The Harvey Weinstein story has been seriously rattling Hollywood, and its effects are being felt far beyond there. Tales of sexual harassment and assault are sometimes heard in other film industries around the world, and the Israeli film industry is unfortunately no exception. The harasser or assailant may not be wearing a plush bathrobe, he may not be a millionaire inviting his victim into a fancy hotel room, and he may not be a world-renowned movie producer who is feared and worshipped almost on a par with God, but sexual assault and harassment certainly can and does take place even on Spartan Israeli movie sets with no trace of Hollywood glamor around.
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“I haven’t personally experienced such harassment, but I have heard about countless cases, not just on the part of producers, but also actors,” says actress Asi Levi (“Aviva, My Love,” “Longing”).
“Our industry can’t compare to Hollywood in any way, but we also have plenty of incidents of sexual harassment – in acting workshops, in acting schools, on the set. It’s about ‘exploiting the dream’ – taking advantage of women who have dreams of fame or money. I’ve heard so many stories like this throughout my career – about teachers, managers and actors who took advantage of their status.”
You don’t have to dig too deep in the memory banks to recall the horror stories related by the first lady of Israeli cinema, Gila Almagor, about the violent assault she endured in her youth during filming of the group rape scene in the movie “Queen of the Road,” or the account of actress and former children’s television star Hani Nahmias about the trauma she experienced as a young actress while filming the rape scene in the movie “Bouba.” But the harassment and assault also takes place behind the scenes, as was sharply illustrated last year by the scandal surrounding one of Israeli cinema’s most successful and acclaimed actors, Moshe Ivgy, whom numerous actresses accused of harassment.
“Sexual harassment and men who exploit the power they hold is something that’s found in every field, not just in acting and theater,” says Levi. “From time immemorial, men of status have exploited their power and position.
"But what was nice to see now with the Harvey Weinstein thing was that the American Motion Picture Academy right away canceled his membership and stood beside the people who have come out with complaints against him, before he’s been convicted.
"In Israel, people accused of sexual harassment are given prizes. [Last year, the Haifa Film Festival gave Ivgy its Best Actor prize, shortly after the testimonies against him came to light]. I wholeheartedly agree that until a person is convicted or indicted, he should be treated with kid gloves, but he certainly shouldn’t be winning any prizes.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone here who wields so much power like Harvey Weinstein,” says director Keren Yedaya (“Or,” “That Lovely Girl”). “We don’t have those kind of all-powerful producers here who can make or break your career.
"But you don’t need to have that much power in order to assault. It’s a known thing by now that these men are able to identify women who will have a harder time defending themselves, for whom it will be harder to rebuff harassment or an assault. And that’s the biggest tragedy.
"The predators identify the ‘weakest’ ones. And this ‘weakness’ can be because of the woman’s standing in the production [as a new actress just starting out, or as a production assistant, versus the revered actor or director], or because of reasons from the past – perhaps this same woman was sexually abused as a child.
"In the Weinstein story, it looks like most of the women were able to get away. But I’m sure that many of the women who were under more duress and weren’t able to get away are not talking even now because they still feel ashamed, and so do those who were assaulted as children – and that’s one in five women. There’s no question that also in the Israeli television and film industry there are those who identify the ‘weakest’ and prey on them.”
Even if the local industry has no one with the kind of power and status of Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment and assault is still all too prevalent here, says Lior Elefant, head of the Israeli Women in Film and Television Forum.
“In that sense, we’re in exactly the same place as Hollywood. Not on the same scale, of course, because the industry here is a lot smaller, the money is a lot smaller and we don’t have figures of that magnitude,” she says, “but no film industry in the world is free of this phenomenon, and the Israeli film industry is no different than all the rest.
"This notion that film and theater are not so much a ‘profession’ as an art, and that people have to be creative and ‘free,’ makes it more conducive to harassment than an office environment. The notion of the artist as uninhibited and misunderstood genius exists in art, and even if it doesn’t necessarily mean there is more harassment in this industry, there’s a different attitude toward it.”
The most vulnerable
Young actresses at the start of their careers are often the ones who have to pay an especially painful price on the way to success. “There are more opportunities for actresses to get hurt – in auditions, in rehearsals – and new actresses are much more vulnerable than more familiar and established actresses with a career behind them,” says Elefant. “The odds of someone like Keren Mor being harassed are a lot smaller than for a woman who just finished acting school. Weinstein didn’t invent this thing of ‘Take your clothes off and I’ll give you a part.’ It exists everywhere. And I’m certain that we haven’t heard it all yet, that we’re only at the beginning. It’s also important to remember that it’s not only about women. Men are sometimes subjected to sexual harassment too.”
The media exposure of more and more serial harassers, from the film industry and other fields, has been raising awareness of the issue. Last year, professional associations in film and television signed a convention for the prevention of sexual harassment. Among other things, it calls for someone to be appointed to oversee this issue in any production that includes nude scenes. But of course that doesn’t mean the problem has been eradicated. Levi says she has yet to see the directives concerning sexual harassment on a film set, as required by the convention, but says she can feel that the atmosphere has been changing somewhat.
“I’ve noticed that there’s more caution lately,” she says. “Though sometimes what happens is that it’s taken and turned into a joke. People are more careful, but it’s in this jokey tone of ‘Watch it, you don’t want there to be complaints about you.’ There’s a mocking attitude, so the woman ultimately is seen as the guilty party once again. No matter what you try to do, in the end, you’re the one that’s not okay. I’m very familiar with this tone. Even if I haven’t personally experienced such harassment, anyone involved in productions sees quite a bit of it.”
Is there more sexual harassment in the film industry than in other fields?
“Maybe a little, because of the intimacy of the work, the long hours, the type of atmosphere you often find on a set. There are definitely a lot of norms that need to change, from the atmosphere on the set to the director’s attitude toward the actors in rehearsals and auditions. Auditions can be a big problem. You’ll have directors who feel like they’re God, and actors who are so desperate for their chance that they’re willing to endure humiliation and degradation. I would hope that by now everyone understands that if they ask you to take your clothes off at an audition, that’s not legitimate. But I still hear horror stories from actors, like about how they’re made to kiss at auditions. Come on, you’re a director, use a little imagination!” says Yedaya.
“But overall, I don’t think there’s a big difference between the film industry and anywhere else,” she adds. “It happens wherever you find status, power and authority. In the police, the Knesset, academia and of course in the army, where it’s really awful, because from the start that’s a place whose whole essence is about some kind of aggressive male way of thinking and the commanders there have a lot of power. Wherever there are the strong and the weak, some of the strong take advantage of and hurt those who are weaker than them."