Compelling in the extreme, One of Us is a standout documentary in Netflix’s arsenal. It exposes a Hasidic Jewish sect which stands accused of child molestation, making death threats and even physical attacks.
This archaic community, which rejects modern conveniences such as smartphones and the internet, operates in the heart of New York City. It functions as an extended family and, from childcare to job opportunities, provides plenty of perks.
In fact, in a delicate arrangement with the authorities, there are even ambulance and policing services in New York which are run entirely by Hasidic Jews. However, the primary language is Yiddish and in some schools, there are only two hours of secular teaching per week.
But this particular sect goes a few steps further and One of Us sheds light on the control and coercion used to keep their traditions unchanged and their secrets safe. The documentary was made by filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. As Heidi explains: “We were working under the radar for a year; we didn’t need to be pitching it.”
“The Hasidic community was a topic Heidi and I were both very interested in but never thought there was a point of access because they have their own community and have their own language, literally,” Rachel told Business Insider.
“It seemed out of the cards. But then we learned about Footsteps.” An organisation to which provides support to those leaving the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community, Footsteps provides a pathway into what - for many of its clients - is an entirely new world.
“They had been approached many, many times by many filmmakers,” Rachel continues, “but we managed to persuade them to at least let us meet their membership and let us make our pitch. It’s essentially the same process that we always have had.”
The key subject of the film is Etty - a former Hasidic Jew who is engaged in an intense custody battle over her seven children. Forced to marry an abusive man at the age of 19, her life was one of silence and servitude. Etty, who has since made clear that her sexuality was another reason that she left her husband, comes up against the highly-qualified lawyers of a powerful community which would sooner lose one member rather than eight.
Convinced that she is being followed, harassed and even physically attacked, Etty’s story highlights how protective this community is over its members. Frighteningly strict, it is a world which is by no means easy to leave.
In the film, it is explained that ultra-orthodox Judaism was a post-Holocaust reaction to what seemed an increasingly hostile and anti-semitic world. Codes and customs, such as women wearing wigs rather than showing their real hair in public, have been fastidiously preserved.
“We really wanted to capture a transition,” Heidi explains. “Some people we didn’t go forward with because they were too fragile and couldn’t endure being followed by us. Others were too far out in the world already.”
“We were very reluctant because we felt we hadn’t landed our final subjects,” Ewing adds, on the subject of their negotiations with Netflix. “When they wanted to come on board we told them the people on the footage you saw probably aren’t going to be in the movie, we need a couple of years to make this. They were willing to do it.”
Another of the film’s subjects, Luzer, breaks away from the Hasidic life to pursue acting in Los Angeles. While he has now adjusted to modern life, he initially found himself in such an alien social landscape that it was almost impossible to adjust.
Meanwhile, Ari - the film’s youngest subject - left the community following alleged sexual abuse which he says he is still suffering the effects of. The prevalence and acceptance of sexual abuse by those in trusted positions, he argues, is part and parcel of the community. Furthermore, when he did make the decision to leave, he found that his lack of English skills, in addition to many others, meant he was far less capable than most people his age.
In many cases, it is not simply the sudden change in lifestyle which causes emotional damage but the community’s in-or-out approach and the consequent ostracisation by loved ones. Ari, we learn, has been through a cycle of addiction and rehab and blames this partly on the traumatic experiences of his past.
It could be said that the Hasidic community is an easy target. Visibly and audibly different, it is a social group which has aimed to distance itself from modern life in an age when integration is touted as the key to harmonious living.
Furthermore, for these same reasons, neither Heidi nor Rachel nor Netflix risked alienating their audience. It is a niche social group which they have no stake in. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other religions which are insular and which manipulate their adherents.
However, that there is a community of individuals living in New York City who denounce modern technology and dress, talk and act differently is one thing. That the stories from defectors are so reminiscent of a cult is something entirely different.