One of Us is a documentary about the plight of hasidic jews who choose to leave the enclave of their community. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Jesus Camp fame, we follow the lives of three hasidic jews who step outside the confines of community norms. Etty is a 32 year old mother of seven children who divorces her abusive husband; Ari is an outside-the-box teenager with a drug habit, and Luzer is an actor who abandons his wife and children to pursue his dream in California.
Etty’s battle to maintain custody of her children is particularly heartbreaking and exhibits the double standard New York courts apply to ultra orthodox women versus secular women. If a secular woman has a standing history of abuse from her husband and can illustrate as much in court, there is absolutely no way he will be granted full custody of the children. But what seems a given is an uphill battle for Etty. The entire community finances and supports her husband while relentlessly harassing her; she is more than once deliberately hit by a car and a letter is circulated around the community to solicit legal funds to save the children “from satan.” While I had heard stories of hasidic women treated horrifically in divorce and custody settlements, I never realized how perilous the reality could be for them.
This is a good documentary but not as good as Jesus Camp. The pacing is a little sloppy and some camera work sub par. I would have liked to have seen more of the hasidic community writ large, heard from some rabbis (one rabbi does give commentary later in the film) or learned more about other hasids who venture beyond the fold. Perhaps a broader scope was not possible given how insular and anti-media hasdic jews are: internet access is forbidden, as is the viewing of secular media. In one particularly painful scene Ari is approached by an older man asking if the park has wi-fi access. Ari initially misunderstands the question to indicate the man wants access, and offers him the use of his phone. What entails is an icy third degree and brief lecture on how Ari should repent for cutting his payot (side curls) and engaging in the secular world.
One of Us takes you on a tour of disbelief; disbelief that a thirteen year old has never used google. Disbelief that these individuals, born and raised in Brooklyn, struggle to speak standard english. Disbelief that a kind and loving mother would need to fight for any access to her children. Disbelief that Ewing and Grady even managed to produce this film in the first place! I have to hand it to them- given how deeply sequestered and guarded hasidic society is, these two women have some guts.
This docu gets two thumbs up from yours truly, though I came away slightly disappointed from a technical aspect. As I have preached before, interesting content but poor execution is the singular disease of the documentary world, and while well done, One of Us doesn’t quite hit the mark of Jesus Camp.