A still from One Of Us. (photo from lokifilms.com/one-of-us)
The riveting Netflix documentary One of Us follows three New Yorkers in various stages of the painful process of leaving their Chassidic community. The lone woman among them is far and away the film’s most memorable character, in part because she has the most harrowing journey.
“Etty was in the middle of a case and under massive personal duress from the beginning,” co-director Rachel Grady recalled. “She was apprehensive at first [about being in the movie] because she’s somebody that does not seek attention and would never under normal circumstances want to be filmed or photographed for her ego.”
Etty had filed for divorce after 12 years, claiming physical abuse, and she was fighting an uphill battle for custody of her seven children. At the same time, her family and friends abandoned her.
“We had agreed we wouldn’t show her face,” said co-director Heidi Ewing. “She had very good reasons for not wanting her identity to be shown to the world. What happens in the film is what happened to us in life, which is, about halfway through the project, she said, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose anymore. I’m not going to hide.’”
“She was very much alone and isolated and this insane, unexpected reaction from the community was happening to her,” said Grady. “She couldn’t believe it herself. I think she needed some documentation that this was real.”
One of Us debuted on Netflix in mid-October, but the New York-based filmmakers were recently on the West Coast for screenings and Q&As with Academy members who will vote on Oscar nominations.
Grady and Ewing, whose films include last year’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You and Jesus Camp, took steps to include the Chassidic community’s perspective, including a portion of a rabbi’s speech at an assembly at New York’s Citi Field that laments the threat – assimilation on steroids – that the modern world poses to Chassidism.
“Anything we had to show the warmth among the people in the community is in the movie,” said Ewing. “If you’re in the community, if you’re standing by all the rules and doing the right thing, there’s a lot to be gained. People will know about you and care about you. It’s when you deviate a little bit to the left or right, there’s going to be consequences.”
While most of the duo’s films focus on a religious community, Grady noted that they are interested in the belief systems that create community rather than matters of doctrine.
“It’s really about the community, how you identify yourself, how you identify yourself compared to others, your worldview based on your community,” Grady explained. “It’s something we could explore over and over and over, and religion is just a great way to do it. You could do the same thing on the zealots at my food co-op.”
Grady, who was raised Jewish in Washington, D.C., confided that she had never thought more about being a Jew than in the three years that she and Ewing were making One of Us.
“This idea that Jews always talk about, is it an ethnic group, is it culture, is it religion? It’s all of those things, and it weighs heavily one way or another depending how you were raised. In this case, there’s a group of people who are my neighbours in Brooklyn that I see every day and I know that I have a deep connection with them.
“I’m always thinking, ‘Did my great-grandfather do that? Would I have done that?’ It was kind of like an exercise every day when I was working on this film.”
While those questions will come up for some viewers as well, they are more likely to be moved by Etty’s struggle to leave the only society she’s known and forge a life in the wider world.
One of Us is now streaming on Netflix (unrated, in English and Yiddish, 95 minutes).
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.