In December 2016, Israeli-American director Sigal Avin wrote and directed five short films depicting instances of sexual harassment by men on women. The shorts, released in Israel, were based on real-life stories, including one from Avin, who was harassed by "a very famous star" when she was starting out as a playwright nearly two decades ago. In January, Avin approached her friend David Schwimmer about adapting the films for distribution in the U.S., because just like in Israel, there was little to no visual material to combat sexual harassment in America. "I realized that I really wanted to see what sexual harassment was instead of hearing about it and reading about it all the time," Avin tells me. "There was nothing on it, everything was much more violent, or unreal, but there was nothing that showed the gray area of sexual harassment."
From there, Schwimmer enlisted the help of Mazdack Rassi, co-founder and creative director of Milk Studios in New York City, where all six videos (four adapted from the Israeli series, plus two others) were shot over one single weekend with actors like Cynthia Nixon, Emmy Rossum, Cristela Alonzo, and Schwimmer himself. They called the video series, #ThatsHarassment. You can watch the six short films below.
The videos aren't meant to be viewed in any particular order. What bonds them is that each features a subtle moment in which the interaction changes, when each man—the Actor, the Boss, the Coworker, the Doctor, the Photographer, the Politician—oversteps his boundaries in a way that completely demoralizes the woman he's talking to. Here, director Sigal Avin and executive producers David Schwimmer and Mazdack Rassi discuss their project, sexual harassment in Hollywood, and the conversations they hope to one day have with their daughters.
How personal are these stories?
Sigal Avin: The first script I wrote was based on my personal story, the one with the actor. [Editor's note: In this video, a wardrobe person played by Cristela Alonzo is sexually harassed by an actor, played by Noah Emmerich, who takes outs his penis and propositions her.] That's something that happened to me about 18 years ago, when I was a young playwright and I came to talk with a very famous star at that point. We were sitting in his home, drinking coffee, and talking about the play. 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. 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.
David Schwimmer: I grew up with stories of sexual harassment from my mom. 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?" [Editor's note: In another video, a patient, played by Cynthia Nixon, is sexually harassed by a doctor, played by Michael Kelly.] 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.
In the course of these stories and this process, I was repeatedly putting myself in the mind-set of what it must be like to be a woman in the world today. When you've been objectified your entire life and become accustomed to being a second-class citizen in many, many ways—constantly told that you aren't worth the same as men, basically, and that your body comes first, or what you look like comes first—it makes a lot more sense to me that a lot of women don’t even recognize when they're being harassed. Because you spend your whole life not being treated with the kind of respect that men are automatically given.
What else did you learn from this project?
Mazdack Rassi: As a male, I have this reaction [like], 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 gray zone, then we've also done a great service there too.
Avin: What a lot of men and good friends have said is that in watching these, you see how easy it is to cross the line. A lot of men in Israel were saying they went to sleep that night going through their history, asking themselves, "When exactly did I do this and when exactly did I do that?"
Schwimmer: One of the actors who participated in this took me aside after several rehearsals. He was like, when he's on a film set on a show, he sometimes will hug women on the crew and he realized that maybe he shouldn’t be doing that. It suddenly made him think, he doesn't hug the men on the crew, and there's a power dynamic in play, he realized. They may not have the choice, necessarily. They have to go through with the hug. He's like a super-sensitive, modern—one of the good guys. I thought that was really interesting for him to not only acknowledge, [but] for me to think about, too.
What kinds of conversations will you be having with your daughters about sexual harassment when they’re older?
Avin: I think it's "speak up." I have two daughters. That's what I would want women to take from these films. To talk. To know what's happening. Just to be able to really understand what they want and what they don't want, and to be able to say it with no fear.
Schwimmer: The whole purpose of this is to encourage people and to give them the courage to speak out if they're a victim themselves of harassment, or if they witness or are aware of sexual harassment. The reality [is that] this kind of harassment takes place in the workplace, in a professional environment. And that means it's about power. The problem is that people don't step forward or say something if they're witnessing it because of fear of retaliation. The more you're surrounded by other people who agree and see that something is wrong, the easier it is for someone to step forward. You feel like you have an army behind you.
I wanted to ask about the environment in Hollywood. What's it like being on set and trying to identify instances of sexual harassment?
Schwimmer: I guess what comes to mind is the scene in "The Photographer." [Editor's note: This video depicts a photographer, played by Bobby Cannavale, pressuring a newcomer model, played by Anna Van Patten, to masturbate on set with dozens of people around.] 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 favorite scenes is because of all the witnesses in the room and how complicit everyone is. 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.
Rassi: Yeah, that was a very powerful scene because that last part, the end of the scene, when the camera pans out and you see very normal, professional people, someone eating lunch. It's really easy to always blame the photographer, the director, the movie star. There are 40 people on set.
Schwimmer: And by the way, the young woman is not the only person 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. 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.
In "The Coworker," one bartender says to another, "Grab them by the pussy," which unfortunately was one of the phrases that defined the election. Was that intentional?
Avin: Yes. Absolutely.
Schwimmer: We don't want this to be a partisan issue because it's not. Every woman, no matter what her political beliefs, is subject to sexual harassment. This is not a partisan "liberal Hollywood throwing their arms up against Trump" issue. That's not what this is. Having said that, I found his boasting of committing sexual assault really disturbing. I think our leaders have to demonstrate a certain kind of character. When I think about my daughter, I find that difficult to explain.