Doublespeak (Sundance)

By Hazel McKibbin | Drama
A woman reports sexual harassment at work, then grapples with the aftermath.

Emma has been working at a company for some time, dealing with continual harassment by an older superior named Peter. She has finally lodged a complaint against him and now is due to hear the results of her company’s investigation.

But the face-to-face meeting quickly veers from a degree of civility to one where Emma finds her original testimony and evidence distorted, picked apart or prevaricated by the company’s representative. Emma’s case hangs in the balance — but more importantly, so does her sense of security.

This compact yet powerful dramatic short — written and directed by Hazel McKibbin and produced by Stephanie Fine — has very relevant themes of sexual harassment at its center, but it is also essentially a conversation. As the action unfolds, viewers quickly realize that the conversation is not a mutual back-and-forth, but a lopsided dynamic skewed in favor of a company trying to protect itself versus a young worker trying to be heard and validated.

With a title about language and a structure of a two-hander, the storytelling leans heavily on excellent writing, which was heavily based on McKibbin’s own experiences with reporting sexual harassment. Language and communication are what Emma presents as evidence of her harassment; language is also one of the ways that she has been harassed. And sadly, the sharp, incisive dialogue shows how language can take a truth and twist, obscure and wrap it in ambiguities, to the point of meaninglessness and distress.

The language of the writing is deft, agile and slippery in how it inflicts its own violence upon Emma, but the visual approach is clear, deliberate and powerfully lucid, with coolly clear tones and a sense of composition that is almost abstract in its attention to the small but telling detail. Every camera movement emphasizes the shifting of power in the room, and the editing captures the small gestures and unspoken behavior that reveals the real agendas at work in the meeting.

Lead actor Angela Wong Carbone’s understated yet wrenching performance does the important job of bringing viewers into the subtext of the film, playing out her unspoken pain and disappointment as her trauma is essentially invalidated, and she’s rendered powerless and unimportant, both by the process and by key betrayals during her meeting. Like the rest of the film, there are no melodramatics, but instead, the wrenching portrayal of someone having to swallow their voice, again and again and again.

“Doublespeak” offers an intimate snapshot into one woman’s experience of reporting harassment, but it is also as much about process and systems as about Emma’s individual story. Emma is caught in a system and dynamic in which she is just a small part, and it is this system that sets up the rules, as well as the checks and balances on them when they’re broken. Sadly, it is a system more concerned with protecting itself, discrediting those that question it, and offering empty promises and apologies. Its masterful last scene is both a marvel of restraint and a chilling evocation of the price paid for this — which is almost always paid by those already at a disadvantage in the system.

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