“The Assistant” shows us the culture of silence at its most sinister

Director Kitty Green sitting with Julia Garner, who plays Jane, the assistant / Photo by Ty Johnson/ Luminary Productions LLC. Courtesy of Bleecker Street

By Rachael Kelley
BU News Service

All 87 minutes of “The Assistant” will have you cringing as if the screen was full of graphic violence. The film is void of action or nudity and has very little music, yet it has the suspense of a thriller. 

Written and directed by Kitty Green and released Jan. 31, the film repositions the narrative that is set on workplace sexual harassment, moving away from the harassment itself, to focus on the environment that allows it to permeate.

Green seemed to be unbothered by the critics who question the lack of explicit sex scenes. She believes that’s not the purpose of the film and the technique is overplayed. 

“We’ve all seen scenes like that and read in the paper about what happens behind closed doors, and we don’t need to see it being played out at this point,” she said Thursday.

Green’s goal became how to show the issues of sexual harassment “without having to resort to things like that” and for the film to have a different focus. The audience never sees the face of the perpetrator, which allows the film to be completely in the point of view of the assistant. 

“I mean, I guess in developing it, I was thinking I didn’t want to focus on the boss character,” Green said. “I was getting the sense that there were too many films about these kinds of bad men, and I wanted to center women in the narrative. We can say so much without having to resort to that.” 

Compared to today’s high drama, high violence media, the understated style of “The Assistant” can seem almost boring. I found myself wondering how I could possibly interview the director. But after a second watch, it became clear that Green was aiming for a different kind of tension, and I was enamored with the cinematography I had been missing out on. 

Green wanted to make a film that would capture people for different reasons. 

“To me, what was more interesting is the culture of silence,” she said.

Don’t worry, she’ll get more out of it than he will.”

The Assistant

Green said the research for the film happened by happen-stance. She had been holding interviews with college students on different campuses, working on a project about consent and power structures.  

She wanted to change the narrative on college sexual harassment and assualt because college assault documentaries tend to show a “bad man in the bushes” rather than the “society of silence,” Green said.  

Then the Weinstein scandal broke, and her phone blew up.

“There was a lot of those discussions going around that I kind of felt like, ‘Oh, it’s the same kind of themes I was already looking at,’ but it’s kind of more focused and closer to what I know because I work in the film industry,” Green said.

Because the film addresses the issues that take place in the entertainment industry and some of the issues women allegedly faced in the presence of Weinstein, not all Hollywood offices were thrilled to hear of “The Assistant.”

Green said she would be contacted by women in the industry who loved it, who would then not be able to get the men in their company on board.

“If you’re making something that’s kind of implying that we’re all complicit, and we’re all guilty in all of this, I think it makes a few film executives uncomfortable,” she said.

This movie is meant to leave you wondering about how you can change the treatment of all women in the workplace, but undoubtedly, many viewers will have the same question.

Why was the black girl the babysitter, and not the main character?

But the hard truth is, if a black woman would have been cast, it may not have reflected the job market of those in the media industry. The entertainment industry is lacking diversity, not just on screen or in award nominations, but also in positions of less power, like assistants. 

Green said diversity in the industry is getting better, but white women and men still dominate behind-the-camera positions, such as assistants. 

In this broadcasted racially-charged, #MeToo decade it is time for awkward conversations that people shy away from and films that bring a new perspective on the ills that diminish society. 

Green is not only sparking conversation but is supporting “actionable change” by partnering with the New York Women’s Foundation and donating a share of the film’s profits to support their fight against gender workplace discrimination, abuse of power and inequality, Green said.

Whether you are a waitress, doctor or teacher, this film will relate to all who identify as women. So when Netflix sends you the “what to watch” notification, ignore it and see “The Assistant.”

If you don’t speak up, you are part of the problem. 

“The Assistant” is in theaters through next week.

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