The Assistant is a searing portrait of workplace abuse

We spoke with director Kitty Green about her film, which tackles injustices and systemic abuse in the film industry.

With The Assistant, director Kitty Green tackles systemic workplace abuse in the film industry. Told in an observational style, the film makes the audience a witness to a day in the life of Julia (Julia Garner), an assistant in a large film company. A searing portrait of the mundane abuse she suffers in the workplace, The Assistant threatens to unravel our perception of injustice in the industry as far more than just a case of bad apples but, rather, a system that encourages power imbalances, upholds antiquated gender roles and encourages a culture of silence.

In writing the film, Green spoke to women who worked for influential people across a variety of fields. More than the outrageous stories that come from those environments, Green was fascinated “more by the ordinary than the extraordinary,” especially in the ways gender divisions played out. 

Conceived from the beginning as a day-in-the-life portrait, Green felt that if the film were to unfold over a more extended period, its impact would be diminished. As easy as it would have been to establish how boring the work was in a montage, “it would have let people get off the hook.” Watching things unfold slowly and painfully has the effect of a “death by a thousand cuts,” where “every microaggression is rattling the character and destroying her self worth.”

Green, best known for her documentary Casting JonBenet, wanted to make the film as fiction to create an emotional entry point for the viewer. She wanted people to identify with Julia and all the people you walk past without really seeing. As the film has minimal dialogue, it relies heavily on the performance of Julia Garner, who needs to translate the emotional resonance of her experience in silence. Green first saw Garner when she appeared on The Americans, and the pair worked together to flesh out the character we see on screen. 

While The Assistant is a work of fiction, it’s made in an observational, almost documentary style with minimal camera movements, few edits and dense sound design. The soundscape was especially crucial in building the monotony. “The beeps, over and over again, the buzz of lights,” all contribute to a claustrophobic environment where it’s often better not to ask questions. Mainly created in post-production, the film’s sound design creates a deep sense of unease, making the silence feel ominous rather than comforting. 

“We were looking at this culture of silence,” Green explains. The film delves into how a culture of silence enables and perpetuates abuse. It also shows hints at how cycles of violence emerge. Many of the people Green interviewed spoke about how, once they would have assistants of their own, they would find themselves treating them poorly as well. “There’s a scene [in the film] where Julia tells off the driver, and you can see how she might fall into that pattern, too,” Green says. 

While The Assistant doesn’t offer solutions in the strictest sense, the response to the film has brought awareness to the systematic problems facing a variety of industries. “Women seem to be really connecting with it, and a lot of people feel seen,” says Green. Men, she says, have had a harder time with it. “It makes some men uncomfortable. I think a little discomfort from men might be good for them though,” Green says. “We need a little discomfort to make changes.”

As universal as some of the experiences in The Assistant are, they still speak to a certain amount of privilege as Julia remains an educated, white woman with a support system. The film represents the tip of the iceberg of unequal treatment within capitalism, only vaguely alluding to the unseen and untold labours of other workers, like drivers and nannies. Even for a character as powerless as Julia, there are people even below her, fighting to be heard. 

A percentage of The Assistant‘s profits will be donated to the New York Women’s Foundation, which helps fund programs that help survivors of workplace abuse and violence, but also work towards establishing safer workspaces.  ■

The Assistant opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 14. Watch the trailer below.

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