Michal Aviad has been focusing on spotlighting women’s issues in contemporary society since the beginning of her career in the 1980s. She graduated from Tel Aviv University and San Francisco State University and eventually returned to Israel to teach at Tel Aviv University. Since beginning her career as a writer and director, she has produced 10 films. Her new film Working Woman focuses on sexual harassment in the workplace. While a timely issue, of course, Aviad wanted to go beyond simply condemning the guilty parties and understand the mindset of the victims and perpetrators, especially when the lines are blurred. During the Toronto International Film Festival last September, we spoke about her new feature starring Liron Ben-Shlush and Menashe Noy.
Lesley Coffin: Do you recall the first time you identified sexual harassment as an issue in the corporate world?
Michal Aviad: I lived in San Francisco in the ’80s and remember the gay liberation movement and feminism, but sexual harassment wasn’t discussed openly then. I don’t think we knew or dealt with those issues as a feminist back then. I think the first time I can remember hearing about it was, like most people, with Anita Hill. And I was already living in Israel at that time.
Lesley Coffin: At that time that you were involved in that part of the feminist movement, did the conversation even come up about not only having the right to work but the environment that should exist in the workplace?
Michal Aviad: Back then we focused much more on things like equal pay and of course, rape. I remember several books being written in the ’70s and ’80s about that subject. And I already knew that rape was a crime of power, not passion. But it took us a few steps to see the subtler relationships between sex and power that can exist between men and women. We didn’t start to see established sexual harassment laws in the US and Europe until the mid- and late ’90s.
Lesley Coffin: San Francisco had a very specific socio-political perspective that dominated the city at that time. What did the feminist movement look like in Israel when you returned?
Michal Aviad: It was small and slow. It still exists but it has always been smaller. There are still a number of women who don’t identify as feminist who you think would. But, Israel’s feminist movement is more pronounced than some other countries, including in parts of Europe. There are certain ways Israel is more progressive, even though it occupies other countries, which I consider a horrible thing. Sexual harassment exists throughout the working world. It exists wherever there is a consumerist society and employers have power over their employees.
Lesley Coffin: When making this film, how important was it for the narrative to focus on a start-up where there wouldn’t be an HR department or system of checks and balances to offer some form of protection?
Michal Aviad: That was an incredibly important element to include. Most women are sexually harassed in small businesses, small offices and stores. Most of us work with one boss and a few people. Very few people still work in huge, corporate offices. There is a law in Israel that requires large companies to have one person in charge of sexual harassment claims. I taught at a university – there was an office where students, lecturers and teachers could file complaints. That doesn’t exist in small businesses, which means the boss is everything. And if they’re guilty of sexual harassment, you have no one to turn to.
Lesley Coffin: Did it help at all to be making this film as the #MeToo Movement gained momentum and started to focus on Hollywood and the film industry?
Michal Aviad: Unfortunately, MeToo really became a movement while we were filming. We wrote the script years before and it took us a long time to get the financing in place. We were told repeatedly that the film wasn’t dramatic enough. They kept asking if the rape could be more brutal. So, it was very hard to get this film off the ground.
Lesley Coffin: Had you thought about how closely the film industry can resemble a small business?
Michal Aviad: Not only did I think about it, but I was involved in an organization called Israeli Women in Film and Television. And two or three of us wrote a treaty to address sexual harassment in the film industry. And we did that to try to address the fact that relationships in the film industry aren’t always as simple as employer and employee. But there is still a connection to power. In Israel there were two well-known and powerful actors convicted of harassment. One of them harassed a young anonymous actress who did not consent, and he made sure she was fired. He was not her employer, but he made power. And sometimes people with power don’t even realize the power they have. He might have said, I don’t like working with her to his director or producer, and that was enough to get her fired. We have to understand that in some cases, the harasser isn’t a villain who understands what they’re doing is wrong. Which means we must change our culture fundamentally.
Lesley Coffin: One of the things I noticed was she was always being knocked down after achieving something professionally. There was a system of her advancing in some way professionally only to bring her back down. Why did you map the film out that way?
Michal Aviad: I think what happened was the realization that being promoted or getting a raise makes it harder to leave a job. And I think sometimes the boss feels that they have more rights over you than they do. He was so nice, he gave her this promotion, so she should be nice to him. That’s the way our mind often works. Because ultimately, she’s completely dependent on him.
Lesley Coffin: The actor who plays Orna’s (Ben-Shlush) boss Benny (Noy), did he ever express discomfort with playing a character like this?
Michal Aviad: We spoke a lot about it. When he said he’d do it, I knew he doesn’t have sexual harassment stories from his own life that could follow him or would that he would be concerned with hiding. But both of us also knew of people who were guilty of sexual harassment and knew they weren’t all bad. They are regular people who did something very bad. And we took that fact into account when building that character. We wanted him to have charm and generosity. Someone who in some ways really is a wonderful boss to work for, so it’s more difficult for her to leave. So, we understand her position and struggle to leave, but also that men who assault women aren’t 100 percent villains.
Lesley Coffin: Towards the end of the film, she takes a stand to leave and gets what she needs, but she doesn’t expose his behavior to the world. Why have the character make that choice?
Michal Aviad: I really think that the MeToo Movement is wonderful. But the women we see coming out are women who are predominantly rich and famous. Women who make the news. When women who work for those small businesses can come out and speak about this, that’s when we’ll see a global revolution. Those women are the women with everything to lose. Taking that kind of stand is so much more complex for those women than the women we see on the news.
© Lesley Coffin (3/28/19) FF2 Media