This Israeli TV Director Is Tackling Sexual Harassment in the Trump Era

Following her success in Israel with five short films about sexual harassment, writer-director Sigal Avin takes her project to the United States

David Schwimmer and Sigal Avin on the set while making the "That's Harassment" short films.
Victoria Stevens

A young girl in a tank top and jeans poses for a fashion photographer. He asks her to play a seductive type. She’s embarrassed but cooperates. She looks unhappy. He persuades her to put a hand into her jeans. She agrees. He compliments her on her cooperation, and tells her he has an erection. The more we are shown the model’s perspective, the more we understand that this scenario is also being observed by an entire film crew, male and female, who are uneasy about what they’re seeing but stay silent.

This powerful scene was written and directed by Sigal Avin as part of a web series called “That’s Harassment.” An Israeli version of the project, which featured five short films based on actual cases of sexual harassment, made waves when it was distributed last December, registering millions of views within days.

Now comes the American version of #ThatsHarassment – six short films featuring well-known Hollywood actors, including David Schwimmer (who also produced the short films with Avin); Cynthia Nixon, Emmy Rossum, Michael Kelly and Grace Gummer.

Avin’s U.S. project has garnered worldwide attention, including in British daily The Guardian, Cosmopolitan magazine and The New York Times. Indian media outlets, meanwhile, reported that Avin has been asked to create a local version.

American actors also hastened to praise the films. Mark Ruffalo retweeted the video (someone added “Send copy to @FoxNews” on his feed), while Meryl Streep (Gummer’s mother) praised the project on her Instagram page.

Avin, who previously directed the Israeli TV series “Irreversible” (2013) and “The Mythological X” (2007), is one of the few female television directors in Israel. She says she was also a victim of harassment, and that one of the short films was based on her own experiences with a “very famous actor.”

The moment a line is crossed

Avin says it was important for her that all six films present likeable men and women with whom one can identify, without labeling them as the hunter and the hunted. “I wanted it to be accurate and true to life,” she tells Haaretz. “I approached this project as an artist and was interested in trying to convey this feeling of the specific energy that changes in the room, in your body, the moment a line is crossed. To present an authentic picture of the gray areas. The moments when every woman begins to ask herself whether what just happened was in her head or not.”

The men in your films are, for the most part, completely ordinary. Family men. Was that deliberate?

“It was very important not to turn these men into bad guys. We’re used to seeing films or TV series where a man jumps a woman in some dark alley, but I wanted them to be real, charming, normal men. After the short films, I received lots of reactions from men, who told me they had looked back at their own actions and understood when they had crossed a line.

“I received hundreds of thank-you letters, from men and women – which is new for me as an artist. There were also many mothers who wrote that they were used to accepting such situations until now, and that, as a result of the short films, they had decided it was important to them to make sure that their daughters would behave differently.

“That’s a very empowering feeling: as artists, we have a lot of power and the ability to make our voices heard.”

Despite the fact that the men are ordinary, there are harsh moments.

“I think what’s shocking in the films is the feeling you’re ultimately left with, not necessarily what goes on during the actual scenes. For example, in the film about the manager [“The Boss”], the man wants to woo his secretary. He wants to take her home, gives her a kiss and then realizes it’s wrong and tries to force a kind of conciliatory hug on her. That’s when the scene becomes difficult, in my opinion. That’s where it becomes a place of abuse. But every time the actors started acting creepily, I stopped them. I didn’t want them to go there. The more ‘charming’ they were, the stronger the film was. The characters don’t really want to harass. They want to conquer and use their power, and harassment is the result.”

The power of the short film with the model lies in its denouement, when you discover that there were many witnesses to the event, both male and female. To what degree is that a criticism of women who stay silent in the face of sexual harassment?

“There is definitely criticism of the silence and normalization of the situation. That in itself is also a gray area. After all, everyone there asks themselves whether or not it’s harassment: ‘Am I supposed to say something?’ We’re living in an age when we talk about it much more, and it turns out the lines are really not clear.

“I think the power of the films derives from the fact they aren’t coming from a place of law or didacticism, but simply portray a realistic picture. I didn’t come to educate anyone, and I don’t think there’s a war between men and women. On the contrary – the more understanding there is, the better it will be for everyone.”

Are there men who saw the project and resented the fact that their opportunity to harass women is being taken away from them?

“In one of the reader comments someone wrote, ‘Oy vey, it’s become impossible to get a f***!’ I found that reaction funny and it made me smile. I understood where it’s coming from, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s nice to be wooed and it’s fun to flirt, but the fact is that everyone who watches the films recognizes the moment when a line is crossed. You simply have to avoid getting to those places. I think men are also feeling their way, and trying to learn and understand the new situation – and that’s great.”

Do you think the American version is also reaching conservative audiences, or is it something that will only be seen by self-styled liberals?

“It was important to ensure that the films – both in Israel and the United States – were not political. They’re not coming to defend a certain side. If I were to create a project about what bothers me about the occupation, maybe it would look different. But there’s no political aspect here: There aren’t women from a certain political wing who experience more or fewer instances of harassment.”

Avin says there’s harassment everywhere, and that despite the absence of any political bias, it was important for her to discuss the reality on the ground. “The first thing that led me to investigate this subject was the fact that every other day I was hearing about sexual harassment. Not only about the harassment itself, but about the lenient treatment or the promotions received by the people who were accused.

“When the tapes where Trump says, ‘And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything’ were revealed, I was convinced, like many others, that that was it, he was finished. And then he was elected. When I started the American version, I felt the need to use that quote in one of the films – just as in Israel it was important for me to include the military establishment, which has returned to the headlines on so many occasions.”

Avin used famous actors for both the Israeli and U.S. versions. “When we started casting the [U.S.] project, David Schwimmer and I wondered whether we wanted to use well-known actors,” she says. “In the end, we realized that the actors had to be familiar so it would make as many waves as possible.”

Often when you deal with sexual harassment, you have to warn viewers that it may trigger painful memories. How do you deal with that?

“I didn’t warn anyone, but I did get reactions from women who couldn’t watch the films to the end. There were some who wrote that watching wasn’t easy, but it was still worth trying. Each woman reacts differently to the film and brings her own bundle of memories with her. Incidentally, that’s also true of men who have experienced it.”

Why didn’t you make a film about the sexual harassment of a man by a woman or another man?

“Quite a number of people asked me that question. It’s a strange one. I’m not a nonprofit or an organization. I’m an artist who went to investigate a specific subject, a specific feeling that interested me. If someone wants to go and describe how the other side feels, I have no doubt there will be someone who would happily pick up the gauntlet.”