Michal Aviad’s newest film, “Working Woman,” premiered at TIFF and recently screened at the Chicago International Film Festival. “Working Woman” (2018) tells a remarkably timely tale of sexual harassment in the workplace and the effects upon a woman’s entire life and family. Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) is a happily married woman trying to help make ends meet and balance motherhood. Obtaining a high-profile real estate sales position, she becomes a sensation, but the price she pays may be higher than she anticipated as she combats the advances of her boss while trying to keep her job.
With extraordinary performances and an intuitively thought-provoking script cowritten by Aviad, “Working Woman” is a riveting and realistic portrayal of women’s challenges in the workplace. Aviad directs her cast with deft skill, allowing viewers to walk in Orna’s shoes and understand these complex situations more clearly.
I had a chance to talk with Aviad about her inspiration in developing such an intricately real story as well as her own empowering actions in life.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!
PAMELA POWELL: You’ve been in this industry long enough to see the tides begin to turn. Looking back on your career, was this story inspired by your own life or observations?
MICHAL AVIAD: I worked ten years as a waitress, and since the late 1980s as a filmmaker and film teacher. I’ve experienced many things at work and in life—from humiliating sexual comments to sexual abuse. Struggling to work as a woman filmmaker was and still often is accompanied by degrading behavior towards me as a woman. . . . In addition, I have been working with feminist colleagues for many years to bring issues of female equality into the national consciousness. For example, in our industry, two years ago, with the Israeli Forum of Women in Cinema & TV, I took part in writing a treaty which calls everyone to report sexual harassment at work and detail the actions that will be taken against harassers.
POWELL: Tell me about developing deep characters and relationships in this film.
AVIAD: … While writing, I wanted to shape Orna and her husband as a loving couple, since I wanted my heroine to reject her boss’s advances because she is simply in love with another man, her husband. I wanted to make Ofer, Orna’s husband, lovable and sexy, and what is sexier for women (I wish men realized this) than a caring father? We were writing a story in which I wanted to find out how sexual harassment at work affects not only the victim’s soul, but also her relations with her entire environment. I wanted to find out why Orna and many women do not tell even loved ones about the struggle they go through.
POWELL: This film’s story will most certainly, and unfortunately, resonate with a majority of women in the workplace. With such an empowering end, what do you hope others will take away from it?
AVIAD: I am glad you see the end as empowering, since Orna, like most women and unlike the #MeToo heroines, does not go public. . . . In reality, women who go through sexual harassment at work, more often than not, lose everything: their job, promised money, their hopes to advance and the ability to find a similar job. But Orna is not just a helpless victim, she goes out to fight for what she can get.
POWELL: Tell me how you worked with Liron (Orna) whose performance was subtle yet complex and exuded intelligence and strength.
AVIAD: First of all, Liron is an extremely intelligent and talented actress . . . when Liron auditioned, I felt that she knew Orna. Liron was twenty weeks pregnant at the time, but I felt she was my heroine, so we waited for her to give birth and recover. While filming, Liron was breastfeeding, which was an additional feminist angle to the set. In the months prior to filming, Liron and I researched Orna together. . . . We slowly shaped every step of Orna’s journey.
POWELL: The hotel scene literally stopped me from breathing as I hesitantly watched the details unfold. Can you tell me about the research about sexual harassment and assault that you did to portray such realistic responses?
AVIAD: My previous narrative feature film, “Invisible” (2011), is about the trauma of two women who were raped many years earlier by the same serial rapist. My personal experience and years of reading testimonies on the subject helped me grasp the complex reactions of victims of sexual abuse. Shaping the assault scene at the hotel stems also from watching films, the majority of which were made by men. I was trying to veer away from creating a scene that can sexually stimulate viewers. Rape and harassment scenes in cinema are traditionally directed to combine the greatest ticket sales formula: sex and violence on the screen. I do not want to be part in that tradition. I wanted to show a horrific scene that didn’t involve nudity and blood.
POWELL: To say that this is a timely tale is an understatement. What are your thoughts about the timing and issues that apparently are not only happening in the U.S., but around the world?
AVIAD: When #MeToo happened, I was in the middle of shooting. The news was for me a breath of a new hope. . . . So far the women that came out in the #MeToo moment are famous, wealthy celebrities who make news. I would love nurses, chambermaids, and secretaries to come out with their stories without paying a terrible price. . . . I feel optimistic, but the road is still long.
“Working Woman” has been picked up for distribution by Zeitgeist and Kino Lorber. Michal’s film “Working Woman” is being released in theaters in March and April 2019 in NY and LA.