“Wikipedia is a gift from God.”
These are the words of Ari Hershkowitz, an ex-Hasidic Jew who has decided to break away from the only way of life he’s known. He says these words with a smile, leaning up against the brick of his drug rehabilitation center as he takes another pull from his e-cig. While he is trying to be funny, his words still carry a lot of weight. Wikipedia is a gift in his eyes.
For the first 18 years of his life, the rules of Hasidic Judaism have been his guide. There are restrictions on what to wear, what to read, where to go and what to say. The ultra-orthodox sect has long banned internet use. The belief is that exposure to the secular world would lead the community into corruption. When Ari decides to leave the community, it isn’t just his surroundings that will change. He knows he was going to change, too. He will have to start over and learn everything his community had long been hiding from him about the secular world. He is being re-born.
The documentary One of Us tells the story of Ari Hershkowitz and two other individuals who are driven to break away from the insular world of ultra-orthodox Judaism. The film is what some consider a sequel of sorts to Jesus Camp, the wildly popular documentary about children who attend a summer camp run by an extreme evangelical Christian church in Missouri. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady released Jesus Camp in 2006, and 11 years later the filmmakers are back with this new film looking at the edges of America’s religious identity. The pair make up Loki Films, a production company that has also produced a lot of successful documentary films including Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016.
One of Us launched in selected theaters and to a global audience on Netflix on October 20th. The film took more than three years to make and navigated a tough road gaining the trust of the very private Hasidic Jew community. The filmmakers also found another challenge in shooting multiple characters through a transformative phase in their life, something that certainly takes time. What emerged was a deeply personal portrait of three people who are not only turning away from a religion, but are also turning away from the only home they have every known.
The most upsetting story in the film has to be that of Etty, a 30-year-old woman who decides to cut off ties with the community. What she finds herself facing is an ugly and expensive legal battle over the custody of her children. We find out that there is a history of abuse which lead to Etty seeking the divorce, but that is not enough to support her case. The Hasidic community has been finding loopholes in the law for decades, and with the financial backing of crowd-funding from the inside they win the case.
“Nobody leaves unless they’re willing to pay the price,” says Chani Getter. She is the founder of Footsteps, an organization that provides programming and resources for those leaving ultra-Orthodox communities for the secular world. In the film, we see Etty regularly attending sessions with a group of others in a similar position. Getter carefully listens to countless stories of heartbreak and loss- something she can relate to after having gone through the experience herself.
Getter is not new to the world of documentary film. She is the subject of another film on the complexities of the Hasidic community. Devout is a short documentary film about the lives of seven women who are trying to reconcile their alternative sexuality with their commitment to Orthodox Judaism.
“The first documentary I did before One of Us was much more in depth. It followed me at home and through a lot of my personal life,” Getter said. “I was hesitant to become a part of this project at first. I didn’t know if I wanted Footsteps to be involved. But Heidi and Rachel kept calling. After I watched some of their work, I knew that they were incredibly talented and could do justice to the story.”
Getter says that she knows how invasive some documentary filmmakers can be. What she likes about Ewing and Grady is that they were never too pushy. They were willing to really work with her and other subjects in the film. “I saw the film for the first time a couple months ago before the premiere. I thought they did an amazing job in telling our story,” Getter said.
The film switches between close-up intimate perspectives and long atmospheric sequencing. The musical score adds to the intensity of peak moments in the portraits. It is clear that the filmmakers want the audience to immerse themselves in the journey. Rarely are strong emotional pulls through visuals or sound absent from a scene.
“One of Us is the most thought-provoking film we’ve ever made. We are excited to hear audiences weigh in on the vexing question of what price we’re all willing to pay to forge our own identity,” explain Ewing and Grady on their website. The film is a strong addition to the succession of films made by these filmmakers that deal with these universal themes in the context of religious extremes. With the global audience that the platform of Netflix gives, along with the strong emotional narrative throughout, the film is sure to be seen by many who will be able to appreciate what it took to create this project.