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Spotlight on the men who harass

Sigal Avin's films about sexual harassment went viral in Israel - and then she worked with David Schwimmer to bring the message to a larger audience.

    Sigal Avin
    Sigal Avin

    A doctor gropes his patient, a boss makes unwelcome advances to a junior member of staff. A photographer humiliates a model, in front of a room full of people, who do nothing to help.

    The doctor, the boss and the photographer are all men, their victims are women. And they appear in creepily authentic short films which illustrate sexual harassment in scenarios that far too many women will recognise as something which has happened to them.

    David Schwimmer, still best known as Ross from Friends, is the producer and front man for the project. But they were conceived and written by Israeli-American Sigal Avin, who first had the idea at the Neve Tzedek café that she’s chosen for our interview.

    “I have this daily ritual,” she explains. “After my kids are off to school and nursery, I have 30 minutes where I sit with my coffee and the newspaper. I find myself reacting to what I read — I think: ‘I can’t believe this, or I can’t believe that.’

    “I realised that every other day I was reading about some different sexual harassment; a person who got away with it, or who got promoted or elected and it was happening too frequently. It was annoying me as a woman.”

    So Avin, 43, who had previously written and directed hit TV shows for networks including Keshet in Israel and CBS in America, decided to take action.

    “I thought: ‘You’re a woman, you’re a creator, you’re an adult already, you should be doing something. No one else is going to do it.’

    She made a series of short films called Zematrid, Hebrew for It’s Harassment. The six films were shot in one day and within two hours of appearing on-line they’d gone viral.

    “Every talk show and website in Israel called me. It was totally unexpected. I’d only had the idea three weeks earlier.”

    Sigal Avin (in stripy top) on set with David Schwimmer and Zazie Beetz in The Boss.
    Sigal Avin (in stripy top) on set with David Schwimmer and Zazie Beetz in The Boss. PHOTO: THATSHARASSMENT

    One of the films, The Actor, was based on an experience from when she was a playwright, 18 years earlier. “I went to speak with a very famous actor. I went to the rest-room and when I came back, his penis was out. He said: ‘Look who came to say hello,’ and ‘I want you to meet somebody.’ It took me a while to even realise what was going on. I got out of there and thought ‘that was weird and strange,’ but actually it was sexual harassment.”

    When she made the films, Avin and her husband Amit Mashiah — CEO of ad agency McCann, Tel Aviv — and their two daughters aged two and seven had just returned to Israel after 18 months living in New York, so many American friends saw the videos, and urged her to make them in English. “It was an opportunity to have my voice as a woman go even further.”

    She’d worked with Schwimmer before and thought he’d be the perfect collaborator.

    “He does things with great passion and he’s a real perfectionist. I sent the films to David with English sub-titles and he called me immediately; he didn’t even write back. He said ‘we have to do this here, this has to happen.’”

    Eight weeks later, the films were on air. “We shot six films in two days. That’s no time in American TV land, it was crazy.” The one that she thinks has had the biggest impact is The Co-Worker. “David said very smartly that we should have a film focused on a younger age-group.

    “In The Co-Worker, we see a male bar manager sexually harass a new female employee. He’s meant to be there to protect her. I think that probably happens the most and, when you’re a young woman, you don’t really know what’s OK in the workplace and what isn’t. You think ‘I’m crazy, this must be my fault.’ But sexuality is about power and conquering and if men cross these very fine lines things can get tricky and uncomfortable.”

    Sigal Avin (in stripy top) on set with David Schwimmer and Zazie Beetz in The Boss.
    Sigal Avin (in stripy top) on set with David Schwimmer and Zazie Beetz in The Boss. PHOTO: THATSHARASSMENT

    On the subject of power, critics have suggested that Avin’s films wouldn’t have had so much impact without a big male star on board. She disagrees.

    “I have no doubt it would have taken off anyway,” she says. “I also think that it’s not a fight between men and women. On the contrary, the more men who understand and want to help and talk, the better this whole case will be.

    “The fact that the films were adapted so easily means it’s a universal, global problem. I’ve had messages of support from people in the UK, India and Australia, so clearly there’s work to be done internationally.”

    She’s working on a feature film and even considering returning to acting (she originally trained at the Yoram Lowenstein studio in Tel Aviv), but she’s also thinking of turning her lens inward and making a movie about her own early life.

    “It’s a story in itself,” she laughs. “I was born in Miami but I moved to Israel with my family when I was 11. Five years later, my parents decided to move back to the States.

    “I was one year before the end of high school and I had a very strong group of friends. I didn’t like the idea of turning up at an American high school and doing all my exams in English, so I went to live with a friend’s family in Zichron Yaacov.

    “After graduation, I was a lone soldier in the army — I’d get one month off each year to visit my family in the States. Looking back I have many different thoughts about that period.

    “I guess it did make me stronger, but I guess whenever you leave home and start your own journey you find strength among things like fear, excitement and independence.”

    Nowadays Avin and her family split their time between Israel and America, with Tel Aviv being their current base.

    “I like not settling down,” she says. “That’s something I also want to give my daughters. Elaya, my eldest, was born in Israel and when she was three we moved to New York and then she came back here last year aged six so, like me, she’s getting a taste of two places, which I think is a great thing.

    “New York feels like home, as does Tel Aviv. If I need to go back to America for a week, I’ll jump there by myself. But if it’s for a longer trip, we’ll try and make a family holiday out of it.

    “Basically, we’re trying to make the world smaller, to help causes and to have the power and energy to stay inspired as we go.”

     

    Sigal Avin’s films are on YouTube under the hashtag #ThatsHarassment

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