Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cast: Etty, Chani Getter, Luzer Twersky
Watch One of Us online in the UK: Netflix UK
One of Us is a film where the title becomes more painful the more you watch. The documentary, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is a spiritual follow-up to Jesus Camp, a movie that delved into the all-engulfing world of a charismatic Christian summer camp. Once again, they portray the complex existence of people who live as part of a community: where the “one” always comes second to the “us”.
The community in question is a Hasidic Judiasm community in New York, and they follow three people who have been in its embrace for years. Embraces, though, can be smothering to the point of suffocation, something that immediately becomes apparent – given that New York is so often considered a character in the background of movies set there, it’s striking just how separate from the city this community seems, removed to the point of isolation and seclusion. It’s the boundary between that seclusion being voluntary and enforced that drives One of Us: if Jesus Camp was about faithful followers of a passionate movement, One of Us is about those who stop believing and want to leave.
Our protagonists are Luzer, a twenty-something man who is now living in Los Angeles and trying to become an actor, Ari, a teenager whose doubt has grown too strong to ignore, and Etty, a mother who wants to leave her abusive husband. With different ages and backgrounds, each of their stories has their own tragedy that slowly comes to light: Ari, we discovery, has had his faith shaken by a trauma much more shocking than simple intellectual curiosity, while Luzer’s musings on how morally correct his living is (he drives an Uber to make ends meet) give way to concerns about the family he had to leave behind to find freedom. Etty’s suffering, on the other hand, is all too obvious, but no less moving, as we lean of how she has almost become a child-rearing machine in a marriage that wasn’t of her choosing.
Their lives within the community were far from ideal, as the documentary examines the closed-minded environment used to keep people’s minds obediently within four mental walls: a charismatic rabbi speaks stirringly at a massive Hasidic rally about the sins of cellphones and tablets, and of the need to push back against the corrupting world. The film contrasts that with some of the benefits and excitement of breaking out of that world: discovering the wealth of information readily available on the Internet (“I couldn’t Google to find out how to Google!”), finding support in organisations such as Footsteps, which helps those who have left behind a Hasidic life, and driving down the road singing along to Staying Alive, even you don’t the words to the chorus.
But while that might make for a rewarding watch, Ewing and Grady craft something more complex and nuanced than that. Filming this trio over several years, their fly-on-the-wall access is astonishingly raw and intimate, but also incredibly sensitive and respectful, never showing people’s faces until they’re ready to be shown, and recognising the comfort of belonging to something bigger that the community brings. “Many Hasidic Jews I know are happy,” says one, as the movie delicately penetrates the bubble of the secretive Hasidic lifestyle.
Yet within a society of such strict, dated rules, there’s a cloying, uncomfortable patriarchy that’s often misogynistic in nature – and that unpleasant, corrosive undercurrent recalls the British film Apostasy (out in the UK in 2018), which explores the horrible consequence of being excommunicated from a closed church, a cutting-off that results in no contact with friends or loved ones on the inside. The result is a moving portrait of a world where the only thing harder than staying is leaving, where, as Footsteps put, people only leave if they are prepared to pay the price: by putting themselves ahead of the group, One of Us is a powerful, heart-wrenching study of what it’s like not to be one of them.
One of Us is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.