ONE OF US: A Fairly Effective Profile Of The Powerless
One of Us is a sometimes powerful portrayal of three Hasidic Jews, showing their struggles to get by in a world that oppresses them.
“I was trained only for motherhood. And the person behind that began to fall apart,” says Elly, one of the subjects of One of Us, a documentary about three ex-Hasidic Jews and their challenges leaving that community. That concept of “training” rings throughout the film, which posits the Hasidic community as a controlled environment that trains humans to docilely perpetuate its ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
The film, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, has a fascinating hook. For the uninitiated, it acts as a shocking exposé of the Hasidic Judaism present in current-day Brooklyn, where the religious practice was brought during World War II. It’s a precise way of life that leaves little room for coloring outside the lines. Arranged marriages around the age of 18 instill almost immediate breeding, and the raising of the children is nearly uniform from family to family, prescribed, regulated, and preserved by the church and those in power within it.
Elly, Luzer and Ari
One of Us specifically focuses on a triad of people who have removed themselves from this community: Luzer, a twenty-something living in L.A. with the longest ex-Hasidic tenure of the three; Elly, a young mother new to a life outside of the church; and Ari, a teenager still trying to find out where he wants to be in the world. They each have unique struggles with the transition from the Hasidism to the secular world. And each experience works to highlight distinct ways that life in under ultra-Orthodox rule can be oppressive, repressive, sheltered, abusive and persuasive.
My fear with documentaries that have an elevator pitch as catchy as One of Us, is that they’ll be all sizzle and no steak. These movies often work to expose a central truth, but merely tread water around its sensational premise. Last year’s Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is a good example of this. As is Fall From Grace, the 2007 film focusing on the Westboro Baptist Church. Merely telling us that these subjects are nefarious is not enough. Casting an even larger shadow of doubt over One of Us was the directors’ 2006 documentary, Jesus Camp, which, while being a massive hit in non-fictional film standards, was exactly the type of volatile documentary that shook a big stick but had little to offer in the way of nuance.
It becomes clear fairly quickly, however, that One of Us has more to say than “this community is bad.” Thankfully, Ewing and Grady are more interested in telling their subjects’ stories. Elly, in particular, takes center stage, and rightfully so. Her situation — currently navigating the minefield that is leaving this culture as a mother and wife — expresses the depths of the Hasidic community’s power.
As the aforementioned quote said, Orthodox Hasidism obscured her individual identity and personal rights. The religious community was set up in a way that placed her as a target of sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse, all without recourse. It’s important to note that the stifling of her unique identity is a feature, not a bug, of the community. Elly’s story is really about someone willing to confront a culture that is at odds with them as anything other than an agent of the larger structure. Her exit from Hasidism is both a recognition of her own erasure and an unwillingness to be complicit in a destructive system.
A Central Paradox
While Elly’s narrative may sound empowering, and it truly is, it’s not without an intense sadness inherent in her decision. When you become an ostracized member of the Hasidic community, it’s nearly impossible to be with your children. Her story centers around the fight to retain custody of her children, not just because she wants to be with them, but also because she doesn’t want them to continue to grow up under the oppression of Orthodox Hasidism. However, the community’s strong network means they’re able to crowdfund the best lawyers available, and notably, lawyers with previous experience fighting ex-Hasidic custody battles.
This complex and interminably haunting conflict is one of the film’s most salient points of emphasis. At one point, Etty succinctly says, “It’s not about religion.” The implication is that this culture is about control, and the prescribed breeding, imminent upon early marriage, is part of how this control is subtly maintained. People who make it out pose a problem for the community; they’re able to talk to others about the culture’s nefarious machinations. And to take kids out of this culture is to deny it as strong a future.
Luzer, the twenty-something ex-Hasidic, offers a contrasting view. Years ago, he made the choice to live with relinquishing his fatherhood as a sacrifice for his own freedom. He treats his marriage and his children as memories of a past life, yet it clearly still troubles him. Ewing and Grady are able to highlight this deflating truth — that the stakes of extricating yourself from the community are monumental — through simple juxtaposition, rather than stuffing it down our throats.
Luzer and Ari’s stories, while being secondary to Elly’s, work to present a more well-rounded, nuanced perspective of what it’s like to leave the community. Their story-lines specifically highlight the ripples of trauma, the persuasiveness of community, the unlearning of repression and the liberation of exposure to things baked into secular life (such as the internet). Most striking from their experiences is the idea that once you leave Hasidism, you not only have to unlearn all the ways you have internalized your oppression, but you also have to learn about how the rest of the world works. You enter the society with relatively no trade skills.
“They have designed a society where it is unable to make it in the outside world. They have designed the world where if you leave it, the only way you can survive is by being a criminal,” Luzer says. Not only do his sentiments speak to the exasperation of being born into this culture, but it also posits that this is largely a community of victims. Paradoxically, the Orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn was designed to be hermetically insulated as a reaction to their victimhood during the Holocaust, but has since come to be a society that, when working properly, systematically creates victims.
Stylistic Trappings: One Of Us
Altogether, One of Us is a thorough enough documentary; it’s proficient, touching at times and makes for a compelling watch (at least for someone uninitiated with the Hasidic community), but I think it has some minor troubles properly communicating the emotional resonance of its subjects. This is mostly due to the film’s aesthetic.
Ewing and Grady employ a cinematography and editing style cribbed from the prestige television zeitgeist. That sheen and rhythm might work for a fictional TV show, but for a documentary like One of Us, where you want to be “in the room” during some of the more contentious discussions and powerful testimonies, it’s distracting. Also, that aesthetic is used in prestige TV as a complement to the often “dark” subject matter that so many shows are interested in. Here, I wish the filmmakers would have let the inherent darkness of its subject and the darkness of the characters’ lived experiences speak for themselves.
One of Us reminded me of another documentary product bought by Netflix: The Keepers. The most memorable moments of that miniseries, which was similarly about how religious communities construct power structures in order to abuse others, came out of traditional talking heads interviews where the director let us simply listen to the stories of these people. The subjects in One of Us have important, powerful stories to tell us. While those stories often come through, it can sometimes be so enamored with its own stylistic flairs that it distracts from the subjects’ emotional energy.
What do you think of One of Us and its treatment of religious community? Let us know in the comments.
One of Us is available on Netflix now.
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