In their riveting new Netflix documentary, One of Us, acclaimed filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Detropia) take a deep and moving look at the lives of three individuals who have chosen to leave the extremely insular world of Hasidic Judaism. The film follows Etty, a mother of seven, as she decides to leave a violent marriage and divorce her husband; Ari, a teenager on the verge of manhood who is struggling with addiction and the effects of childhood abuse; and Luzer, an actor who, despite having found success in the secular world, still wrestles with his decision eight years earlier to leave the Hasidic community. Produced over three years, One of Us offers unique and intimate access to the lives of all three as they deal not only with questions of their beliefs but also with the consequences of leaving the only community they have ever known. With their trademark sensitivity and keen interest in the nature of faith, Ewing and Grady chronicle these journeys towards personal freedom that come at a very high cost. I sat down with the filmmakers to discuss this powerful documentary.
Danny Miller: I’ve always had this fascination with the Hasidic world, probably because it’s in my DNA — I’m descended from Ger Hasidim in Poland. I interviewed your subject, Luzer when his movie Felix and Meira came out, so I know his story a bit, but was so moved by all three of these people and their courage. Considering the difficulty of Etty’s situation, was it hard to get her to participate in the film?
Heidi Ewing: Etty is literally one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. We were very careful about who we chose for our subjects. As you can see in the movie, people transitioning out of this community into secular America are very vulnerable and often on an emotional roller coaster. They’re being abandoned left and right by their friends and family, it’s a terribly difficult process.
Rachel Grady: We actually met several people who wanted to be in the film that we decided were too fragile — we worried that they would not be able to endure the scrutiny of being part of such a project. There were at least six suicides in the community of people who left over the three years that we filmed, all of whom our subjects knew.
Wow. So sad.
Heidi: It’s almost impossible to make it out there on your own, thank goodness there are organizations like Footsteps, the group you see in the film, who try to help people who want to leave. But we were very careful not to try to persuade anyone to be in the film who wasn’t prepared emotionally.
And apart from their own emotional vulnerability, I can see how some would be worried that they might get into even more trouble with the community and their families than they already were.
Yes. All three of our subjects had to brace themselves for the flack they knew they’d get for being part of such a film. There are upsides and downsides to any decision, including the decision to be in a documentary. We chose people who wanted to tell their story and who were empowered to tell their story — people who would be able to get through this process with their pride and identity intact, and not regret having participated.
It’s so interesting how we don’t see Etty’s face until a certain point in the film.
Right. Etty did not agree to be on camera. And that’s why for the first half of the film we don’t show her, we were going to animate her or just show her in shadows. But then about halfway through the process, she changed her mind.
It’s a remarkable moment. I admit I wondered if it had been planned for dramatic effect.
No, not all! This was a woman who was afraid to show herself — for good reason — who was pushed to the limit. She was losing battle after battle in the courts, she was losing her children, she thought, “No one is going to believe that this happened to me, especially if I hide myself.” So one day she came to us and said, “I changed my mind.” It was a process — it would be very disingenuous to open a movie on a Hasidic woman’s face with no wig, Hasidic women just don’t do that, they don’t go on camera, so it would have been confusing to make it seem like we just found her and she was ready to tell her story on camera. We could have backed into the movie from the point where she was willing to show herself but we felt it was important to convey her own process.
Rachel: Heidi said how brave Etty was and it’s so true. I remember this one moment we had with her. Things were going down for her in real time in a way that I’d never experienced. All these things were happening to her, she was in danger, her life was basically collapsing in on her, and we felt badly asking, “Can we film that? Can we film that?” during these awful experiences. It made us wince. And I remember this one time when I was apologizing to her about something I wanted to film and she stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Never apologize to me again.” There was something so strong about it, she took such ownership of her experience. She said, ”I know what I’m doing. I’m doing this for a reason.” She did this for herself and for her kids. There was something so empowering about that moment. I never apologized to her again.
There are so many things about the journey of these three people that people in other situations can learn from.
