By exposing a toxic working culture plagued with casual harassment disguised as politeness, filmmaker Michal Aviad effectively explores modern female oppression with her compelling 2018 Israeli drama Working Woman.
To support her struggling restaurateur husband and their three children, businesswoman Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) takes up employment working to support a successful real estate project manager, Benny (Menashe Noy). Her enthusiasm to succeed reaches the same extreme heights as the apartments in the luxury skyscrapers she is employed to sell, with Benny attempting to exploit her strong work ethic as a sign of control.
Aviad is a director determined to showcase the changing face of sexism, and with Benny, she gives insight to the type of person that offers special treatment in place of respect. Benny’s behaviour is cavalier in nature and often depicted as using kindness as currency to act as he wishes. He opts to sexualise his employees under the guise of it being good for business, while also being prone to segueing himself out of inappropriate gestures that communicate his insidious thoughts.
Aviad intentionally avoids portraying a ‘Mad Men‘ style caricature of sexism. Instead, Aviad opts to explore how passive sexism exists in everyday culture and the point to which it boils over to the extreme. She empowers the film by drawing out disgust from deceptively subtle exchanges; being on the receiving end of a lingering stare or unprofessional playfulness among the many examples. In the wake of doing this, she highlights an undercurrent of dangerously passive sexism in society that exists outside of openly aggressive acts (though she does deploy extremes when necessary).
Orna exhibits an extraordinarily high tolerance meter, one brought about by a systematic power imbalance that also expects that she fulfil traditional motherly duties outside of her demanding job. Fearing she may become unemployed and unable to support her family, Orna opts to mitigate her interactions with Benny in lieu of quitting; refraining from uncomfortable meetings in his office and avoiding being with him in enclosed spaces. It is an unfortunately necessary feat that speaks to her ambitious nature, while further recognising inequality within the workforce.
The scope of this power imbalance is not limited to just employment. The experiences had by Orna are symbolic of a culture that can show little compassion to victims of mistreatment. Aviad, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik, explores the injustice at both generational and gender levels, using the looming presence of Orna’s children – mainly their daughters – to highlight the importance of change so that this cycle of neglect becomes weeded out over time.
Ben-Shlush’s performance is key and she earns empathy throughout to ensure the viewer understands the pressures a woman can feel in some workplaces, particularly in industries dominated by men. She offers an impeccably raw turn that speaks to an Israel caught somewhere between progressivism and traditionalism. Her performance is enhanced thanks to the film’s lack of score ““ a move that allows the acting and script to speak on their own, and lends the film a further sense of realism.
One could take issue with the extent that Orna endures mistreatment, and the point that she breaks, as a perpetuation of trauma being the catalyst for female agency. Thankfully, any trace of negativity ought to be diffused thanks to Aviad’s respectful and cautious touch. Working Woman is a confronting look at contemporary sexism.
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‘Working Woman’ opens in limited Australian theatrical release on October 10.