This is a film that seems to get to people, says Israeli filmmaker, Michal Aviad about her latest feature, Working Women.
“It’s fascinating. If it had been made two years ago, nobody would have understood all the nuances.” The film, which opens the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 8, could hardly be more timely as it focuses on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), an ambitious, optimistic and determined woman, a wife and mother of three, takes a new job as assistant to Benny (Menashe Noy), a real estate developer.
Balancing family life with the demands of her newly acquired professional role is not easy and there is increasing reliance on her salary as her husband, Ofir (Oshri Cohen) struggles to keep his restaurant afloat. Orna is soon promoted but when Benny’s flirting turns into a living nightmare, she begins to question her self-worth and sense of dignity.
The film gives a compelling, detailed and complex portrayal of the realities that so many women face. Its absorbing narrative and outstanding performances, in particular from Ben Shlush who brings a quiet intensity and credibility to the role, have resulted in glowing reviews following its premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July and subsequent screenings at TIFF, the Toronto Film Festival.
Working Woman will be released in Israel early next year and, to date, sales have already been agreed to North America and France. “It feels that at this moment people get it,” says Aviad.
Aviad and her co-writers, Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik, began working on Working Woman in 2012, well before the advent of the #metoo and #timesup movements. “I had been thinking about the issue of sexual harassment for many, many years,” explains Aviad, on the phone from Tel Aviv.
“The #Metoo outbreak came while we were shooting. We thought, this is great, and continued shooting.” However, it did not change anything about the production. “It was too late. At the time, it just felt like, wow, the issue has become mainstream.”
There was no shortage of material for the writers to draw on. “The story is closely based on so many of our experiences. Nobody who came to auditions thought it was news,” she says. “Here in Israel at least two very well-known actors have been found guilty of sexual harassment.”
The response is similar in Israel to other places, she says, with people accusing women of lying. “I know this stuff by heart.”
In 1998, Israel passed a law against sexual harassment and in 2011, former President, Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape, indecent acts, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice. This law is relatively progressive, says Aviad but there is still some way to go despite ongoing grassroots activities, such as Echad m’Echad (One from One), a Facebook page which was established a few years ago. It called on anybody who wanted to give a testimony concerning sexual harassment. “In one week, they had over a thousand testimonies. Now, they have tens of thousands.”
It was clear to Aviad that her protagonist needed to be a character that reflected the women she knew and someone that audiences could identify with.
“It was obvious — and totally natural— that Orna needed to work. Orna is similar to me, my scriptwriters and Liron. We are ambitious, hardworking and high functioning. Most of the women around us are like that.”
Aviad also wanted to highlight Israeli society’s growing socioeconomic divide. In order to survive, Orna has to work full-time and she feels the additional pressure to keep her job. “Israel is an extremely consumerist, capitalist society and has very few social democratic rules and laws. There is a great gap between the classes and the gap is widening year by year.”
“I wanted to show this gap in terms of power. So real estate is a good place to show it because people don’t usually need a degree to work in it, but they do need to know how to sell and they can jump class by making money.”
She worked with Noy to research his character and decided that in order for Benny to be realistic, and not simply a traditional villain, he needed to be successful, personable, generous and charming but also someone who fails to understand— or ignores —the power that he possesses. “We both know men who have harassed women. It’s not that those ‘monsters’ are foreign to us — they’re not monsters — they’re just people, like us.”
Primarily a documentary filmmaker, Aviad’s work has always addressed the marginalisation of women in society since she began making films in the 1980s. From exploring how the Occupation affected women on both sides of the conflict (The Women Next Door, 1992) to telling the experiences of seven Sephardi women who emigrated to Dimona, a development town in the Negev desert in the mid 1950s to early 1960s (Dimona Twist, 2016), women are consistently front and centre of Aviad’s films. “I’m a political filmmaker,” she says. “I see myself as someone belonging to the realist, humanist way of making films.”
According to a recent article in Ha’aretz, out of the 36 Israeli films released in Israel in 2017, only six were directed by women. In 2016, it was ten. In the last few years, there has been more talk about women participating in Israel’s film industry, be it directing or in leading roles but, says Aviad, the situation fluctuates, like elsewhere.
“In one year, suddenly there are many women making films, so everybody says everything has changed. [Yet] women still only make up about 10% of filmmakers in Israel.”
Aviad has spent her professional life fighting to promote women. There have been many small successes, she says, such as an increase in women film reviewers but the changes are very slow. “With my last film, nobody would have asked me about how it is to be a women filmmaker, and now I’m asked. That’s already a change. And I’ve made films for ever!”
As a professor at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, she has also argued for changes within academia. “For twenty years I was the only woman professor in my department who is a filmmaker. I fought for other women to become lecturers and only since this spring have two more women directors been brought in.”
Working Women is Aviad’s second feature. Her first, Invisible (2011) is the story of two women who meet by chance and realise that they are haunted by a shared trauma; that they were both victims of a serial rapist twenty years earlier.
The film mixes documentary with fiction as it is based on actual events and uses testimonies from the original victims of rapes that occurred in Tel Aviv in the 1970s.
“If I want to deal with the inner world of my characters, I feel that I need to go to at least the borders between fiction and documentary,” she says. It stars “two great divas” of Israeli cinema - Evgenia Dodina and the renowned, late Ronit Elkabetz, who died in 2016 aged 51 - with whom Aviad says she is grateful to have been able to work. “She wasn’t only a great actress, she was extremely, extremely wise.”
Aviad is currently starting to write another feature but is not ruling out making further documentaries. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me at all,” she says, laughing. “All I want is to have the money to make my next film!”
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