- “One of Us” is a Netflix documentary that gives a rare look inside New York City’s insular Hasidic community.
- Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady spent three years making it.
- Two of the three people they spotlight in the movie said they suffered sexual or physical abuse before leaving the community.
- Since the movie became available on Netflix in late October, young people within the community are watching it, the filmmakers said.
Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have spent their careers getting access to places most believed were impossible to crack.
For their Oscar-nominated doc “Jesus Camp” (2006), they looked at a summer camp where kids were convinced that they had “prophetic gifts.” In “The Boys of Baraka” (2005), they chronicled the journey of 12 boys from Baltimore’s most violent neighborhoods who attended a boarding school in rural Kenya to get a chance at an education they couldn’t receive back home.
So when Netflix caught wind that Ewing and Grady were making a movie about people trying to separate from New York City’s insular Hasidic community, it jumped at the chance to be involved.
“We were working under the radar for a year; we didn’t need to be pitching it,” Ewing told Business Insider.
The two had received foundation money to start the movie, which would go on to be titled “One of Us.” They were at the very beginning stages of trying to gain trust with people in the community, and Netflix saw the potential and wanted in.
Finding people who didn’t want to be found
“We were very reluctant because we felt we hadn’t landed our final subjects,” Ewing said of talking to Netflix. “When they wanted to come on board we told them the people on the footage you saw probably aren’t going to be in the movie, we need a couple of years to make this. They were willing to do it.”
“One of Us” is a striking movie that looks at the lives of three Hasidic Jews who make the tough choice to leave the community. Twenty-something Luzer breaks ties with his entire family to pursue acting; Ari leaves while still suffering the trauma of alleged sexual abuse while in the community (which led to substance abuse); and Etty, the movie’s standout, leaves her children behind after saying she’s had enough of the physical abuse from the man she was forced to marry at 19.
Ewing and Grady eventually chose to focus on these subjects after meeting them at the organization Footsteps, a support group for former Hasidic Jews whom the filmmakers found out about.
“The Hasidic community was a topic Heidi and I were both very interested in but never thought there was a point of access because they have their own community and have their own language, literally,” Grady said. “It seemed out of the cards. But then we learned about Footsteps. They had been approached many, many times by many filmmakers, but we managed to persuade them to at least let us meet their membership and let us make our pitch. It’s essentially the same process that we always have had.”
But the get-to-know-you process was longer than anything they had gone through before with a reluctant group. It took the filmmakers six months of talking to the leaders behind Footsteps, but they were finally allowed to come to meetings without cameras three years ago. It then took another six months for them to find their three subjects.
“We really wanted to capture a transition,” Ewing said. “Some people we didn’t go forward with because they were too fragile and couldn’t endure being followed by us. Others were too far out in the world already.”
The three they eventually went with were a mix of both. Etty and Ari were literally a week or two from deciding to leave the community when the filmmakers met them at Footsteps. And Luzer had been out for over a year, so he could show how people adapt when they are more removed.
The sudden change of heart by one of the movie’s most compelling characters
But the backbone of the movie is Etty.
At first she refused to have her face shown on camera, which led to a challenge Ewing and Grady had never encountered before, as they had never allowed someone in their films who didn’t agree to be shown. Yet the stories of women being abused within the Hasidic community were coming up more and more as the filmmakers got deeper into making the movie, they said. And they knew they needed to have a woman featured who would speak about it.
“We just struggled creatively how we were going to show her,” Grady said. “Animate her? Shoot her from behind? It was a horrible puzzle.”
The filmmakers decided to animate the Etty footage with a chalk-outline look. Tests were done with footage to get it right. But then halfway through filming Etty decided to let Ewing and Grady show her face.
“She became a different person at one point of shooting,” Ewing said. “She shed a skin and someone else was there. As a filmmaker, this is one of those rare moments.”
The drama of the Etty reveal is shown in the movie. Her storyline begins with the viewer only seeing the back of her head, while she describes disturbing moments in her past. Then, halfway through the movie, there’s a moment when Etty turns and shows her face on camera.
It’s the movie’s most striking moment that shows Etty taking that first step into starting a new life for herself.
Since filming the movie, none of the three main subjects have returned to the community, Ewing and Grady said. Lozer has been acting onstage and in films, Ari has gotten sober after a stint in rehab, and Etty is going to community college and an educational trust fund has been started to get her to a four-year college.
Why Netflix’s worldwide reach has mattered for the documentary
Though Ewing and Grady had almost no contact from leaders inside the Hasidic community while making the movie – though after two years, a Rabbi who is friends with Ari agreed to be interviewed on camera – word about the movie has grown since “One of Us” became available on Netflix in late October.
“A lot of young people are watching it on their iPhones in the bathroom,” Ewing said. “I was in a shop the other day and there were a group of Israeli girls there and they showed me their WhatsApp group in Hebrew that they were having with their conservative family members about the movie.”
The filmmakers said being involved with Netflix turned the movie from just another powerful documentary that people hear about (but isn’t playing at a nearby theater), to one that can cause change because it’s so easily available to those who need to see it.
“Everywhere there is a Hasidic community there happens to be Netflix available: the United States, England, Canada, and Israel. We passed on a traditional theatrical release to have this movie drop globally on the same day.”