If Michal Aviad had any doubt that it was the right time to make her latest feature “Working Woman,” she was both emboldened and dismayed to hear that none of the actresses auditioning to play Orna, an upwardly mobile secretary for a high-profile architect whose ambition is stymied by her boss’ inappropriate advances, would need to do any additional research for the part.
“All of them knew what I’m talking about,” recalls Aviad. ”Every young actress who came to audition of course told me about her sexual harassment story.”
Aviad started writing “Working Woman” well before the #metoo movement took hold in the wake of all the abuses of powerful men exposed over the past year, but nonetheless, she’s made a movie for the moment with this simmering drama making its international premiere this week at the Toronto Film Festival. Featuring a fierce lead turn from Lion Ben Shlush, the film meticulously picks apart the ways in which Orna’s promising new job working for Benny (Menashe Noy) as he puts together a new seaside project gradually metastasizes into a living nightmare after an unwanted kiss leads her to question whether she’s appreciated for what she brings to the project or her physical appearance. Adding to Orna’s psychological toll is her family’s reliance on her income as her husband’s restaurant flails, wringing further drama out of her dilemma whether to confront Benny and risk losing both a steady paycheck and a job that offers career advancement.
Aviad, who has spent a career in both nonfiction and narrative filmmaking illuminating the marginalization of women in society, offers a dynamic, multifacted character study of Orna, who faces no good options to escape the situation that’s no fault of her own and while the stakes couldn’t be higher for her personally, the feeling of entitlement emanating from Benny and Orna’s self-doubt suggests the Israeli filmmaker is telling a story that too often is swept under the rug. On the eve of its TIFF premiere and being acquired for American distribution by Zeitgeist and Kino Lorber, Aviad spoke about how she knew the time was right to make this film even before the reckoning of last fall, the complications of casting such a hot button film and how real villains can be the most mundane.
I’ve been dealing with the issue of sexual abuse for years. My previous [dramatic] film was about the trauma of rape and I made two documentaries in between and I’m [always] interested in making films that I need to learn something about myself, so I really wanted to understand step by step how sexual harassment happens. I wanted to bring to [the screen] the complexities of it and the nuances because I read testimonies, I talk to friends, female friends mostly, and it’s not the same as really being in the shoes of somebody who is going through it at the moment. That’s what I wanted to do.
One of the dimensions that becomes so interesting in the film is how Orna feels the financial pressure to keep her job, and I understand the socioeconomic conditions in Israel for young couples is quite difficult – was that aspect of the film in it from the start?
It didn’t come from that, but I live in a society, as I’m sure you do, where women have to work full-time in order to survive. Just one salary is not enough. And in Israel under the current government, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened over the years, very similar to America, because it’s the same economic policy. The rich get richer and richer and the middle class is collapsing into lower middle class and the lower middle class collapses into the poor. So this is the world I live in and I knew that I’m starting from two things [with this film] – one is that my protagonist is in love with her husband, and second, that in order to survive, she needs to work.
What sold you on Liron to play Orna?
When Liron auditioned, she was Orna. I knew it right away. I didn’t have any doubts. Unfortunately, she was 20 weeks pregnant, so we decided to postpone the production until she gave birth. Then we filmed and she was breastfeeding during production and it was all kind of a feminist kind of a production. [laughs] But because Liron and was pregnant, we were lucky about because Liron and I and Menashe [Noy] and I, and actually Oshri [Cohen, who plays Orna’s husband] and I all had months to prepare. With Liron, we did a lot of deep research into the character and we [became] really clear about the way we see things. Sometimes I would say things while we were talking in rehearsals and she would do it with her body and face and sometimes she would say things and then we would look for the way to do it with the body and face.
One of my favorite shots in the film is when she’s looking at a reflection of herself in the store window and she buttons up. Was it a challenge to find those moments where you see the subtle effects that being harassed has on her?
It wasn’t difficult because this kind of a moment frankly…everybody that we know went through it. You look at yourself in the mirror and do you say to yourself, what is wrong with me? What am I doing to seduce him that I’m not aware of? And you’re trying to do everything [to stop it]. You close the buttons of your dress shirt and you do this and you do that and it never works.
It’s always interesting to see how Orna’s framed throughout the film as well – when she’s given space versus when she’s not. What was it like figuring out how to relate to her with the camera?
