“One of Us” is a documentary that premiered on Netfilx last month after debuting at the Toronto Film Festival in September. It was directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directors who brought us the 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” which is about a “Charismatic Christian” summer camp and is a more horrifying movie than “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” combined.
“One of Us” is less horrifying, but not by much. The documentary is about three people who have left Hasidic Judaism and entered secular life, and the struggles that they encounter in making the transition.
Their struggles are mighty, and “leaving” Hasidism isn’t a simple thing, like walking out of a shitty movie halfway through. You don’t just pick up your belongings and go, in part because, as the subjects of this film have found out, the problem is not so much in the leaving as it is in finding someplace to go.
One of them, a woman named Etty, was married off in her teens and is the mother of a gaggle of children. She left her husband to escape the abuse that he was meting out to her on a constant basis, but unlike situations in the secular world in which a woman who leaves her husband can share custody of the children, the Hasidic community plays for all the marbles, and collections are taken up within their neighborhood to pay for enough legal representation to make sure that she gets nothing.
At her custody hearings, it’s revealed that she is regularly followed by someone from the Hasidic community, who watches her daily movements. This person testifies against her for committing such crimes as taking her children to the public library, or allowing them to watch movies.
The men who leave Hasidism fare slightly better, but they have the same problem of entering secular society as Etty does, and they have none of the tools needed to navigate it. One of them, whose name is Ari, said that he can’t do basic math. Another, who has the extremely unfortunate name of Luzer, is the only one who has managed to carve out a niche for himself, and he lives in Los Angeles and works as an actor.
One gets the sense that of the three of them, his life of abject poverty and alienation from the secular world is the most successful, simply because he has no illusions about reconnecting with the people he left behind. Etty and Ari, on the other hand, still struggle with the fact that they have been shunned, and that they’ve lost all of their friends and family. Their pain is palpable.
Even if you’re not someone who’s particularly predisposed to watching movies about people escaping from cults, or watching movies about people who must sacrifice everything they hold dear in order to live freely, “One of Us” is riveting. It’s also a timely movie in the Harvey Weinstein era, because if you’re one of those people who asks why his victims didn’t come forward sooner, this movie will explain to you how choosing to buck the established order carries a very high price, so much so that maybe it’s better for some people to just shut their eyes and keep davening.
Even if you’re not someone who’s particularly predisposed to watching movies about people escaping from cults, or watching movies about people who must sacrifice everything they hold dear in order to live freely, “One of Us” is riveting.