One of Us
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (directors)
Released October 20, 2018
Trigger Warning for discussion of domestic violence and sexual assault.
What would happen if you left everything you ever knew, every person you’ve ever known, and decided to live in a world you had a limited understanding of, with barely any skills to make a living with? Sounds scary right? That’s the decision the subjects of One of Us have made. This Netflix documentary is about people who have left the Hasidic Jewish community and the consequences there of.
It’s kind of a similar theme to the trashier and exploitative former Amish shows that appear on the Discovery Channel or TLC. But don’t worry, One of Us is infinitely better and deeper. The documentary follows three people who are all in different stages of leaving their faith. Single mother Etty, who is fighting her abusive ex-husband to get sole custody of her children; Ari, a teenage boy who is trying to figure out what he wants his future to be like; and Luzer, a quirky actor whose life away from Hasidim was at a heavy price.
Before watching, I didn’t realize that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were also the people behind the famous Jesus Camp documentary. I haven’t watched it yet. I know. I’ll get there soon. But after watching One of Us, I’m even more excited to give it a try. If you watched the former, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the latter.
One of Us doesn’t expect you to know anything about Hasidic Judaism. It does give the audience background information about in on-screen text, enough to understand the world at a basic level. But the film is not about the religion and those who do follow it. It’s about how the religion has shaped Etty, Ari, and Luzer, and what happens when you leave a seriously insular community. All three say living as Hasidic didn’t teach them any survival skills for the “real world,” and all struggle to find their footing in secular life.
Honestly, of the three stories Etty’s is the most compelling. If Grady and Ewing wanted to, they could have made the documentary entirely about her. For the first half of the film, we don’t see her face, as she values her privacy. Instead, we see the back of her bewigged head, and her trembling hands. Later, after a particularly bad day in court, we see Etty in full view of the camera. Refusing to hide any longer, she takes off her wig and we see her expression of defiance. It’s my favorite sequence in the film, and by far the most powerful.
Ari may be the youngest person covered in One of Us, but that doesn’t mean his story is simple. Grady and Ewing open his segment with him getting the distinctive Payot side curls getting shaved off, symbolizing the start of his more secular lifestyle. Ari is the one I believe viewers will feel the most concerned about. As he explains his past to camera, we see a young man still working through his traumatic experiences. He says as an eight year old, he was raped by the principal of his Hasidic summer camp. Ari’s sexual assault being covered up for the sake of the community at large will sound all too familiar to many.
Luzer’s story, while excellent, is more disjointed than Etty and Ari’s. Unlike the companion threads, the sense of time in his parts is a little unclear. Luzer’s hair dramatically changes in between sections suggesting that months (or years) have passed since the last filming. But comparatively speaking, Luzer’s story is the least emotionally fraught, giving what can be a depressing film some humor.
There really was enough going on to make a series out of the stories here. Since the focus of One of Us is more on the people we are watching than Hasidim, the short length makes sense. We see and learn so much, it feels much longer than its ninety minute run time. Still, the film is lacking. As the counselor at Footsteps, a support group for ex-Hasidic Jews, says, the community is the way it is because of the devastation of the Hasidic faith during the Holocaust. This generational trauma is brought up by name, but not explored. Again, this could have been talked about beyond a mention if One of Us had the time.
If you go into this movie expecting to see any sort of resolution in the lives of Etty, Ari, and Luzer, you’ll be disappointed. One of Us just ends. I don’t consider that a flaw; that’s life. It’s rare that the problems our trio faces can be solved in a short period. I do think that if Grady and Ewing wanted to do a follow up documentary in a few years, it would be worthwhile to see what has happened to Etty, Ari, and Luzer. A part of me had expected that we would see the three interacting and sharing their experiences with each other, but we don’t. Oh well, maybe in the hypothetical sequel.
What I didn’t expect was for this film to mess me up as much as it did, and I’ve watched some documentaries that cover difficult topics. I ended up crying during the ending scenes of Etty spending her brief, allotted moments with her children. By the end, I wanted to give her, Ari, and Luzer hugs. Ewing and Grady don’t hold back at showing the sheer loneliness their subjects face due to their decision to leave. There are plenty of shots showing them, Ari especially, surrounded by people, yet utterly alone.
While uneven in places, One of Us is a heartbreaking domestic drama that’s a worthwhile watch. Don’t view it when you’re feeling vulnerable, and be warned, it does talk in-depth about domestic violence and sexual assault. But you will walk away with a renewed sense of how much we take for granted.
One of Us is available to stream on Netflix.