With their impressive documentaries “The Boys of Baraka,” “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia,” directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have explored the formative relationship shared between environments and their inhabitants — a dynamic that also serves as the focus of “One of Us,” their incisive new film about young New Yorkers trying to break free from their Hasidic Judaism community. Employing intimate, evocative aesthetics to amplify their material’s heart-wrenching power, the filmmakers craft a harrowing portrait of trauma, bravery and insular societal oppression. After its world premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, the film should be a hit both on the theatrical art-house circuit and its eventual distribution destination: Netflix.
While Joshua Z. Weinstein’s 2017 indie drama “Menashe” views Hasidic life in Brooklyn through the eyes of a mild nonconformist, Ewing and Grady’s nonfiction film goes several steps further. The directors’ latest effort trains its gaze on three individuals looking to escape their domineering milieu, which controls its citizens via forced ignorance about the secular world (e.g. no cell phones for kids, as a rabbi screams at a 2012 Citi Field rally) and threats of excoriation and expulsion if (often-misogynistic) religious guidelines are not strictly followed. For twentysomething Luzer, liberation has already been achieved, and necessitated abandoning his wife and children and absconding to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Now living in an RV and making cash by hook or by crook (as well as by Uber), Luzer is a man adrift, unsure of how to thrive in a society he was unprepared to enter — due, in large part, to a Hasidic upbringing that provided no practical knowledge but plenty of theology-based demands and abuse.
Violence similarly factors into other character studies in “One of Us.” For teenage Ari, a childhood rape by a camp counselor has left him psychologically scarred and — as he expresses to a neighborhood elder willing to lend a sympathetic ear — doubtful about the existence of a God who could allow such torment to go unpunished. While his rebellion initially involved surfing the forbidden Internet (“A gift from God!” he exclaims), it also led to cocaine addiction, as well as a deep longing for spiritual and social communion. That hunger, he learns, can’t be satiated by a return to his hometown; the judgment of street-corner elders over his non-traditional appearance and attitude serves as a constant reminder that fundamentalist belief is predicated on the negation of personal freedom.
Most distressing of all, however, is the plight of Etty, a mother who was forced at age 19 into marriage and ceaseless child-rearing (she has seven kids before she’s 32), and now seeks to flee her tyrannical husband for a contemporary existence in New York. The Hasidic community aggressively opposes her plan, aiming to prevent her from leaving and, in the process, modernizing her brood. Their efforts, multiple speakers argue, stem from the belief that young Hasidic souls function as replacements for those who were lost in the Holocaust, thus underscoring their vital holy importance. More troubling still, Etty’s attendance at Footsteps (an organization that helps people leave their Hasidic lives), and her fight for custody of her offspring, result in terrifying retaliation, be they literal attempts on her life, or manipulation of a court system eager to kowtow to her ex’s demand that the “status quo” of their kids’ lives be upheld.
Ewing and Grady’s camera alternates between cozying up to its subjects one moment, and remaining at a distance the next. As with their refusal to reveal Etty’s face until she’s ready to expose herself to those around her, their approach proves a respectful and evocative means of conveying the alienation, anger and loneliness at the heart of these stories. Opting for a fly-on-the-wall style, the filmmaking duo express, and augment, their subjects’ roiling emotional states, using shrewd compositions that cut off their heads or spy on them through narrow doorways. And in a beautiful repeated shot of Etty looking in the mirror as she takes off, and puts back on, her wig — her reflection first doubled, and then unified — they capture the fundamental caught-between-two-worlds conundrum in which all three of these isolated souls find themselves, struggling to reconcile their upbringing and individual desires into a new, stable identity.