Heidi: Absolutely. Anyone who feels they’re hiding who they are could relate to this film, we hope, and be inspired by these people. We think there is an accessibility and universality to the concept of being in any type of closet. People who realize their individual truth and decide they are going to deal with the consequences of accepting that truth as well as the loneliness that comes with that decision. It can be very lonely to go from being in this kind of community to becoming an individual in the secular world. That is something all of our subjects discovered in a very stinging way.
Obviously there are many Hasidic people who are quite happy in this world. Were you worried that some people might think you were making an anti-Hasidic film?
Rachel: Whenever you make a film that even tiptoes around religion, you have to be very careful. I’m Jewish so I also kind of felt a personal level of responsibility to not make a film that was problematic or “bad for Jews” as we way. This is not a film that’s against the Hasidic community. But when people are facing real problems of this nature, I think it’s very important to air the dirty laundry rather than cover it up.
Heidi: There is a beauty to the Hasidic culture and our subjects were often homesick for and nostalgic for the beauty, the traditions, and the rituals that come with being a Hasidic Jew. We endeavored to show our subjects’ connection to that and to their beliefs. You see Etty in a synagogue at the end of the film on Yom Kippur.
I’m so glad she found a synagogue that would welcome her.
Oh, there are many. The majority of Jews in the world are very pro-education, as you know, and intellectual and are interested in conversations that are difficult. We were showing this very small slice of Judaism, although it’s one of the fastest growing. Yes, there are some negatives but there’s also an appeal that we tried to convey as well. It was very important for us to have a Hasidic elder in the movie. It was difficult to find someone who would agree to sit down with us but we did find such a person who was very warm and kind.
Yes, he was fascinating. I was amazed that he would talk to two women from the secular world about this topic but he seemed very sincere and not like a Hasidic PR person.
He’s not a PR person at all, just a community member who’s definitely on the more tolerant end of the spectrum. This is someone who started a soup kitchen with his son, a very compassionate person, but a good Hasid as well who grew up in the Satmar community, very faithful to the tenets. There are a lot of people like that, actually.
Rachel: This movie is not about religion. Nor is it an indictment of this type of religion or their rules or structures. There’s a myriad of rules Hasidic people follow, and we didn’t get into that at all, that’s not what the film is about. For us, the movie is about identity and people who are seeking their true identity.
When you talked about the suicides earlier, I admit that when I was watching Ari’s story, I was very concerned, he seemed to be struggling so badly and I was on the edge of my seat worried that he might end up as one of those statistics.
Heidi: God forbid. He’s sober now, he’s been sober for 200 days. He’s getting his GED, I think he’s going to be okay. He’s still out of the community and his parents know about the film but they won’t see it. The good news is that they’ve decided not to ostracize or disown him.
Rachel: Which is huge. He’s so vulnerable, so young.
Heidi: And the family has agreed to skip over him in the line of marriages because in that community you’re supposed to go in birth order.
I admit I audibly gasped during that scene when we see Ari in the church.
I know! He was just checking stuff out, he was just looking around.
Rachel: But it makes sense, right? Someone who has experienced community in a very specific way — there are so many parallels.
With Etty’s story, the dominant emotion I came to feel was abject rage — especially at that judge who took her children away for no good reason.
Heidi: Same here. Unfortunately, there’s been no change for the better in Etty’s situation since we shot the film.
Ugh, such an outrage and travesty of justice. How can that judge get away with it?
Do you want to know his name? It’s Judge Eric Prus. Where this judge resides, judges are elected, not appointed, and they’re elected by the demographic that you see in the movie who unfortunately have a lot of influence.
Rachel: It happens a lot, sadly. In situations like this, these judges typically end up favoring the religious spouse.
Does Etty have any recourse?
She will appeal, but that will take a minimum of five years.
To shine a lot on that situation alone, I’m glad your film is out there. What courage these people have. Many in her position might just submit to the horrors of life with an abusive husband and staying in a community they no longer want to be a part of.
Heidi: She did that for a long time. She stayed for 12 years. But eventually people break.