The tissue box screeches as it is pushed across the desk. The copy machine lulls as pages filled with meaningless numbers emerge and the sound of fingers tapping against a keyboard is heard. These details take on heavy meaning in the high-pressure and misogynistic work environment in which Jane finds herself isolated.
On Wednesday, Australian director Kitty Green’s film “The Assistant” was screened to a full house at the Lenfest Center for the Arts ahead of its New York and Los Angeles premieres. The screening came as part of the School of the Arts Complex Issues series, which aims to start conversations about how topics such as gender, race, and ethnicity span across different disciplines.
Green is an award-winning filmmaker with features to her credit such as “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel;” “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul,” which won the 2015 Short Film Jury Prize for non-fiction at the Sundance Film Festival; and most recently “Casting JonBenet,” which was picked up by Netflix as a Netflix Original.
Producers Scott Macaulay and Columbia School of the Arts professor James Schamus, who both worked with Green on “Casting JonBenet,” were on the panel. English and comparative literature professor Denise Cruz moderated the discussion, which followed the screening.
The film follows Jane, played by “Ozark” star Julia Garner, who works for an unnamed studio executive. The film grapples with the question of whether Jane is complicit in the harassment that she sees in the workplace because she chooses to remain a part of the company despite her suspicions. Throughout the film, Jane’s boss goes without a name or face, highlighting not his individual faults but instead the structural problems that perpetuate gender-based harassment and inequality within the industry.
In one scene, Jane goes to human resources to report the misconduct she suspects is happening under her nose, but as she recounts the details of her suspicions, the man across the desk begins to twist her story. He pokes holes in her reasoning while not-so-discreetly threatening to block her path to becoming a producer if she files a report. When he’s finished, he pushes a tissue box across the desk to a sniffling Jane, and the camera pans to bring viewers into her helpless position.
The film tediously progresses through the workday and tracks Jane as she completes every little office task: turning on lights, printing schedules, powering up computers, and getting lunch. An essential element of the film is the universality of Jane’s experience; it’s specific to the film industry, yet anyone who has worked in an entry-level job can relate to the anxieties and monotony behind simple tasks.
“The film has an enormous amount of specific detail, yet it could be anywhere, so it’s both specific and universal,” Schamus said.
“Listen carefully, be specific, and then make sure that you are not simply relaying one person’s story but condensing, expanding, generalizing, but also keeping specific the essence of that story,” he added.
Schamus spoke about the need and desire to shift narratives towards those who are often overlooked and ignored.
“The only way that you are going to stop the next Harvey [Weinstein] or whoever it is from coming along is not by celebrating your own moral righteousness by denouncing their crimes, but rather addressing and listening to the lived realities of these people who are at the bottom of these hierarchies,” said Schamus.
During the panel, Green discussed the decision to not focus on the “big bad men” but rather analyze the structural, cultural, and systemic issues that pertain to women in the industry.
“I got very tired of the way people were treating me and the questions I got asked at Q&As,” said Green. “I was just thinking there is this problem, which is misconduct … which I’ve witnessed and experienced as well, but there’s also this larger problem which is that we’re not even going to let women into the film industry and take them seriously in it,” Green said.
The film was primarily based on Green’s in-depth and extensive interviews with women, initially only in the film industry from companies like Weinstein’s Miramax, but then expanded to include women across many different disciplines.
With this breadth of experience, “The Assistant” captures the difficulty that comes with recognizing an abusive system, examining one’s role within that system, and understanding if one has contributed to perpetuating an environment that fosters misconduct, no matter how lofty or low one’s job title.
“There were these patterns that kept emerging. Stories about the boys’ club and sort of gendered division of labor and having to get the lunches,” Green said. “That’s when I kind of committed it to paper when I had enough repetition that I felt like it’s no longer one woman’s story but every woman’s story in some way.”
Although the film presents new insight into the experiences that helped to shape Jane’s character, it intentionally lacks a satisfying, promising end. As Jane walks away from the office after witnessing misconduct, one can’t help but feel that it isn’t a happy ending, because Jane’s reality is just as present off the screen as it was on.