First of all, I knew that I wanted to do long duration takes because I really wanted to mirror all the nuances of these relationships. I thought cutting [scenes] will somehow disturb that Then the cinematographer Daniel Miller and myself decided that we’re going to do a shot per scene basically, which needed a lot of maneuvering with the camera. We really planned it very, very carefully to be able to sustain that. I also needed to time it because I knew I will have less options during editing, so I needed to decide on pace during shooting to a large extent.
[I also knew] actors can be extremely expressive from the back and from the side when they react, so there’s no need for me to see them all the time facing the camera, and there’s no need for a reverse shot. Those principles brought this kind of cinematic language, which I didn’t want to be extravagant. I wanted it to be simple. I’m a realist director, and I’m also a teacher, and I tell my students, the kind of films that I make I don’t try to imagine crane shots. I try to imagine what is possible in terms of budget.
I’m a documentarian in my soul, so I’ll tell you how I do it. There wasn’t a way I could think the film totally without being in every location I wanted to film. Now it’s not that we didn’t really film in all those locations, but I needed them to to have the story shape in my mind and I found a wonderful, wonderful building in the process of being built, and I met with many people, I did research and then when we came to film, that building didn’t allow us to film [there]. Then we found another building which was in the process of being built, but for some financial [reasons] or who knows what, it was stopped from being built for seven months, so luckily, we were able to work there during that time. But you know that – a film always has all kinds of adventures that we forget when we see the finished product. It’s strange because so many memories are related to all these funny, strange things that happen to you when you make a film.
Was it difficult to either get inside the head of a character Benny or find someone to play him?
Menashe, the guy who plays Benny, is a well-known actor in Israel. He’s known from television and I really wanted him. There were about five actors that I thought could do the role and three of them did not want to do the role, [perhaps] because in Israel before #metoo, two actors were charged and convicted of sexual harassment, one with a makeup woman and [another who] even got fired because that celeb actor didn’t want to play with her after she refused his sexual approaches. So all this was in the air while I was doing auditions.
But to answer the first question, [because] I live within the film industry and I’m also a teacher at Tel Aviv University, I know men who sexually harassed other women and Menashe knows men like that as well. Some of them we used to like in the past, so I know that they are not all [overtly] evil. They are among us. They’re not some kind of monsters that you and I don’t know. We know these people. So if I want to be realistic, I cannot make him a total villain, and with [Menashe], what we did was give [Benny] a generosity and a lot of charm, which makes him successful and I really believe he appreciates Orna [professionally] and wants to advance her [career]. He wishes that she’ll stay with him because she’s a great worker, but at the same time, in spite of the fact he really likes her [personally and professionally], he cannot see that she’s not sexually attracted to him and he doesn’t understand the kind of power that he has, which happens so often or he prefers to ignore it.
You’ve been doing this work your entire career, but with the #metoo movement happening while you’re making this, did you feel like the wind was at your back?
When the #metoo movement happened, we were in the middle of production and it really lifted our spirits. We were all feeling that we were doing something important and something timely, but it didn’t change what we were doing for many reasons. The first is that the story I’m trying to tell is about the woman who is not going public. She’s not doing what the heroines of #metoo were doing [because] she has much more to lose because of her class and the fact that she’s not famous. There are all the women like Orna that just don’t make the news and the price they have to pay is too dear, so for me, my film says, “Listen, until all the maids and nurses and secretaries want to come out and speak without the fear of what’s going to happen to them, the formula will not be eradicated. It’s not enough that a hundred wonderful actresses or famous celebs come out. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most women on this earth work in small, shitty jobs and have to deal with their bosses. And maybe #metoo is is going to influence the reception of the film, but me and my feminist friends, we were struggling against sexual abuse for who knows how many years.
What was the premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival like for you?
The most amazing thing for me was that people were sitting on the edge of their seats, extremely involved. They really wanted to know what happens next. It [played like] a thriller and it’s not that people didn’t know what is going to happen. The thing is you don’t know when it’s going to happen. That’s what I understand now [that] makes you glued to the seat. It’s not knowing when, and then after the screening, people couldn’t stop talking. So that’s a great premiere.
“Working Woman” opens in New York on March 27th at the IFC Center and Los Angeles on April 12th at the Encino Town Center, the Laemmle Royal and the Pasadena Playhouse.