Fashion Week is upon us people, and over the next week celebrities will be swilling free booze and changing their outfit three times a day, fashion reporters will be updating us on “key pieces” and “emerging trends” and gossip columnists will be keeping a close eye on front row breaches of fashion show etiquette.
Behind the scenes though, it will be a different story as local designers and their teams work tirelessly to promote and sell their collections. We don’t get to see the reality of life behind the scenes very often, but now thanks to the effort of Sara Ziff and Ole Schell, we get to see inside the fashion industry from the unique perspective of the model as they document Sara’s journey to becoming an international top model in Picture Me: A Model’s Diary (Thursday 1st September, 8.30pm).
Documentaries such as The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor, and Unzipped have given us a glimpse of life inside the fashion industry, but Picture Me: A Model’s Diary has none of the slickness of these documentaries. Using unobtrusive high definition video cameras, Ziff and Schell shoot behind the scenes at castings, show fittings, and fashion shows; it’s gritty, raw and real. The most revealing material comes from the candid conversations between the models themselves as they discuss the pressures of the job and difficult positions they’ve found themselves in.
Recently I caught up with Sara and Ole for a chat about their controversial documentary.
Firstly, whose idea was it to shoot the documentary, and Sara did you consider, career wise, it would be a risk?
Ole: Picture Me really happened naturally over the course of five to six years. I had just come out of film school at New York University and at that point in my life I carried a small video camera everywhere I went. Sara was just beginning her career and I would often tag along with her and film her for fun as she worked. I ended up showing some of the footage to my Dad who is a journalist and a writer. He thought there was a real story there and suggested we turn it into a film. So from that point on, we spent a couple of fashion show seasons trying to get a sense of the industry backstage. From the start, Sara and I were interested in showing the reality of the models’ lives not just the airbrushed final image of them in an advertisement or on the runway.
Sara: I did have mixed feelings about exposing my private life on film. Some of the other models and I told quite personal stories, and I was concerned that everyone involved should feel comfortable. Obviously when people tell stories of feeling exploited, you don’t want to further that exploitation. I was very sensitive to that.
Were people keen to be involved, to talk and tell their stories?
Ole: Sara and I spent so much time together that there was a real familiarity. Models also have so many cameras on them backstage during the shows that one more doesn’t usually raise any hackles. Most of the people we interviewed are close friends, so there was already a sense of intimacy between us.
We also conducted some of the interviews on the fly in an informal way with small unobtrusive HDV cameras when good opportunities arose. That led to some of the sense of casualness. A number of the great conversations between the models were completely off the cuff and filmed by the models themselves as they worked or relaxed after a job.
You shot over a couple years, did you start out with a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve, or did the documentary evolve over time?
Sara: I started to carry a camera as well, and after a few years, we looked back and realized we had a lot of great footage. We decided to give cameras to other models who were friends of ours so they could keep video diaries. Making the film wasn’t really premeditated; it evolved organically. For me, it was a chance to try to make sense of my experience and give myself and other models a voice.
Ole: There were times when we did have some trouble making the film. On one occasion, Sara was doing a private Gucci fashion show at the mansion of Mr. Chow, the famous restaurateur in Los Angeles. I was minding my own business getting some b-role when I was suddenly escorted out by armed guards past fifty or so celebrities. With guns prominently displayed, the guards took me to a holding cell downstairs, held me for several hours and confiscated my camera and all our tapes.
Tell us about the response from the fashion industry when the film was released? Were you surprised by this response?
Sara: Honestly, I was concerned that I might never work again once this film came out, but people in the industry have reacted pretty positively. Many models and casting directors have told me they are grateful for the film, and that they think it’s long overdue.
Do you think the fashion industry will ever change, and if so how?
Sara: I do think that the industry is becoming somewhat more inclusive. There seems to be more of a concerted effort at the higher levels of the business to be mindful of diversity in terms of size and race. That being said, those changes are essentially cosmetic and I think we still have a long way to go in terms of granting models basic rights and protections in the workplace.
What are you both up to now professionally?
Ole: I am still working as a filmmaker in New York. I made another documentary called “Win in China” about Chinese youth culture and entrepreneurs including a Ferrari salesman, a rapper, a punk rocker and an aspiring lingerie baron. My next project is a short 3D chase film through Beijing.
Sara: I just graduated from Columbia University in New York, where I studied Politics with a focus on Labor and Community Organizing. For the last several months I’ve been working with the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School to establish the Model Alliance, a non-profit organization that provides a platform for models in the US to organize for safe, fair and healthier standards in the workplace. We are going to launch this Fall.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, best of luck to the both of you.
Picture Me: A Model’s Diary screens Thursday 1st September, 8.30pm on Rialto Channel.
to find Film details click here