‘Working Woman’: Humans First, Gender Second

Can women and men work together? Yes, says Israeli filmmaker Michal Aviad -- when the roots of sexual harassment are finally rooted out.

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films.

Israeli filmmaker Michal Aviad is best known for her insightful documentaries on the lives of women in the US, where she went to school, and in Israel, where she has spent most of her professional career. In films like Jenny and Jenny, she focused on the lives of two adolescent women in Israel, while in Dimona Twist, she told the stories of seven women who arrived in Israel from North Africa and the Middle East to become early settlers in the desert town of Dimona, where they faced discrimination and endured poverty and hunger.

To date, Aviad has only made two fiction feature-lengths. The first, Invisible, combined documentary and fiction to create a chronicle of the victims of a serial rapist who terrorized Tel Aviv in the late 1970s. Her second feature-length, Working Woman (now in select US theaters), centers on Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), a middle-class woman who experiences sexual harassment from her boss, wealthy real estate developer Benny (Menashe Noy).

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With her camera serving as both witness and eventually a weapon to unmask societal hypocrisy, Aviad crafts a film that enlightens and enrages in equal measures. With her sharp, unsentimental vision, she captures moments that burst with powerlessness and confront us by asking what are we doing to change this. I recently spoke with her about Working Woman, society’s denial of sexual harassment, and why men need to become part of a dialogue to dismantle the patriarchy.

Liron Ben Shlush and Oshri Cohen.

Jose Solís: Working Woman made me feel so many different emotions. I was ashamed at the behavior of men — not only Benny’s but Orna’s husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen), who doesn’t immediately believe his wife when she tells him about the harassment. Benny and Ofer are equally guilty when it comes to putting masculinity first.

Michal Aviad: I don’t necessarily see it that way. In the system we live in, someone like Ofer, and Orna herself to a certain degree, are raised to believe that if a woman is approached by a man, she needs to tell her husband about it. Orna doesn’t tell him right away because she fears Ofer will see it only as black or white, and use it as an opportunity to ask her to leave her job and find something simpler.

Ofer can’t see a world in which Benny would hit on Orna without her giving him signs that she wanted it. This is the world we live in. Things don’t happen to women; if something does, it was probably because you wore the wrong dress, gave someone the wrong smile, you made the wrong move. Orna feels guilty and Ofer blames her.

JS: The scene when Ofer asks if Orna wanted it made me so angry at him.

MA: That’s right. If you think about it sincerely, wouldn’t that question come to your mind if you hadn’t seen the film?

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JS: I’ve read many reviews of Working Woman as well as other artworks that deal with sexual harassment and abuse, and in so many of them writers ask: why did the woman stay there if she was being harassed? Working Woman shows us exactly why she stayed: because she needed the job. She needs the money, she needs to support her children. Asking why she would stay there means people still don’t understand how harassment happens.

MA: Two things. First, I think certain behaviors are meant to be shown through cinema because words aren’t enough. There are so many nuances in the proximity of the bodies, in the exact way you look at somebody or are being looked at, that you can only show in cinema. Most of us would ask: didn’t she do something to provoke him? But then, with cinema, you can show you don’t need to do anything.

The second thing is that it’s so easy for many of us who have jobs to ask women: why didn’t you leave and find another job? In reality, finding a job, keeping it and earning a promotion is so difficult. You can’t just leave and find something else — it’s easy to say but hard to do. There are livelihoods at stake. I hope cinema can show the kind of testimony you can’t show with words.

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JS: You also touch on class. You studied in the US, so I don’t need to remind you how Hollywood likes to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Getting to see a character like Orna, who needs to work and even contemplates having multiple jobs, like so many people in America, is refreshing.

MA: Orna represents millions of women in America, Israel, Europe — everywhere — who work to feed their families. They’re the secretaries, the chambermaids, the factory workers. In Hollywood, that’s not part of life. But you and I are working right now just by doing this interview. Work is part of life.

JS: I thought the way you combined documentary and fiction in Invisible was remarkable. Around the time you made the film, people always asked it if was drawn from your life — if it was autobiographical. I’ve seen journalists ask the same thing of other female filmmakers, but rarely do they ask men that question. It’s as if they think women don’t know how to invent and create. How do you, as a filmmaker, navigate through those kinds of questions?

MA: You’re right — but at the same time, I belong to the realistic genre, whether in documentary or fiction. I want my films to be as close to life as possible. Of course I invent: three people wrote the script for Working Woman, and the actors are professionals. But I want to get into the film and imagine it as close to reality as possible. Sometimes I think some fiction films have more truth than documentaries.

It’s also true that women who make films, and literature, sometimes make art that’s very close to home. They make less films about superheroes. We all know the personal has public importance and represents something bigger than itself. Nothing like what we see in the film has happened to me, but it’s happened to people around me, to the actors, to the screenwriters. It’s all very close to what we feel.

JA: It makes me think of US male politicians who only have empathy for women when they’re “fathers of daughters” or “husbands of wives.” They can’t imagine having empathy for a woman unless they’re related to her.

MA: Just think of how many films I see in which males are the protagonists and I identify with them. Men and women are larger than our gender; we can empathize and be there for the other if we want to.

