With One of Us (screening November 16 as part of the DOC NYC festival), directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady mesh themes they’ve explored in other documentaries. In their Oscar-nominated 2006 film Jesus Camp, the duo explored the rigid social structures of conservative religion; in 2012’s Detropia, they focused on a community in transition. In their latest film, they have combined both of these focuses to provide an in-depth look at Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community, transcending their previous achievements with gorgeous visual storytelling.
Hasidic communities follow a strictly conservative interpretation of Judaism, mandating that adherents dress in the style of their ancestors, maintain strict standards of separation by gender, and more. The arrival of Hasidim in New York City followed the Holocaust, so — as is discussed in the film — the survival of the culture is paramount in its thinking and its practices. Accordingly, the Hasidic world shuts out others, shunning secular influence and creating tightly insular communities.
Ewing and Grady’s techniques for providing a peek inside their isolated society are quite ingenious. The first shot focuses on two young men along a New York City riverside. One is beatboxing, the other is filming him. After a few seconds, the camera shifts focus to a group of male Hasidim behind them. Viewing Hasidim via the periphery of the frame becomes a recurring visual motif following this opening shot. Other shots peek around corners at members of the community, with walls and door frames jutting into the image. This approach is often used to convey the feeling of spying an intimate situation (Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation and Todd Haynes’s Carol both make excellent use of this practice to provide a glimpse at characters’ domestic lives). Here the technique is deployed on a much larger scale, visually signaling privileged access to a cloistered community.
The film plunges deep into this community to tell the stories of those who wish to leave it. Less than 2% of Hasidim choose to exit the lifestyle, and the filmmakers follow three such individuals during the runtime. Of all the subjects, Etty — a mother of seven seeking to secularize — poses the greatest visual challenge for the narrative. Early in the film, she seeks to retain anonymity, so her identity must be obscured. Ewing and Grady brilliantly craft a method of portraying the young mother that avoids the silhouettes and digitized voices a lazier documentary might adopt. They focus on individual parts of her body; her hands, her back, and her legs carry the tension and anxiety that permeate every part of her life as she seeks employment and custody of her children.
Her young face is eventually revealed to the camera in one of several stunning cuts and montages. Ewing and Grady recognize that much of the Hasidic community’s control over its members stems from the strict mandates regarding appearance and dress. As Etty breaks free from this control, we cut from a phone call where Etty declares of her husband’s abuse, “I’m not keeping my mouth shut anymore about this,” to a montage of shots showing the details of Etty’s mouth and eyes. The montage ends on a shot of a nervous Etty rubbing her necklace against her mouth. The filmmakers also follow Luzer, a former member of the Hasidic community who is now an actor in Los Angeles. In one scene, the film cuts from Luzer in the present — living in a trailer in California in between going on auditions — to seven years earlier, where the actor prepares his beard, yarmulke, and payot for a photoshoot. The cut effectively illustrates the jarring nature of Luzer’s transition and helps make the division within his psyche visceral for the audience.
While the cinematic grammar that guides their arrangement of images is flawless, the beauty of the individual frames themselves is impressive. The other subject of the documentary is a teenager named Ari. The youth’s transition to a secular life is tumultuous; he spars with a cocaine addiction. He shares an anecdote about several overdoses he experienced. When he recounts apologizing to his father, he remembers that his father said, “It’s not you. It’s the addiction inside you.” As he says this, a reflection of Ari sits in the right of the frame, darker and facing another direction. This profound image literalizes Ari’s experience in a way few carefully staged fiction films might realize is possible. By employing refreshingly potent visuals in a marginalized story that needs telling, Ewing and Grady have created one of the year’s best films.
One of Us screens as part of DOC NYC on Thursday, November 16, at 4:45 pm at Cinépolis Cinema (260 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).