At 19, model-turned-indie-doc-maker Meredith Wright spent a summer modelling in Asia. After witnessing, and experiencing, injustice and neglect at the hands of the agencies, she quit the business. The model apartments in Shanghai and Osaka are full of girls who are lured overseas with meaningless financial guarantees, and sign contracts with misleading clauses that, for example, allow agencies to take away their spending money if they gain weight. Most importantly, they are given no support from their agencies if they are mistreated, and can be sent home, in “debt” to the agency, at a moment’s notice.  At 23, inspired by the “gross deception” being perpetrated on these young girls, Wright packed up her camera, called her agency, and asked them to send her somewhere, anywhere, in Asia.

Trying to stay off the radar, she filmed a guerilla documentary about what it’s like to be a young model in Osaka. Living in a models’ apartment with girls as young as 14, going on shoots and out to clubs, and working as a one-woman crew, Wright captured the experience from a model’s perspective: being cheated out of money by the agencies, sent to a foreign country with no supervision, working and partying so hard you end up in the hospital. Her documentary, Agency, captures these girls in a surreal, Sofia Coppola-esque carnival of smoke, exhaustion, and psychedelic colour.

Completed at Ryerson’s Doc Media programAgency will debut at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of DocNow in May , and Wright is raising money on IndieGoGo to finish production. Help fund this local indie filmmaker by donating today! $25 will get you a copy of the doc itself, and some great swag. We talked to Wright about the challenges of filming a one-woman documentary while working as a full-time model, trying desperately not to draw the attention of the agencies or get sent home.

Why did you decide to work as a model while filming the documentary? 

I knew it was my ticket there. The funny part is the last place I went, when I really decided ‘That’s it, I’m done, I don’t want to work here anymore, you don’t make money, they don’t treat you very well,’ was Osaka. All of a sudden, I’m back telling my agency, ‘Please, I can’t wait to go anywhere!’ And the place that accepted me first over the summer was Osaka. It was the same apartment I stayed in. The management had changed, because it changes all the time, and I think that’s probably the reason I got to go. I considered what I would do if I wasn’t able to model, but it’s not the same. You don’t have the same relationship with the girls, you’re not in the apartment every day, going to clubs, having them talk to you, being at the photoshoots. I knew I needed to get into all that, and the only way to tell the story that I wanted to tell would be to model there, so I could be right in it.

What inspired you to make the documentary?

Once I was really removed from the industry, I was digesting everything that happened, and realizing how messed up it was. Any little thing, like how there are young girls there, or how you have a contract and you don’t get money, and how they measure you, and they can take away your spending money if you gain weight, the basic things I found out when I was there, people had no idea. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I wanted to do something with it. But there was one moment that made me want to to do the film. The girls, especially when I was in Asia, left a pretty deep impression about the whole industry. It made me never want to go back. I had dreams that I was back there, panicking. But there was one girl, when I was in Shanghai. She was 15 or so, from Russia. I didn’t talk to her very much, I just remember her colouring in the apartment. One day she was really sad. She had just come back from a shoot, and we were all at Starbucks talking, and I found out that she was on set and a photographer was touching her, and she started crying. She got really upset, and the photographer called the agency, and she got paid less for her job because she was complaining. No one has your back when you’re there. No one cares about you, you don’t have a voice.

Was there ever a time during filming when the way the girls were being treated made you want to step in?

There was a girl named Holly. She’s 13 and she’s from Canada, and she was just such a sweet girl. I was trying to keep really low on the radar of the agency, and that was the first time I considered going to them, and being like ‘Look, I’m not a babysitter.’ It wasn’t that I was mad that I was babysitting her, I was mad that no one else was looking after her. They don’t get back to her to give her directions to a shoot, but they’ll tell her that she’s overweight. They have time to tell her that, but not help her get anywhere. She’s 13, you brought her here, so take care of her.

Why do you think the agencies can get away with treating the girls so poorly? 

There’s a quote from Girl Model (a documentary about a 13 year old who travels from Siberia to Japan to model) that the whole industry is based on nothing. The only currency is young and skinny. Always light-skinned, there’s no girls from any other race. When the girl gets there, they don’t know for the first two weeks how the clients like her. By that time, they know if it’s a yes or a no. You have a really small window. If you don’t impress the clients or they don’t like you, you don’t have a shot to work. So you’re either working like crazy, or not working at all. Getting sent home, it can happen when your contract’s up, or they can just call you and say ‘Your flight’s tomorrow at 6 am.’ That happened several times, and it happened to me when I was there, too. But at least I expected it. I think if it’s your first time, you have no idea it’s that fragile.

