'One of Us': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Searing glimpses of a hidden world.

The directors of ‘Jesus Camp’ explore the high price of freedom for three Hasidic Jews who left the fold.

To call Hasidism insular would be an understatement. In the sections of Brooklyn where this branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism has its largest U.S. presence, it operates its own ambulance fleet, auxiliary police force and court system. Dressing as their ancestors did and restricting their children’s exposure to non-Orthodox media and the English language, Hasidic Jews form an Old World province in the midst of cosmopolitan New York. Think what it would take for someone born into such a tightly guarded culture to pick up and leave.

That’s precisely the struggle that One of Us illuminates. Following three former Hasidim over a fraught and eventful three-year period, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have made their most powerful and complex film. Netflix plans to stream it worldwide in the fall, and its deeply personal insights into a shrouded subculture should generate a wide viewership.

Like Ewing and Grady's Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, an alarming look at the education of evangelical Christians, One of Us concerns a religious community’s us-against-the-world mentality. But with its focus on questioners rather than believers, it’s a far more nuanced report. Exposing the extremes of groupthink from the point of view of the disenchanted, the intimately observed doc brings to mind recent chronicles of defectors from a far newer religion — Scientology. However unlike these faiths may be, there are strong echoes between firsthand accounts by former members of the two groups: experiences of ostracization, character assassination and worse.

Two of the film’s subjects are profiled in the midst of their painful and risky separations, and the third is nearly a decade past his leave-taking but still adjusting. In different ways their stories are harrowing; what might be most surprising to outsiders is the sense of loss that they share, an ambivalent tug of nostalgia for the community that once held and nurtured them, even if it also abused them. Their portraits unfold through sensitive camerawork, with T. Griffin’s expressive score pulsing ominously during especially charged moments and, at others, dropping down to a plaintive, spare piano.

Teenager Ari, traumatized in childhood and tired of living a lie, cuts off his payos (sidelocks) but keeps wearing a yarmulke. On the streets of Borough Park and Williamsburg, his modern dress provokes shaming comments from Hasidic men — exchanges as revelatory as they are creepily sincere, captured from a fly-on-the-wall distance by the directors and their DPs, Alex Takats and Jenni Morello. Ewing and Grady also include exchanges with elders who voice a more philosophical tolerance, if not an understanding of why anyone would prefer a different life.

The film gradually reveals the deep wounds beneath the wry humor of Luzer Twersky, a 30-ish actor who initially constructed his idea of secular society from movies he rented during forbidden trips to Blockbuster. During one of his auditions, the filmmakers catch the startling instant, squirmy and poignant, when he explains his determination to avoid emotional entanglements.

But it’s the story of a young woman named Etty that brings the Hasidic community’s clout into sharpest relief. Her arranged marriage began when she wasn’t yet 20, and within a dozen years she’d given birth to seven children. “Friday night sex was mandatory,” she recalls. After years of physical and mental abuse by her husband, her decision to seek a divorce makes her the target of the local sect and their high-powered lawyers, with even her own parents and siblings aligning themselves against her.

Demonized as the devil incarnate, she pushes on with her brave battle to remain in her children’s lives, and the film reveals how even secular law favors her husband. For the first half of the doc, Etty’s face is obscured, the camera zeroing in on her nervous hands. While certainly understandable in terms of self-protection, it’s a choice that somewhat uneasily underscores and conforms with one of the most troubling aspects of Hasidic culture: the separation of the sexes and the resulting invisibility and subjugation of women.

That makes the moment when, halfway through the film, Etty appears onscreen — and stops covering her hair with the wig prescribed for Orthodox married women — all the more potent.

While Etty, Luzer and Ari are among a minority, it’s a significant enough minority to keep the not-for-profit organization Footsteps busy, providing social and vocational guidance for people who have left ultra-Orthodox sects. Granted access to a support group that Etty attends, the directors offer heartening evidence of a communal antidote to an oppressive group experience. And in a counselor named Chani they find an especially incisive analysis of the chain of trauma, and how the horrors of World War II have shaped the hyper-defensive Hasidic attitude toward family and children.

The people who have hurt these three searchers remain at the edges of film, heard in phone calls or, in one case, fleetingly glimpsed. What interests Ewing and Grady first and foremost is the awakening and courage of their subjects. They’ve crafted compassionate, hard-hitting studies of works in progress — portraits that may disclose dark secrets of a circumscribed world, but which also tap into something regrettably universal. 

Production company: Loki Films
Distributor: Netflix
Directors-producers: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, Jason Spingarn-Koff, Ben Cotner, Lisa Nishimura
Directors of photography: Alex Takats, Jenni Morello
Editors: JD Marlow, Enat Sidi
Composer: T. Griffin
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

95 minutes