WORKING WOMAN. Starring: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, and Oshri Cohen. Directed by Michal Aviad. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (A scene of strong sexual violence). 94 min.
This Israeli film tells the story of a woman who experiences the abuse of power by a male manager for whom she works. The film won “Best Actress” for Liron Ben-Shlush in Israel’s Academy Film Awards in 2019.
Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) is married with three children, and opens a restaurant with her husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), and their decision creates financial problems. Work is needed by at least one of them to survive. To relieve the family’s financial pressure, Orna moves into real estate and is employed as a coordinator for a successful real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy), who builds luxury condominiums in contemporary Tel Aviv. Benny was Orna’s commanding officer during her time in military service. Orna knows that the opportunities for professional advancement in the new job will be great, and she ambitiously wants to make a success of her new position. Her skills are recognised, and within a short time Benny promotes her to Sales Manager. Benny, however, is sexually attracted to Orna.
When Orna begins to feel she is coping with her job as a person and as a professional, and is successful, her rise in the firm is paralleled by Benny’s growing harassment of her. Initially, Benny appreciates and praises Orna publicly, while making inappropriate sexual overtures towards her. His advances include lengthy night-time work calls, inappropriate comments about her clothes and appearance, and intimate touching. Finally, they escalate into attempted rape. The acts are committed by a man used to getting his own way, and not concerned about how to achieve it.
This is a compellingly persuasive movie that addresses head-on the challenges and trauma of sexual harassment of a woman employee by a predatory male in power. It shows a woman trying to set boundaries with her employer, and failing to do so. Following the attempted rape, Orna fights to try and regain her personal feelings of self-worth.
The film forcefully captures how male power out of control causes tragic consequences, and the film keeps its emphasis on the “working woman” trapped by workplace abuse. Female Director, Michal Aviad, directs the film in a focused, and un-melodramatic way. Set in Israel, its messages are clearly relevant to abuse elsewhere, and the lessons learnt from the film are meant to have force across different cultures, and they do.
The film deals very realistically with the trauma of workplace abuse. It sensitively depicts felt-distress, and Liron Ben-Shlush gives an entirely convincing performance of the woman who is targeted. Orna blames herself for her situation and finds it hard to talk about what is happening, including to her husband and her mother. Orna knows that Benny has the power to end her career and destabilise her family, and she becomes terrified of going to work. When she eventually communicates her predicament to her husband, Ofer directs his resentment and anger to her.
The cinematography of the movie uses lighting and hand-held camera-work to cleverly indicate when a situation is “safe” or not, and throughout the movie Michal Aviad keeps the focus of her direction on Orna in order to explore, and expose, the complexity of her predicament. Orna’s conflicts, for example, are shown to traumatically affect her life, both at work and at home, and she is at a loss to know what to do after her employer’s sexual assault.
The film is well-directed, crafted, and acted, and dissects harassment, abuse and gender exploitation in the workplace environment by communicating the subtle, and unsubtle, ways male power can be practiced. It explores harassment impressively from the inside of one woman’s experience, and in an ultimately empowering way, shows how Orna copes with her situation.
This is a film that delivers, perceptively and insightfully, a cautionary tale in “me-too” times.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 10, 2019