Israeli feminist filmmaker Michal Aviad recently observed in The Jewish Chronicle that if her new film, “Working Woman,” had been made two years ago, “Nobody would have understood all the nuances.” Aviad is referring to the #MeToo movement, as well as to her protagonist, Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush), who is sexually harassed and at one point assaulted by her boss in her workplace.

Orna’s story is familiar to many women. The pretty mother of three is now the family breadwinner as her husband’s new restaurant struggles to turn a profit. She takes a job as an assistant to Benny (Menashe Noy), a real estate mogul in Tel Aviv. It turns out that Orna is a natural at selling Benny’s seaside condominiums, particularly to French Jewish clients. However, the more successful she is, the more inappropriate Benny is. Initially, he tells Orna to wear her hair down and suggests that she wear heels and a skirt. He then makes a pass at her in the office and apologizes for it the next day. He promises it will never happen again.

Like many harassers, Benny veers from remorseful to passive-aggressive to vengeful. As his behavior worsens, Orna’s confusion and frustration are apparent. Ben-Shlush plays the part to perfection, demonstrating why it’s not so easy to leave an abusive situation. What began as harassment escalates into sexual assault during a business trip to Paris. It’s a horrific scene to witness as Benny abuses his power. It’s also upsetting to watch Benny menacing and chipping away at Orna’s self-esteem and sanity.

This is a film that simmers just beneath the surface. Its realism cuts to the quick. When Orna finally tells her husband what has happened in Paris, he selfishly takes on the mantle of victim. Orna tells her mother that she “made a mistake” in Paris, illustrating how a victim can find a way to blame herself for an assault perpetrated on her.

However, there is a quiet moment of vindication at the end for Orna. Ben-Shlush’s brilliant, low-key performance is a scathing indictment of male privilege and societal indifference.

“Working Woman” screens on Thursday, Nov. 8, at Coolidge Corner Theatre and features a conversation with Michal Gera Margaliot, an Israeli attorney and executive director of the Israel Women’s Network. Find more information here.


"In Her Footsteps" (Courtesy image)
“In Her Footsteps” (Courtesy image)

On the other end of the spectrum, Israeli-Arab Rana Abu Fraiha has made a highly personal documentary called “In Her Footsteps,” which chronicles the end of her mother Rodaina’s decade-long battle with breast cancer. Rodaina is very much the family’s stalwart matriarch. Two decades ago she made the decision to leave Tal-a-Sabeh, the Bedouin village where she and her husband grew up, and move their family to Omer, an upper-middle-class Jewish town three miles yet worlds away.

Rodaina is also a born feminist. The family’s abrupt departure from Tal-a-Sabeh comes on the heels of her objection to the unequal treatment of women in the village. In the film, she asserts she intentionally wanted to give birth to girls to show her husband’s family how to raise daughters to become confident women. But Rodaina has paid a price for her progressive ways; uprooting her children from their extended family has distanced them from their Arab heritage. The five Abu Fraiha children are more comfortable speaking Hebrew than Arabic. As young adults, they are confused about their identities. That confusion comes to the forefront as the family agonizes over where to bury Rodaina when she dies. It becomes increasingly clear that the Jewish cemetery in Omer won’t allow the family to buy a plot. Other arrangements have to be made, but Rodaina is adamant about not being buried in Tal-a-Sabeh.

Interspersed throughout the film are family home movies shot by Abu Fraiha’s father, along with family videos that show Rodaina as a bride and the five siblings as young children. These sweet moments are set against unflinching scenes of Rodaina’s physical deterioration. Yet voyeurism does not play a part in this film. Instead, the film’s intensity stems from Abu Fraiha’s portrayal of her strong and intelligent mother.

Clearly, Abu Fraiha has inherited her mother’s fierce independence. Also mixed into the film are the combative, sometimes plaintive phone calls she makes to the municipality to try and secure a Muslim burial for her mother in Omer. At one point Abu Fraiha insists that it is the town’s responsibility to assure all of its citizens—Jew and Arab alike—a dignified funeral. Perhaps that’s another underlying message of the film—Jews and Arabs must find ways to accommodate each other’s humanity.

Aviad and Abu Fraiha are unwavering about training their cameras straight into the face of intense pain. The results are a brutal honesty that makes both of these films as strong as the women protagonists they feature.

“In Her Footsteps” screens on Tuesday, Nov. 13, at Coolidge Corner Theatre and features a conversation with director Rana Abu Fraiha. Find more information here.