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JS: Benny tries to rape Orna in a hotel room. He ends up ejaculating prematurely, thwarting the assault, and then he apologizes — not for forcing himself on her, but for ejaculating! He claims his desire for her was too strong. You capture the animalistic side of male sexuality and present it without adornment. Did exploring this and putting it into writing help you to understand this terrible behavior?

MA: I never thought about it this way. What originated that scene in my mind is that so often sex can be wonderful in one moment, then be repellent and disgusting in the next moment. Something can be intimate when you want it, and repellent when you don’t.

Michal Aviad.

JS: There’s an early scene in which Orna and Ofer make love — you shot it almost the same way you did the rape scene, almost a mirror image. Throughout the film, you set up scenes that are mirrors of each other. Can you talk about why you did that?

MA: What interests me is the relationship between bodies onscreen. Cinema is light and movement, but it’s also human bodies –that’s why it’s so special. You don’t have that in literature and you don’t have that in theater, which we only see from afar. Daniel Miller, the cinematographer for Working Woman, and I were really thinking about how to let the bodies talk onscreen. A lot had to with proximity, which body parts touch, which don’t touch, the expressions on their faces. We understood that we didn’t need a shot/reverse-shot kind of thing, because bodies talk when you listen.

Daniel and I used long shots and takes, a system in which we focused on the relations between Orna and Ofer, or Orna and Benny. That way we see over her point of view, over her shoulder, while at other times we look from the director’s point of view — the director as someone who sees male actors from the outside. I wanted to get close enough to Orna to show that she doesn’t act in empty space, that others guide her actions.

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JS: It took me a while to realize that you don’t use a score to highlight anything. Many filmmakers overuse music as means to make emotions easier to digest, but not having music means we have to be there with Orna. I was even more surprised because the one moment you use music, it’s Yvonne Elliman’s disco anthem “If I Can’t Have You,” which Orna and Ofer dance to at a party. I love that song and its tears-on-thedance-floor, longing feel, but listening to the lyric “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby,” it becomes terrifying. It’s like seeing female desire turn into male brutality. How did you decide to use that song?

MA: Nili Feller, the editor, and I knew that we wanted a song that was an oldie, something that would fit in a party for people of Benny’s age. The idea was that Orna and Ofer have fun at a party for older people. You’re right about the lyrics — I think in some way Orna and Ofer steal Benny’s party. He has his desire for her and sees her having fun with her husband and, for once, he doesn’t know what to do.

JS: Your shots often suggest that Orna is in prison — behind glass panes, between columns, at one point even appearing to be behind bars.

MA: That’s interesting, you’re right — and I have an associated comment about Orna being in prison at work. I consulted with an attorney who was representing women who had gone through sexual abuse and harassment. When I told this attorney Orna’s story, she told me about one of her clients, an immigrant woman who worked in a kitchen in an office building whose boss had sex with her every day. All that time she thought that was just the way it was — if she wanted to keep her job, she needed to do that. The idea of being imprisoned in a world where you’re going through a nightmare that you can’t talk about because you’ll be blamed for it is something I wanted to have in the film.

When Orna goes to work for Benny in real estate, they’re selling huge apartment projects along the seashore. They’re very expensive; most Israeli citizens can’t afford them. What they’re doing is stealing the view of the sea from all of us. In her job, I think Orna is in an environment of wealth so different from her lower middle-class apartment — something about her job is pure capitalism and so also imprisoning. It makes the difference between her class and Benny’s so apparent that she can’t help but be aware of it.

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Liron Ben Shlush and Menashe Noy in “Working Woman.”

JS: I grew up in a third world Latin American country. When I got older, I found out that a friend of our family, who had a rotation of maids working in his home, sexually assaulted all of them and bragged about it. This made me realize that women in every line of work are subject to sexual harassment because men act on horrible impulses knowing they’ll go unpunished. When I read interviews with you about Working Woman, I noticed journalists frame questions in terms of harassment in Israel alone, like it doesn’t exist all around us.

MA: Just think of the idea that white, upper-class people sometimes have the maid initiate their kids into sexual life. I’ve read about this, seen it in movies — again, you see class and gender in horrible situations. The question we need to ask is: can women and men work together? The answer should be yes — once we start a dialogue that makes us understand that women are human beings and should be treated as such; our gender comes second. Our relations should be about respecting us as human beings, whether we’re in authority relationships or not. Things won’t change until that happens.

JS: Lately I’ve seen many plays by African-American writers whose work focuses on racial dynamics but I’ve only seen films made by women that deal with sexual harassment. When a man makes one, they have characters like Glenn Close’s in Fatal Attraction where the man is the victim. Men expect women to fix sexual harassment in the same way that white people expect people of color to fix racism. We didn’t create these systems of oppression; why aren’t more privileged men working to fix them?

MA: I think it’s extremely rare. I don’t understand why, but it’s so rare. Of course there are men who have made pro-women films, like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a film about illegal abortion, which I totally identified with. I don’t think men are incapable of doing it. In cinema, first we need to believe that what happens to women is dramatic enough, even if told from the point of view of a woman. Meaning that not only war and heroes are dramatic, but also stories about being a mother or sexually harassed are dramatic. The road is so long.