How do the guarantees in the contract work? Girls are “guaranteed” an amount of money in their contract, so how can they go home with nothing? 

The whole idea of a guarantee is basically false. If you’re not working right away, there are so many loopholes that void your guarantee. All of a sudden, you can work and still make money for the agency, but you’ll never see it, because you can’t cover your flight. So they’ll just send you home with nothing. If girls do make money, they’re the ones that are working every day non-stop, like the girl in my film, who ended up in the hospital. I wouldn’t say that’s the agency’s fault, you’re just not able to take care of yourself in that environment, especially if you’re younger. My agencies at home can get money even if I don’t get money. It’s easy for everyone else to profit, but not for the model.

Were you worried, as a model, about how the agencies would react? 

I thought about it, and I quit modelling after, because I feel like there’s a lot of gross deception going on, with the agencies in Japan and with the agencies here. I feel like my loyalty was kind of to the girls. They knew everything that was going on, I wasn’t trying to pull one over on them. I made a decision not to expose a specific agency. It’s not my point. This happens here because it happens everywhere.

How much were you able to prepare for the shoot before going over there? 

I knew at least some of the scenery, I knew where I would be, I knew what would happen, so I knew there were a few shots I wanted to get, like the girls being measured, the apartment. It’s a little bit dingy, but the scenery in Japan is massive, so I had a pretty great palette. I drew from fiction: Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation, even Virgin Suicides.

Were you concerned you would get there, and none of the girls would agree to participate in the film? 

I was really nervous about that. If that had happened, it would have been entirely about me and my experience, and that’s not the film I wanted to make. I’ve already been there, and I’m jaded. I wanted other girls. I was unsure at the beginning who would be the main character. But one girl, Marta, was talking about her past one day casually in the car, and I just knew, something about her, how she had a bit of a harder edge to her, I knew she would have a great interview. All the girls I interviewed were surprisingly helpful and willing. My fears were unrealistic, because no one really listens to them, so it was the first time someone was like ‘I’ll sit with you for 10 minutes, or an hour, and just listen to what you have to say, and ask you how you feel,’ and it was almost shocking to hear how candid they were. But how many people ask you when you’re abroad? No one. I also think that they didn’t feel intimidated by me, because I’m in their exact same boat.

What were some of the challenges during filming?

The biggest challenge was trying not to get sent home. It added tension in the film, because you never knew what girl was coming or going. But for me, if I only had two weeks there and they sent me home, like they did to other girls, I would not have a film. I was constantly in fear of getting sent home. Trying to stay off the radar of the industry, but filming and being really involved in the girls’ lives, and then not being so off the radar that they would send me home, it was almost like walking a tightrope. I felt really anxious the whole time. After the first month, every day almost felt like a gift day. Luckily I got enough shooting days, I would say about 35.

What was the modelling experience like for you personally?

I’ve been there twice, and the second time I went to Japan, I was at a different airport, and they didn’t actually tell me the instructions were for a different airport. Going back and being 23, you don’t have the same panicked feeling. Even calling the agency on the phone is really complicated in Japanese. You have jetlag and it all feels really overwhelming. I remember when I went to China for the first time. I was 19, and it was my first trip to Asia, and I was told that someone would have my name on a sign, so I was just waiting and waiting. Half an hour goes by, and I see a man standing with a folded-up piece of paper, and I looked at him and he unfolded it and it had my name. And then I was like, ‘I need to call the agency to make sure you’re not going to kidnap me,’ and they were trying to tell me in broken English, ‘It’s okay, go with him.’ It’s just kind of a weird blur. And then when you get there, some girls are nice, but usually they don’t want a new girl coming in because it puts their position in jeopardy. It’s not always easy.

What advice would you give to yourself now, if you could go back to Day One of the project?

I was pretty panicked when I was there, so I was always filming, but I would push that even further. There’s a main character who went for a run one day, and I wanted to get a shot of her, and I didn’t, and then she was sent home the next day. Push yourself to do everything you can. For the next documentary, I would definitely want to work with more of a crew, because doing it all on your own is a little bit insane, especially when you’re working at the same time. But that being said, I don’t think I would have had the same access if I had some dude with me doing the sound. There’s no way they would have talked to me at all the way they do in the film.

How can people get involved and support the film?

The whole crowd-funding thing is really big now for documentaries. A lot of the films at Sundance are funded through Kickstarter. People can go to the Indiegogo page, and check out the site, there’s a lot of cool prizes, we have some cool t-shirts of models, DVDs. It’s going to help support the post-production, sending the film to festivals, promotion. Even if people just go to the site and share it with their friends, that really helps a lot. 

Agency will debut as part of the Doc Now Film Fest in May 2012 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

~ Haley Cullingham