goes on your debt.”
“I think it is really common that the photographer would try to sexually take advantage of the model,” Sena (left) says and describes what happened to her.
“I had one [casting] experience with a very well-known photographer, who’s well known for being sexual.
“He’s very famous and a big deal. My agent’s going, ‘Go meet this guy, and whatever you do, make a great impression on him.’
“They started taking pictures. Then, ‘Oh, baby, can you do something a little sexy? Can you take off your clothes?’ I took off my clothes. I had no problem with that. I have no problem with being naked.
“Then the photographer starts getting naked. I’m going, This is getting weird. Why is the photographer getting naked? Nobody’s going to take pictures of him.
“But then his assistant starts taking pictures of him naked and then goes, ‘Sena, can you grab the photographer’s cock and twist it real hard? He likes it when you squeeze it real hard and twist it.'”
As she tells the story, Sena looks more and more disgusted and finally blurts out, “This is so gross! I did it, but later I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel good telling my boyfriend about it. I didn’t feel things went the way they should have.” All the same, she adds with a grimace, “I did get the job.”
And that’s the conundrum Ole’s film so deftly shows. The models know they’re being exploited in several ways, are being required to work inhuman hours, and can become so fatigued they have trouble staying awake while on the runway. But the chance to earn large amounts of money is also alluring, and in the case of Sara, the money eventually allows her to attend Columbia University and make a downpayment on a home.
When it comes to who is doing most of the exploiting, the models blame their agencies, lecherous photographers, and clothing designers who think their dresses will be more appealing to other women if the models resemble anorexic waifs.
In the 1980s and 90s, the models were usually grown women, the movie notes, but now girls as young as 14, 15, and 16 are often seen on runways far from home. These girls are easily replaceable and are typically the most vulnerable to abuse.
Picture Me is a brilliant documentary. It has many things to say, and it lets the models themselves say them. The dialogue is mostly conversational in tone. There is no screaming, no ranting. Some of what we see is sad, but some of it is humorous. It’s the nuances that give this film its power.