“Why don’t you just leave/quit/tell someone?” is the infuriating and misguided phrase heard far to often when the subject of sexual harassment and abuse arises, and so in many ways it’s the perfect idea upon which to predicate an entire movie, as Israeli feminist filmmaker Michal Aviad does in her latest, Working Woman. Chronicling a few months in the working life of a woman trapped in an abusive workspace, the pic is a slow-burning but ultimately empowering drama that works despite a lack of the bigger, louder, more outwardly emotional moments it could have succumbed to.
Following a bow at the Toronto International Film Festival and then the Busan International Film Festival, Working Woman has the current #MeToo and Time’s Up global conversation on its side, and it should gain traction with other festivals in the coming months. The modest, muted nature of the film also make it ideal for streaming, though clever marketing could earn it art house release in urban markets.
There’s not much film here, as Aviad and co-writers Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik prefer to detail the little indignities and persistent, systematic injustices women in the workplace endure for the sake of their families and their self-esteem (which winds up in the toilet) far too often. Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) is an ambitious young wife and mother of three who takes a new job with a prominent real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy), to keep the family fed and housed during the touch-and-go opening months of her husband Ofer’s (Oshri Cohen) new restaurant. After their first successful sales meeting, Benny makes an inappropriate advance on Orna, but apologizes for his poor behavior the next morning, vowing it will never happen again. As harasser usually do.
From there, Benny develops a pattern that swings from apologetic to passive-aggressive to vindictive and finally progresses from harassment to sexual assault (a gut-wrenching scene) on a business trip to Paris. It’s one thing after another, and Aviad and star Ben Shlush make Orna’s growing frustration and internal conflict over what to do palpable. In a simmering, introspective performance, Ben Shlush makes the push and pull between providing for her family and being a supportive wife to her husband and her own sanity and self-worth vividly universal. In a sequence where she confides in her mother, who suspects something is wrong at work, Orna states that, “I made a mistake” in Paris, gracefully illustrating how we collectively find a way to blame the victim.
In fairness, Noy is spot on with his quietly threatening Benny and his campaign to make Orna doubt herself: Like many harassers, he makes it unclear just what’s happening, suspiciously recommending a new hairstyle for Orna one moment and making an off-the-cuff joke about his own hair the next. Are his comments on her clothes ambiguous professional advice for an industry she’s new to? Is Orna really unable to take a joke? Orna’s uncertainty in only amplified by her need to earn a living. Naturally, when Orna reaches her breaking point and tells Ofer what’s happening, he very generously makes it about him.
Working Woman is a classic example of “small” filmmaking with a message to send, and Aviad does so with unfussy, clear-eyed determination that tips its hat to her documentary credits. Smooth, accessible images by cinematographer Daniel Miller makes the subject seem as urgent as it should, and builds its tension so subtly you don’t realize you’ve been holding your breath until Orna’s final low-key triumph — ironically one that’s not triumphant enough.
Production company: Lama Films
Cast: Liron Ben Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen
Director: Michal Aviad
Screenwriters: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad
Producer: Ayelet Kait, Amir Harel
Executive producer: Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Daniel Miller
Production designer: Eyal Elhadad
Costume designer: Keren Eyal Melamed
Editor: Nili Feller
Casting: Michal Koren
World sales: m-appeal