How The Assistant exposes Hollywood's abuse silence

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter

Image source, Vertigo Releasing
Image caption, Julia Garner's character Jane struggles with the stress of being manipulated at work

A young woman is a junior assistant at an entertainment mogul's American office. She starts early and works late, she fetches lunches, looks after his children, and cleans the office in a way that's not expected of her equally junior male colleagues. Most worryingly for Jane, it appears that her boss is also a sexual predator.

The Assistant, by Australian film-maker Kitty Green, isn't the story of Harvey Weinstein. But the movie - starring Ozark actress Julia Garner as the new recruit Jane and Matthew Macfadyen as Wilcock, her manipulative HR manager - has roots in the exposure of power and abuse in the film industry as a result of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

The film ,which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last August- is being released three months after former film producer Weinstein was found guilty of rape.

Image source, Vertigo Releasing
Image caption, Matthew Macfadyen plays Jane's abusive HR manager

"It's reductive to say that the film's just about Weinstein though," explains Green. "It's a disservice to do that, because now he's in prison, people could say, 'Oh the problem's fixed now, let's move forward.'

"But it's a bigger problem than that and that's always what the film was trying to explore. It's about systems and structures that essentially keep women out of power.

Image source, Vertigo Releasing
Image caption, Julia Garner and director Kitty Green

"I was looking specifically at what work environments support a predator - how many women are in positions of power, how staff are treated, how toxic the workplaces are."

Green, who conducted anonymous interviews within the industry for her research, says that her own desire to make the film started when she took a previous movie to a festival.

"I found I wasn't taken seriously by some people there, they'd ask me which of my male producers were in charge. I wondered whether I'd get credit no matter how hard I worked, and I started exploring power structures and women getting shut out of them."

The director adds that she experienced things that were quite awful at film festivals, adding: "Some of my friends had worse experiences, that were really quite horrific.

Image source, Vertigo Releasing

"In this film I found a way to explore it. If we let people get away with toxic working environments and sexual misconduct, what's to say they won't keep pushing?"

The Assistant isn't the only film made by women that has origins in the spirit of the #MeToo movement. Philippa Lowthorpe's Misbehaviour, released last month, explores the protests and the sexist stereotypes at the 1970 Miss World contest in London. A Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, turns the spotlight on sexual assault on college campuses.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Philippa Lowthorpe directed Misbehaviour about the 1970 Miss World contest in London

Eliza Hittman's prize-winning Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows the fictional journey of a teenager from rural Pennsylvania to New York for an abortion, as the service isn't available in her area. Her pregnancy appears to be the result of sexual abuse.

"It still wasn't an easy movie to go and get financing for despite the recent support for female-led stories within the industry," says Never Rarely producer Sara Murphy. "But it feels like it's the right moment to target audiences.

"I think this film is important, not only to speak to a lot of women who've had this experience, but it will reach a broader, a more conservative audience outside of the political debate about abortion."

Co-producer Adele Romanski believes the film chimes with a "scary moment" in the US as some states have shut down reproductive services due to Covid-19.

"Some state Governors have declared abortion a non-essential service," she says. "Never Rarely depicts a woman of certain socio-economic means who needs to travel for an abortion.

Image source, Vertigo Releasing
Image caption, The Assistant would "never have been made" before #MeToo, says the Metro's Larushka Ivan-Zadeh

"Now add on the idea that it's unsafe to travel right now, and think how this will affect women who previously had access to abortion services and now can't travel out of their state."

Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, chief film critic at the Metro newspaper, believes these films are the fruits of the #MeToo movement.

"These kinds of films got the go-ahead in a way they wouldn't have done three years ago," she says. "Something like The Assistant would never have been made before the #MeToo movement.

"Now it has resonance and people will relate to it, but before, if you can imagine the production meetings about financing it, there would be cries of, 'Who's going to watch that?' Something has shifted."

Nor does Ivan-Zadeh think viewers will have much trouble accessing the films at home.

"In some ways it's more of an advantage for them to be seen at home when viewers have so much time on their hands," she points out.

"It's kind of great what's happening in this space during Covid-19, when people are thinking about what's important to them and how they're going to make a change.

"These films give you a chance to pause and think about what you're going to put up with when you go back to 'normal' life."

The Assistant is streaming across digital platforms from 1 May. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is streaming across digital platforms from 13 May and on VOD from 27 May.

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