How 'One of Us' Filmmakers Gained Access to the Insular Hasidic Jewish Community
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady filmed the doc, which explores the Hasidic faith and lifestyle through the eyes of three who are leaving its ranks, for three years in secret.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who earned an Oscar nomination for their examination of an evangelical Christian community in 2006's Jesus Camp, have trained their cameras on New York's insular Hasidic Jewish community with One of Us.
"We point out in the film that you can't give an entire community a pass for specific behaviors, but we discovered over and over and over again that, within 15 minutes of conversation with them, there was a Holocaust reference," says Ewing.
The memories of that genocide loom large in the close-knit group, helping to foster a "no-outsiders" mentality — an ideology that puts strain on the three subjects that Ewing and Grady follow in their Netflix doc.
The film focuses on a trio of individuals at different stages in their lives and looks at their respective connections to the faith and lifestyle of the Hasidim: Etty, a young mother, is battling her abusive husband for custody of her seven children; teenager Ari is branching out from his strict upbringing; and Luzer, an ex-member, has relocated to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming an actor.
"You get a grasp of the Hasidic community through our characters that haven't quite left yet, and that's the beauty, for us, of the film," says Ewing. "You do get an authentic feeling through our people, who are sort of on their way out."
Finding the right subjects to follow proved a unique challenge for Ewing and Grady.
"There were a lot of people we filmed that we felt were too vulnerable," says Grady. "People that leave are often in pretty bad emotional shape when they're first leaving, so we also had to keep that in consideration."
The casting process took the directors a year before they began shooting, but they were not the first documentarians to explore the subject of Hasidic life. "There were actually previous projects that filmed the [Hasidic community] that didn't go anywhere," says Grady. "The community that our subjects are leaving never wanted us to be part of that. By design, they're not going to let a secular film crew come in and film them."
Grady and Ewing found help gaining access behind the closed curtain of the Hasidim through Footsteps, an organization that assists exiting Hasidic Jews through the rough transition period. The nonprofit, New York-based organization plays heavily in the story of Etty, who faces constant harassment from her estranged husband and their peers.
"Etty showed the darker, negative side of what the community is capable of while the two men showed the compassion and the warmth that is also there as well," says Grady.
The doc, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and launched on Netflix (and in select theaters for an Oscar-qualifying run) on Oct. 20, already has generated awards buzz (it was nominated for best documentary at the Philadelphia Film Festival), but Ewing and Grady are quick to dismiss the idea that Oscar recognition factored into their filmmaking process. "If you are basing your career and choosing topics because you think there might be a little gold man at the end," says Ewing, "you'd be tripping."
One of Us, which took three years to film, saw the duo recording more than 300 hours of footage, which they whittled down to a 93-minute documentary. "We were very satisfied," explains Ewing of their final product. "It's very rare that we feel this way — that we were ready to stop. So much change happened to [Etty, Ari and Luzer] in those years we were filming. It's like where we left them in the movie is where they are right now."
This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.