When I first moved to London, I started to familiarise myself with the area I lived in and recognised the diversity and vast array of different communities existing side-by-side within the district. However, there was one that I started to become more acutely aware of. The first thing I noticed about this group of people were the large fur hats the men wore. I recognised the ‘Payot’, the curled side-locks worn by young Jewish boys and some men, a distinguishing feature in the Jewish Orthodox society but I had never seen these hats before. And so, when the documentary One of Us popped up on Netflix New Releases with the image of a man wearing the same hat, I was naturally drawn to it as a reflexion of a community I had been seeing more and more of since my move.
This hat that had caught my eye was in fact a ‘Shtreimel’ and is worn by Jewish men of the ultra-orthodox faith, particularly members of Hasidic Judaism. So why the was this image being used as the cover for this new Netflix original? One Of Us as I found out is a documentary film directed by observational filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Racheal Grady. Two filmmakers that also brought us the 2006 American documentary film Jesus Camp, now turn their focus on three ex-Hasidic Jews trying to leave their ultra-orthodox community. In a remarkable example of documentary filmmaking, One Of Us successfully creates a portrait of three individuals as they struggle to break free from the only world they know.
As the film begins the beautiful cinematography is exemplary, documenting the New York City skyline backlit by a burning pink glow. Again, Hasidic Jewish men in the traditional ‘Shtreimel’ is the focal point, as is the row upon row of white headscarves and ‘Scheitels’, a wig or half-wig worn by married Jewish ultra-Orthodox women, a particularly powerful image of religious commitment and faith. Although remarkably picturesque, what this shot cleverly manages to do is set up a significant dichotomy. The image of New York and the symbolism of freedom and expression this city embodies, highlights the dark realities of an ultra-orthodox religion accused of extreme laws and controlling regulations. This opening scene therefore is a perfect visualisation to precede the following real accounts of the abuse one woman faced within the Hasidic community and the laws within it that controlled her.
We are introduced to Hetty, an ex-Hasidic Jewish woman as she attends ‘Footsteps’ a support group for ex-Hasidism. Her voice is heralded over facial identity, focusing on the powerful narratives of women and the abuse they have encounted within the community. As the group’s leader asks the question “where is the choice?” it becomes clear that the focus here, is on women and their position as wife and mother within Hasidism and how choice for these women has been taken away from them.
As the documentary continues we are introduced to Ari, a teenage boy who has also made the decision to leave the ultra-orthodox community. In filming the point at which he gets his ‘Payot’ cut off, the film captures a huge symbolic act and creates a compelling visual image. It is shocking in its bravery, documenting the decision Ari has made to remove himself the Hasidic religion. This iconic feature of his hair signifies his Orthodox religion and as these locks are cut off, the physical act of shedding that religion is addressed.
The three almost form a triptych, a beginning, middle and end to the hard and tumultuous process of leaving a religion that is so strict in its segregation and ostracization of non-Hasidic faith. Overall a diverse and multi-layered documentary is created, marking the division between the Hasidic and secular world; the fantasy vs reality within a community that has created its own ambulance, police force and school systems. Yet as the film refers to time and time again, this decision made by all three was never about religion, it is about something much more.
This is a beautiful film, eloquent, mature and heart wrenchingly emotional. The directors succeed in creating a portrait of the negative side of an ultra-orthodox religion without its degradation to the point of no return. It recognises that the ostracization stems from the Holocaust and the mass genocide Jewish people faced, and for them the only way to build their community back up was to block the secular world out. The individual stories of Etty, Ari and Luzer are a powerful insight into a world that is difficult to leave.