New York’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community is rarely depicted on screen, but in 2017 two films succeeded in casting light on that insular world—one fiction and one nonfiction.
Menashe earned rave reviews for its fictional story of a Hasidic widower working in a Brooklyn grocery store. One of Us won similar acclaim—and a place on the Oscar documentary shortlist —for its true story of three young Hasidic people who dared to leave the fold.
“New Yorkers are all fascinated or obsessed with the Hasidic community which we share our city with,” notes Rachel Grady, who co-directed One of Us with Heidi Ewing. “These are people that we see every single day on the street and on the subway and they don’t even make eye contact with us secular people. They just remain extremely mysterious.”
To help penetrate that mystery the filmmakers approached Footsteps, an organization that provides counseling and other services to ultra-Orthodox Jews who seek a life outside the tight-knit group.
“Footsteps helps people that are exiting,” Grady tells Deadline. “We saw a window that we could get through, which obviously isn’t completely inside but it’s enough inside that we felt it would be satisfying and that we could learn something about this community through our subjects…It took two years to find the right people that could tell a story in a cohesive way.”
Grady and Ewing followed a trio of characters including Luzer, a man in his 20s who made the improbable choice of leaving the community to pursue an acting career, and Ari, a teenager dealing with a drug problem and a history of sexual abuse who craved an understanding of how the wider world functions.
“I have to learn how people live,” Ari says in the film. “Google? What the hell is that? I couldn’t Google how to Google because I didn’t know how to Google in the first place.”
Ignorance of what some might consider basic information doesn’t happen by accident, the filmmakers maintain. The Hasidim exist within a tightly-controlled sphere.
“The Hasidic community has created sort of a parallel system—they have their own school system, the Yeshiva system, that most kids go to,” Ewing states. “There’s a lot of Torah and Talmudic studies. And the kids are not at grade level whatsoever, compared to even a public school in New York.”
To many critics the most compelling figure in One of Us is Etty, a young woman with seven children who wants to leave a husband she describes as abusive. That puts her in conflict with Hasidic faith leaders for whom marriage and the raising of children are not private domestic matters.
“Having children and trying to leave the community with your children is a red line that cannot be crossed,” Grady maintains. “As someone in our film says, the kids are considered property of the community. So you can’t take their property and they’d rather push you out and never see you again—literally ghost you—than let you take the kids, which in their opinion are part of God’s design of why they exist.”
“This is a woman who wants a divorce and ends up being completely pushed out of everything she knows and eventually loses her children,” Ewing adds. “The whole thing is shocking to her, to us, to audiences. She got pushed out very quickly.”
Examining questions of religious conviction has become a thematic hallmark for Ewing and Grady, who earned an Oscar nomination for their 2006 film Jesus Camp, about the “Kids on Fire” summer camp in North Dakota where children were trained to become “Christian soldiers in God’s army.”
“There’s a lot of struggle and chafing and big human questions that come out of a strict religious experience and I think that is what has drawn us partly to these subjects—not because we’re necessarily that interested in faith or the tenets of the faith per se. As you see in Jesus Camp or One of Us we don’t really take a deep dive into the specific tenets and practices of each religion,” Ewing explains. “We do a broader take of what happens if somebody buys in or wakes up and says, ‘I don’t think so.’”
One of Us is currently available on Netflix, one of four films from the streaming giant to make the Oscar documentary shortlist, along with Icarus, Chasing Coral and Strong Island.
“Honestly, we were thrilled,” Ewing says of the shortlist honor. “The shortlist feels like it’s your peers saying, ‘Nice job. Really. Nice job…’ A lot of great films didn’t make the shortlist and you never know. So we were jumping for joy. It’s one of the more subtle films possibly on the list. We don’t have a great big issue and it’s an intimate story and hopefully told very well, so you worry sometimes if it you might get lost here and there. But that didn’t happen and we’re really thrilled that people responded to the filmmaking.”