Israeli director Michal Aviad’s “Working Woman” is a good reminder that even though the momentum of the #MeToo Movement might seem to have quieted down, there are still voices that need to be heard. Screened at international film festivals since last fall, the feature is now being released in selective theatres.
At the start of the movie, the roving camera follows Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) as she walks briskly to a car her husband is waiting in. She has just come out of a job interview, exciting to be offered an opportunity to assist a real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy). There will be attractive financial rewards and career opportunities ahead.
As the husband parks the car on the road and we get to see the couple in their apartment in the next scene, a stationary camera captures all that is important, an establishing shot if you will. In one frame, we see the husband cooking, Orna clearing the table beside him, and not too far away but still within the frame, their children playing at a computer. We soon learn that the computer isn’t working properly, the kids want a new one, and Orna telling them not until the fridge has been paid off. Husband and wife then go on to talk about this new job she really wants to take, he not too sure about the irregular working hours.
In less than five minutes from the opening, we see Orna’s situation. A mother with young children to care for, a husband who is starting a new restaurant and a household that is cash-scrapped. Aviad’s camera work and succinct dialogues prime us with expectations.
Orna starts working as a personal assistant to real estate developer Benny on his flagship project, a skyscraper apartment by the seaside. He needs someone to organize his meetings, see the project through to completion and sell the luxury units. Being Benny’s protégé includes following him around, even waiting while he has a haircut. Orna has no experience in real estate but is a quick study; she has a knack for gaining trust from potential customers and the instinct for a fresh approach to getting things done.
Benny finds the ideal assistant in Orna. He soon promotes her to sales manager, noting her resourcefulness and creative thinking. His project by the seaside is now in good hands. But reaching that position and gaining her boss’s trust isn’t as smooth as Orna had first thought; it is becoming obvious that Benny appreciates not just her work skills but eyes her as a woman.
It first starts with commenting about her hair and telling her what to wear, then a kiss, for which he apologies. Other kinds of harassment follow, much like juvenile pranks. But a trip to Paris escalates his advances into a sexual assault. Orna’s pushback and outright ‘no’ means nothing to Benny. Aviad’s camera captures the scene matter-of-factly. The realism is disturbing to watch, not that Benny is violent but that it is obvious that the act is not consensual, his brute force the only means to subdue her in gratifying himself.
After coming back home from Paris, Orna is a different person. She is traumatized naturally, but when her suspecting mother asks what happened in Paris, she replies, “I made a mistake.”
That is a crucial statement. Such a mentality could well explain why she isn’t forthright with her husband, fearing his speculation on her part in the event, or maybe fearing his avenging Benny, making the matter worse. But we as viewers are witnesses to the scene. The ‘mistake’ definitely is not hers to shoulder.
Aviad’s storytelling is realistic and engrossing. Her handheld camera follows Orna like a shadow, the slightly roving movement accentuating the tension. Ben-Shlush’s acting is sensitive and nuanced. The screenplay spare and succinct. The 93-minute narrative feature is an effective and clear voice in stating a case of sexual harassment in the workplace, a powerful boss getting his way and taking advantage of a subordinate who needs her job for financial reason.
Fortunately, Aviad leads us towards a positive ending. We get to see Orna rise up from her challenging situation as she gains new strength to open for herself a way out.
Exclusive engagement of “Working Woman” will be screened at Landmark Lagoon Theatre in Minneapolis St. Paul beginning Friday, May 10th, 2019. Hebrew with English subtitles, 93 mins.
~ ~ ~ Ripples