Well, I made the mistake of watching one of the skimpy extras for this documentary before starting my review, and as usual, it altered my perceptions. I won't reveal exactly why this is so, except to say that what I thought was a fine behind-the-scenes documentary about modeling is in reality a very fine and revealing documentary about modeling. Movies about modeling and fashion are nothing new, in fact with reality shows like America's Next Top Model and others littering the airwaves, these things seem somewhat old hat. Credit filmmakers Ole Schell and Sara Ziff, then, with making yesterday's news breathe with vitality and interest.
OK, I will reveal the big secret, which is that aspiring filmmaker Schell and potential superstar model Ziff had simply begun chronicling Ziff's chaotic life in the name of making home movies. Sure, Ziff had, and has, a life worthy of documenting, what with all the runway shows in Europe, and having competing billboards featuring her image several stories-tall in Manhattan. But it was only later, after reviewing years of candid footage, that they apparently decided that they had enough stuff to form the foundation of a good movie. This act of making something compelling out of something supposedly aimless and personal reveals real filmaking talent. So, after realizing a movie could be made, interviews with designers, photographers, and Ziff's model friends, (plus footage gleaned from cameras loaned out to said friends) were edited together to make a harrowing, unglamorous, and thoroughly entertaining look at the realities of modeling.
Again, much of this stuff won't really come as a surprise to anyone with above-average pop culture awareness - except maybe for raising serious concerns about certain unnamed photographers and their Polanski-like proclivities for the underage sexual assault of their unwilling teenage subjects - but it is nonetheless a sobering, and ultimately hopeful look at the industry. It doesn't hurt that Ziff especially, and her compatriots, are truly gorgeous. So, as Sara ages gracefully before our eyes - from 18 to her mid-20s - we visit her surreal life, and the lives of her friends. Witness Sara and her occasionally puppy-dog-like beau Schell (always behind the camera, sometimes meekly commenting) as they marvel at $100,000 dollar checks, and deal with the difficulties of a high-earning girlfriend and her virtually dependent boyfriend.
Sara and friends grow as if in life-accelerating bell jars, one 16-year-old Russian model marvels that she feels a lot older than 16, as if that's a good thing. All the expected topics are broached frankly and sometimes painfully; bulimia, cocaine use, and most troublingly the reality that these girls and women are no more than clothes hangers to be manipulated and discarded. What makes this documentary work so well is not only its true behind-the-scenes access, (some of which was apparently gleaned by subterfuge under the guise of faux-naiveté) but also Ziff's sincere vulnerability, thoughtfulness and candor. The bravery with which she and Schell lay out their realities is refreshing and real. You feel especially as if you've become friends with Ziff, and really begin to pull for her to find her true path, and for models in general to realize that, as Ziff says, there's far more empowerment behind the camera than in front of it. Again, it doesn't hurt that Ziff's a knockout, and that her life holds undeniable fascination.
Even without interest in the world of modeling, most will find this documentary so well put together and smartly edited that it can't help but engage as a human drama. Considering Picture Me is a documentary about a somewhat worn subject culled in part from home movies, it's a pleasant surprise that with frank realism and unprecedented access to the modeling world, it becomes a remarkable achievement of reportage, with broad, winning appeal.