Tonight, the Bloorcourt Screenshot is presenting a series of documentaries that put a spotlight on female representation in the media. One of the documentaries being shown is Agency: “A documentary film by Meredith Wright that follows young Western women struggling to work as models in Osaka’s unforgiving fashion market. The film features two protagonists, Marta, a hardened twenty-year-old from Estonia and Holly a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old from Ottawa. Both stories intersect as Holly enters the world that Marta knows all too well.” We caught up with the filmmaker to ask a few questions before the film’s screening.
ElleBeaver: To give a little context to AGENCY, I just wanted to touch upon the production process for this film. A former model, you left this career behind several years ago because of your general discontent with the industry. Yet to make this doc, you had to get back in touch with your old agency in order to be sent to Asia. Was that a difficult decision for you to make, or did the ends justify the means? Could you elaborate on the conflict of interest inherent in that situation?
Meredith Wright: I knew that if I was going to make the film, I needed to be with the models side by side. I wanted to be in the van with them all day travelling to castings, partying with them at night, etc. I managed to get a contract overseas and I made no mention of the film. My loyalty has always lied with the models, not the model agencies. I did attempt to keep the names of the agencies out of the film because to be clear, this happens in Japan because it happens everywhere (Toronto included). I didn’t want to make a film about an outsider looking into the modeling industry, we’ve seen that before. I needed the access.
It was hard to go back into an industry I was ready to leave behind, but this time it was different. I felt empowered with my camera and knew that it was something I had to do.
EB: Has there been any negative backlash from the industry since the film’s release, particularly from your former agency?
MW: The response has been positive. Agents who have seen the film or ones like it (Girl Model) seem to support the film, but then say comments along the lines of: “It’s nice that she is saying her opinion. It doesn’t happen that way though”. The fact is, films about the modeling industry like my own, really only scratch the surface of what happens to a model.
EB: AGENCY works as an exposé piece. The bulk of the content features individual interviews with models talking about their experience in Osaka. How important was it for you to showcase these girls’ stories from their own perspective, and was it difficult to get the models to open up?
MW: A big fear I had going into the process was that the models would not open up to me. I knew I wouldn’t have a real film unless the models were speaking for themselves. It was important that the models talked about the good and the bad. To my relief, all the models opened up. No one asks them how they are feeling or listens to them. It was a completely new thing for them to be able to talk about how they feel to someone who cares. And I do care. I hope that comes across in the film.
EB: The inter-titles cut into the film serve as a narrational and structural tool that legitimize the girls’ stories and quite literally outline the negative aspects of the industry. Was this an idea of yours from the get-go, or was this something that came into being in the editing room?
MW: From the beginning I always knew there would be a measuring scene in the film. I really wanted to show those calculations and measurements to serve as a contrast to the human beings you get to know onscreen.. People see models as a set of numbers, I wanted to show them as real people. I also wanted to show the anything goes nightlife. Models overseas get into clubs for free and are given free drinks all night-no IDs required. My film did cover these aspects, but while I was shooting I realized the real root of all the problems tied to the industry is that the models are not being taken care of. No one is protecting them so they are ending up in hospital beds.
EB: Do you think that AGENCY reflects your personal point-of-view, or did you try to maintain a degree of objectivity while shooting & editing the film?
MW: Agency reflects my point of view completely. I think it’s unrealistic to say that the film is objective. It’s entirely subjective. I shot it, I edited it, and my experiences inevitably seeped into it. Knowing that, people can decide for themselves how to take it.
When the models are speaking, it’s my way of speaking out and telling my story through them. My film also serves as an outlet for models to tell their stories. Some model really embraced modeling in wedding gowns and found the whole thing very princess-like. That sentiment also reflects my opinion. When I first started modeling I was enamoured with the glamour of it all. I wanted to show the roller-coaster of emotions a model goes through as they’re being lured into a fantasy world with some dark secrets.
EB: Ideally, who is your target audience? Insiders or outsiders of the industry?
MW: I made this film for a lot of people. I made it for the other young women I modelled with who have no voice. Most models will not speak out about their agencies or experiences because it puts their job in jeopardy and I completely understand that. Models can plainly see that they are dispensable. I have nothing to lose, so it’s my responsibility to speak out.
I also made it for young girls who want to be models. When I started I thought modeling was going to be like America’s Next Top Model. I think it’s important to show different sides of the story and let the models have some awareness of what lies ahead so they can decide for themselves if it’s an industry they want to be in. I went into it blind and it’s not fair for other models to have to go through that.
Lastly, I made it for everyone who is not part of the industry. I hope that through sharing my access with them they can come to their own conclusions. I think the questions the film raises can be more unsettling that what’s on the screen.
EB: This is a very personal film, for the girls involved as well as for you as a former model. When you set off to make AGENCY, what was your goal and do you think it has been met? What change, if any, were you hoping to enact?
MW: When I modeled, girls all around me where having traumatic experiences. I used to have recurring nightmares of being back in a foreign country as a model. It’s an extremely suffocating feeling that is really hard to explain unless you’ve been there.
My goal was to show some of the basic truths that happen when you model abroad and to give a glimpse of another version of the story. I recently spoke to a group of high school students and they already understood that the industry had a dark side. The shift is already happening-just look at The Model Alliance in NY. I’m optimistic that the public, once educated, will demand better working conditions for models. If you told someone that there’s a large group of children in the workforce without any workers rights you’d likely be against it. It’s important to hold the fashion industry accountable because it’s been excused for too long.
EB: What is next for you, both as a filmmaker and as an advocate for models’ rights?
MW: I have been lucky enough to screen my film in festivals and to high school students. I hope to continue to do so. High school is not easy. You are discovering who you are and the pressures to look a certain way affects all students. The modeling industry embraces these harmful ideals which makes the combination of a teenager modeling all the more devastating.
I am also involved with Octavia Films, an organization in Toronto that supports young female filmmakers through film festivals, grants and workshops. I also support the Model Alliance in its brave efforts to enact change in New York. Now, it’s time for the rest of the world to catch up.
Tonight’s screening will be located at Tallboys Craft Beer House, at 8pm. Click here for more information.