That’s Harassment: Avin and Schwimmer Help Us Figure it Out

Screenshot from a scene in “The Co-Worker,” one of six short films directed by Sigal Avin.

There’s the philanthropy that happens when people invest money to promote social change, and then there’s the philanthropy that happens when people take their money and their talent, and employ them in a way that addresses a social problem. Celebrities, particularly multi-talented and highly educated ones, have a unique capacity to combine their financial capital, talent, and public stature in order to push for needed social change.

That appears to be part of what happened when Israeli-American filmmaker Sigal Avin teamed up with several feature actors including David Schwimmer, Cynthia Nixon and Bobby Cannavale, to film a series of six short films called, “That’s Harassment.”  In each of these three to six minute cinéma verité shorts, the viewer is positioned as a cringing voyeur while scenes of sexual harassment unfold. Since debuting in the spring of 2017, these films have been adapted into 30 second public service announcements that are getting wide visibility.

Schwimmer, along with Milk Studios co-founder Mazdack Rassi, produced the series, and the former “Friends” star has been instrumental in promoting the films and getting them widely seen. The shorts are on Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and other platforms, and excerpts are being showing in New York City cabs, and as public service announcements with links to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The films are designed to help employers combat harassment, and encourage victims and bystanders to recognize it and speak out. RAINN and the NWLC have partnered with “That’s Harassment” to compile resource and discussion guides, and the list, “10 Ways Your Company Can Help Prevent Harassment in the Workplace.”

In one film, Schwimmer plays a lawyer who forces himself on a recent hire played by Zazie Beetz. It’s clear that he is abusing their power differential and harassing her, and yet he is not a menacing caricature. He is not violent and doesn’t make any threats. Once rebuffed, he is highly invested in maintaining a nice guy persona, asking “Are we good?” and wanting a final hug to demonstrate that everything is okay between him and his victim. The Schwimmer character tries to pressure an employee into sexual favors, but wants to be reassured that his behavior is acceptable, and that he won’t suffer any consequences for it.

The other films detail various forms of male-female harassment: a brusque doctor fondles his patient, a bartender verbally and physically harasses a new waitress under the guise of letting her know what pigs men can be, a photographer degrades a young model by asking her to touch herself suggestively as he shoots stills of her, a famous actor exposes himself to a star-struck wardrobe person, and a veteran politician comes onto a younger journalist interviewing him.

“All of the stories are based on real incidents,” says Avin in an interview she and Schwimmer gave to Build Series NYC about the project. When she was a young playwright, Avin says an established actor exposed himself to her backstage during a rehearsal. Schwimmer shares that once the “That’s Harassment” project was underway, his mother revealed that she’d been harassed by a doctor. Schwimmer notes that the majority of the crew working on the shorts were female, “Unsolicited, every single woman came forward and said this reminds me of what happened to me. Everyone had an experience.”

Avin based “That’s Harassment” on a similar series that she’d made in Israel, and called on Schwimmer to help get the U.S. versions made and distributed. She says that her motivation in making the films was that while there was a lot of talk about sexual harassment, “You never got to see it.” Her approach was single-take scenes of several minutes where the viewer is “like a bug on the wall.”

The U.S. versions rolled out in the spring of 2017, but in the wake of the high-profile sexual harassment and abuse scandals that roiled the entertainment and other industries in the fall of 2017, Schwimmer and Avin sought a wider audience for them, and got RAINN and NWLC involved. “That’s Harassment” has also been covered by various mainstream media outlets including Cosmopolitan, Good Morning America and USA Today.

What makes the films so effective is that the perpetrators’ behavior is abusive, yet familiar. The victims don’t dissolve in a puddle of tears, nor do they angrily confront their harassers, all of whom are in positions of power over them. The women appear confused, embarrassed and uncomfortable, deflecting the unwelcome advances and comments, and sometimes laughing or shrugging off the harassing behavior or remarks.

The bartender, actor, and lawyer characters want to be “good guys” who compliment women and do them favors, but what the films show is that the nicest thing they could do would be to respect their female colleagues and let them do their jobs. The doctor, politician and photographer characters don’t play the helpful nice guy card; instead, they emphasize their experience and authority. You can almost see the gears turning in the victims’ heads: what is going on here? Is this normal? How do I get this to end without a scene or future reprisals?

The films are useful in provoking discussion about sexual harassment, and as tools for employers to use. This can be tricky — employers have a legal and moral imperative to combat sexual harassment, yet didactic and heavy-handed training sessions and amateurish videos tend to provoke more eye-rolling than actual change. For this reason, having a professional like Avin script and direct the films, and use working Hollywood actors, goes a long way in making the scenarios believable, and something that should be taken seriously.

In the current climate surrounding harassment, many men wonder what their role should be. Most would prefer not to talk about it all. It’s easier not to get involved, rationalizing that if one is not a perpetrator, then it’s best to keep one’s head down. There are costs—including threats to one’s livelihood and social ostracization—for speaking up when harassment takes place. Moreover, some men fear that their involvement might be unwanted, or seen as patronizing by women. Finally, many men, and women, are still grappling with what constitutes sexual harassment. The films do not solve these thorny questions, but they certainly start the conversation, and can lead to some concrete and specific ways to stop harassment in the workplace, as indicated by RAINN and NWLC.

Schwimmer and co-producer Mazdack Rassi’s contribution to the project, supporting Avin in getting the films made (and seen), is a good model for other men to follow in terms of being allies to women in the fight for gender equality.

Related:

What Role Can Funders Play in Ending Sexual Abuse of Aid Workers?

Heavy Hitters Collaborate on New Blueprint for Women’s Funds to Lead Social Change

Confidence is Key: Female Filmmakers Discuss How to Get Financing

#MeToo and the Power Shift Women’s Funds Helped Create

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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