A series of short films by Israeli-American director Sigal Avin and actor David Schwimmer are shining a stark but much-needed light into the ‘grey area’ of sexual harassment.
“I realised that I really wanted to see what sexual harassment was instead of hearing about it and reading about it all the time,” Avin told Cosmopolitan. “There was nothing on it, everything was much more violent, or unreal, but there was nothing that showed the grey area of sexual harassment.”
The series of six videos aren’t connected, but each feature a man in position of power (the Actor, the Boss, the Coworker, the Doctor, the Photographer and the Politician) overstepping his boundaries. At first it’s subtle – a lean over the shoulder, a too-flirty tone – and then it quickly escalates into something much more sinister: an unwanted kiss, an exit being blocked, or a young model being pressured into masturbating for a photoshoot.
Each story is based on a real event, with one – ‘The Actor‘, and the first one Avin wrote – based on an event that happened to Avin 18 years ago, when she was a young playwright having coffee with a (then) very famous actor who unexpectedly whipped his penis out.
“I went to the restroom and when I came back, the scenery was the same — the cup of coffee, everything — except for it was out,” she said. “The exact words that are said in the clip, ‘Look who came to say hello,’ all that [happened to me]. I knew it was weird, but it took me a couple of years to understand how humiliating it was and that I was harassed. And it was shocking for me when I sat down to write the script — I remembered all his sentences as if it were yesterday.”
Avin first created the shorts for an Israeli audience in 2016, and four of these six films are based on that original series (with another two created specifically for the American audience).
Directed by Avin and executive produced by Schwimmer and Mazdack Rassi, they were shot in the space of one weekend, and featured performances by Cynthia Nixon, Emmy Rossum, Cristela Alonzo, Michael Kelly and Schwimmer himself.
“I grew up with stories of sexual harassment from my mom,” said Schwimmer. “Every woman in my family, in my life, has been harassed, except my daughter, thank god, who’s only 6. But my mom was one of four women in a class of 400 lawyers when she was going to law school. And then she was a young woman lawyer in California, in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Countless stories of harassment. But I sent her the link to the films and only after she watched them did she say, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was harassed by my doctor?” I was like, “No.” Then she told me my sister was harassed by her doctor when she was a young woman [too], and I didn’t know this either.
The films also delve into the idea of being complicit in sexual harassment, which Schwimmer talks about in the context of the Bill Cosby allegations but at a more local level can be seen in the Cranbrook School students who distributed footage of the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl.
In one film, ‘The Photographer‘, a young model is increasingly asked to perform acts that make her uncomfortable, culminating in being pressured by the photographer into masturbating on set. As the film ends, the camera pans out, and we finally see that a dozen or so people are watching the shoot take place – and saying nothing.
“That scene is something all of us in the entertainment industry can somehow relate to, and the reason I think that’s one of my favourite scenes is because of all the witnesses in the room and how complicit everyone is,” said Schwimmer. “That’s really the biggest statement you can make about the business we’re in, the business of entertainment in all forms, in music, television, film, advertising, fashion. I think it’s the culture we really have to look at. A parallel can be drawn to what happened with, say, Bill Cosby. That’s a much different level but it’s the same idea. There’s so many people who knew what was going on and just remained silent.”
He makes the excellent point that the model isn’t the only person who’s being harassed in that scene.
“Any person in that room that was made to feel uncomfortable, or as if they had no choice but to be subjected to what was happening in that room, was harassed,” he said. “If you’re a young PA or assistant to someone on that set, and you’re watching this young model be asked to touch herself, and the photographer is talking about his penis and having a hard-on, that young PA is being sexually harassed.”
Rassi said working on this project made him question his own actions in the past.
“As a male, I have this reaction: ‘My god, have I ever crossed this line when I was younger?’ Because it’s so subtle. I showed it to a few male colleagues and some of them thought it was comedy at the beginning. They were just like, ‘Oh that was funny,’ especially when the guy pulls out [his penis]. And all of a sudden, there’s this moment, one of my friends was like, ‘This is not a comedy’ — and you start seeing what happens within them. If we can get men to watch this and they think about it, and perhaps they teach their sons about the grey zone, then we’ve also done a great service there too.”
The films are deeply chilling, particularly if you’ve ever found yourself in one of these situations. You can see the rest here.
The full interview with Schwimmer, Avin and Rassi can be read here.
If you’re experiencing sexual harassment of any kind, you can call 1800 RESPECT for help. You can also make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. More information about sexual harassment can be found here.