‘It’s the first ‘Me Too’ movie in the world,” said Michal Aviad about her latest movie, Working Woman, which opened in theaters throughout Israel on June 20, and which was released during the spring in the US and France, to critical acclaim. It premiered last summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival and was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The movie, which is powerful and thought-provoking in its depiction of a creeping kind of a sexual harassment that is all too common, tells the story of Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush), a young, ambitious married mother of three who works in real estate. Her husband (Oshri Cohen), a chef, has just opened a restaurant and the family is struggling financially. When she gets a job working with a high-end real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy), who is selling apartments in a luxury complex to wealthy French tourists, it seems like a dream job, with the chance to earn huge fees in commissions. But then Benny starts flirting with her and quickly crosses the line into harassment and even rape.
“This subject has been at the center of feminist discourse for the last 20 years. In Israel, it was discussed even before in the US, with the One Out of One movement,” said Aviad, who started to write Working Woman before the Harvey Weinstein scandal made headlines and launched the current focus on the issue of sexual harassment.
Aviad, a director who has explored many subjects of importance to women in her work, would seem to be the ideal person to dramatize this issue on screen. Her previous films include the feature Invisible, a drama starring Ronit Elkabetz and Evgenia Dodina, about two rape victims who help each other cope when their rapist is released from prison. She has also made several documentaries, including Dimona Twist, about how women coped with the hardships of living in that desert town during the golden age of rock & roll.
“We are exposed to the testimonies of women who have experienced sexual harassment in Israel all the time. There isn’t a week where someone isn’t accused,” she said, referencing the conviction of former general and politician Yitzhak Mordechai in a sexual harassment case in the early 2000s as the beginning of Israeli public awareness of the issue.
But Aviad wanted to make a film that would illuminate the experiences of women who are not in the public eye and who are harassed by ordinary men in ordinary workplaces.
“We never hear the stories of anonymous women, who most of the time don’t complain for fear of not finding work,” she said. Working with cowriters, Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik, “We decided to tell a story that unfolds over time, not an assault in the street but a situation where one person has the power and the other is subordinate, in the workplace, and explore how long it can last without exploding.”
The director gets into her heroine’s mind, showing the reality of how women cope with harassment.
“Throughout the story, she believes she can handle it. Most of us act in this way. You need the job, it gives you opportunities,” she said. This is particularly true in the case of Orna, who has no university education and, with three young children, is not likely to manage to get a degree.
“Orna is like millions of women all over the world. She is ambitious. This job is so important to her. So she continues to work, hoping it will pass, trying to distance herself from him, thinking I’m smart enough, I’m good enough,” she said. “But this is a situation where she is going to lose.... More and more, she feels imprisoned. The harassment penetrates her home life. In this new stage of capitalism, people work from home, at all hours, you can’t do a 9-to-5 job if you want a career.... On top of it all, she’s also a wife and a mother. She is pressured from all sides.”
Although Aviad, who has been an independent filmmaker most of her working life, said the movie wasn’t autobiographical, she said: “We [including her cowriters and her star, Liron Ben-Shlush] put ourselves in Orna’s shoes at every step. We thought how she would have reacted.”
NOW THAT the film has been shown around the world, she said that the film often provokes discussion in the audience, and that after the Q and A is over, many women come up to her and share their stories of sexual harassment. “And they’re all different. No harassment is the same.”
But what she didn’t anticipate and finds “really satisfying” is “to hear men saying, for the first time in their lives, that they understand what women go through. I’m very happy with this.”
One reaction that surprised her at screenings in the US was when people asked her why Orna doesn’t take revenge on Benny, by burning down his real estate sites or trashing his office. “Then I realized, it’s not a Hollywood film. In a Hollywood film, she would burn down his properties and the office, she would take him to court and she would win.”
Asked whether she thinks Working Woman can help change things, she said that she thinks it can, by clarifying the reality that women face at work. “In a review in one of the trade papers [in America], the reviewer said, ‘Here is a film that will finally answer your question “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Women don’t leave because they need to make a living.’”
She feels that, especially among men, “There is still this myth that women work because they want to, not because they need to in order to survive. In Israel, families definitely need two salaries.”
She hopes her film can help create an understanding of the facts. This will make it easier to create what she calls “a new covenant between women and men that would say, ‘We’re going to treat each other as three-dimensional human beings, with respect and dignity.’ I hope that this film is another stone in building this new understanding.”
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>