If the trio of strong films about sexual harassment at VIFF this year proves anything, it's that #MeToo struggles aren't limited to North America—nor to Hollywood. Far from it.
In Israel’s searing yet subtly executed Working Woman, real estate employee Orna puts up with the inappropriate advances of her aging boss for the sake of supporting her family. In Italy’s Nome di Donna (International Village, October 5 and 11), single mother Nina finds a conspiracy of silence around the boss’s abuse at the rest home where she works. And in Germany’s complex and troubling All Good (International Village, October 2 and 5), a woman unsuccessfully tries to put on a strong front and move beyond an assault.
While the films take place in three vastly different countries and cultures, one thing ties them together: these are women in unglamorous jobs, just trying to pay the rent.
“Orna is not a famous, rich, newsmaking person,” says veteran Israeli filmmaker Michal Aviad to the Straight, speaking over the phone from Tel Aviv. “She's exactly all those anonymous women around the world who are chambermaids, nurses, and secretaries. And the #MeToo movement didn't really reach them.”
As Aviad makes the festival circuit, she’s astounded at the attention her film is getting. Aviad has been making provocative films about women's issues for years in her country, taking on issues like rape and the immigrant experience. “Many times I felt I was very relevant and somehow only the connoisseurs and cinema people got it and loved my films. Now everyone is paying attention,” she says of Working Woman. “I don't know if somebody who lives in North America understands the kind of shift that's happening. I lived in San Francisco for 10 years and I go to the U.S. all the time and I am totally amazed at how cued in people are.”
What sets Aviad’s film, as well as the other two entries in the category this year, apart is the very banality with which they treat the harassment. Aviad builds tension in the first small transgressions—the way Benny tells Orna she should wear her hair down, or the way he subtly forces her to stay at the office late to share takeout with him. You can see the way Orna starts to blame herself, stopping to button up her shirt before a meeting—as if that will help.
Just as in All Good, where the act itself is portrayed in cold remove, a drunken violation on an apartment floor, the assault in Working Woman is anti-erotic, shot with detachment and sickeningly swift. In both cases, you can see the torment that comes afterward as the women wonder if they could have done more to stop what happened.
Aviad wanted to avoid overdramatizing the ugly everydayness of common harassment.
“When we were writing, I was looking for films about sexual harassment and I couldn't find any,” explains the cowriter-director, who spent four years trying to get Working Woman funded. “The films I see day in and day out are about brutal rape for the amusement of everyone. What sells is sex and violence. Some of the mundane parts of the relationship are never onscreen.”
The other key to these films is women you can admire and root for—women who are strong in quiet ways, as is Orna, played with a subtle steeliness, determination, and smarts by Liron Ben Shlush.
The husband and boyfriends' reactions in each of the films is just as nuanced. Aviad admits men, especially, are disappointed in the reaction of Orna's spouse in the film, a decent guy who’s financially strapped because he’s a chef trying to start up a restaurant. “They want to have a pure man—a really good man,” she says. “He is a good parent and a good husband, and I think that's a lot to ask. He takes care of the children. At the end I think that what she does is she betrays his trust—she doesn't tell him. And that makes him fall back on his values, that she did something wrong. And we have to change those values.
“And remember, if she tells him, [then] she won't be able to work there. She's ambitious and she wants to take part in working for the family.”
The films here are far too complex to resort to the cathartic closure of a rape-revenge movie—though Nome’s protagonist, after much battle, does literally have her day in court. In All Good, the strong and seemingly together Janne (played with quiet conviction by Aenne Schwartz) finds that repressing what happened is going to harm her marriage and career. In movies, men often stand by their women or fight for their honour—but that would be far to simplistic a solution for this new wave of films on sexual harassment. In All Good, Janne tries to hide her trauma from her adoring husband—and a continent away, so does Orna. Both are trying to keep order so they can keep their jobs and home lives intact, it seems.
But while none of these movies can expect to have a happy ending, their very existence hints that change may be in the air.
"I think we are used to seeing American films where justice comes back to rein," Aviad says. "Here I would call it a bittersweet ending. She's at least going to be able to work."