After the lights went up at the TIFF Bell Lightbox following the premiere of “One of Us” at the Toronto Film Festival, you could hear a pin drop. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation for the film’s directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who have shown a particularly sensitive touch with such harrowing documentaries such as “The Boys of Baraka” and “12th and Delaware,” but still seeing the reaction to their deep dive into the lives of three Hasidic Jews extracting themselves from the ultra-Orthodox community they were raised in took them aback.
“It’s a very emotional experience and what we noticed is when the credits start rolling and you look at people’s faces, they’re like almost stricken,” says Ewing. “I almost hate putting people through a Q & A. People need time to orient and think about what just happened and almost it’s better to talk to them like an hour later.”
It’s somewhat fitting that audiences need a moment to process “One of Us” since Ewing and Grady create such a compelling portrait of a trio of people who are only now coming to understand the years they spent living within the strictures of the religion they were born into but came to be disillusioned with. When the film introduces Luzer, now driving for Uber to make ends meet while pursuing a career in entertainment in Los Angeles, it isn’t just the feeling of joy that he connects to when he starts bumping the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” in his car, having seemingly put the most distance of the film’s subjects, both geographically and chronologically, between himself and the community in Brooklyn with a societal infrastructure – complete with their own police and fire departments and schools – separate from the rest of the world. He is joined in the film by Ari, a much younger man who found his way into a public library at 13 and discovered the joys of Google, and Etty, a mother of seven who attempts to leave an abusive husband with whom she was forced into an arranged marriage just after she turned 18.
While there is plenty of drama in seeing whether any of the three can make it on their own after leaving their entire support system behind, Ewing and Grady wring out even more in depicting the trio’s even more treacherous internal struggle to escape the psychological grip of their religious upbringing. Fashioning a film in which time can feel as if it’s slowed down and darkness can overtake a frame so as to obscure a subject who feels particularly low, the directing duo have taken another bold step, following the poetry of their elegaic “Detropia,” towards expressing truths about the people they observe that they could never put into their own words. In that regard, “One of Us” is as thrilling as it is devastating and though it is a rare document of the tightly-guarded Hasidic community, it’s rarer still as a cinematic experience. Shortly before its release to the world on Netflix, Ewing and Grady spoke about how they found their way into a culture shrouded in secrecy, their evolution as filmmakers and embracing limitations.
What drew you to the Hasidic community?
Heidi Ewing: Curiosity, first and foremost. We live in New York City, and if you live in New York City, you ride the subway with or walk down the street by Hasidic Jews because there’s a huge population, especially in Brooklyn, and I think most New Yorkers have a lot of questions about how the community behaves, how it works, and what the rules are. But we have no opportunity to interact with one another because there is no eye contact. That’s just part of how the community operates. Also, just knocking on their door and asking for access to be photographed or video taped was unrealistic because this is a community that avoids press and publicity.
Rachel and I shared this curiosity for many, many years and we read an article a few years ago about Footsteps, this “underground railroad” that helps Hasidic Jews who are thinking of exiting and [their] transition into a secular world or gives them counseling on how that could be done. It’s a very private organization that zealously guards their membership, so Rachel and I contacted Footsteps and spent many months trying to gain access to the organization. When they finally agreed, we were at least able to hang out at their office and meet people as they came in and came to their events. That’s where the casting of the film began. It was a very long process because it’s people who are thinking of leaving, they’re not putting it on Facebook or telling their friends. It’s a very private and dangerous decision, so we had to very, very carefully meet and talk to people and gauge whether or not it would be a good idea for them to be in this film.
I couldn’t help but think after seeing this that it could act as a bookend to “Jesus Camp,” watching those indoctrinated into a religion from an early age coming to realize it wasn’t for them as they become their own people in adulthood. Had you been thinking about a movie about deprogramming for a while?
Rachel Grady: Not necessarily in those terms, but we are absolutely interested in belief systems and identity and all these bigger ideas. We happened to make this film that is about doubters, whereas “Jesus Camp” was about believers, so they just ended up being really great companion pieces, but not deprogramming, per se. Although we have pursued some deprogrammers in our day.
Heidi Ewing: We have. We are obsessed with deprogramming as well. [laughs] We’ve got a thing about religions, about cults, about belief. It’s just something we don’t get tired of.
This was an assumption on my part, but I was surprised after reading an early description when this wasn’t more like “12th and Delaware,” where you would tell this story through Footsteps as a place, but you really create three individual profiles. How did that structure come about?
Rachel Grady: We never discussed or thought we were going to make a film about Footsteps because we would never want to make a film just about an organization. We don’t make advocacy films. They were going to be an opportunity and a partner to help us find people that could potentially hold a movie together. And as far as making decisions about who we were going to follow, it’s always a very organic process. It’s not like we say, “We need a 32-year-old male.” It’s just one of those things where you film people, understand what the deeper meaning of their story is – their small picture and their big picture – and you figure out how they can speak to each other. [These three people] had enough in common that they could speak to each other, but enough not in common that you could explore different ideas, which is the best case scenario.
Heidi Ewing: And there wasn’t one person who could tell the entire story of the transition out of the community because it takes years to actually transition into secular society. You’ve got so much catching up to do that following one person out of the community would never be satisfying. You kind of want to get a glimpse of how it’s different for a man [or] a woman, [or] what happens to someone who’s eight or nine years out. Is it better? Is it worse? Is the pull of the community still strong? So we found these three people that we hope can answer a lot of these questions with their own journey.
Since you bring up the idea of how these people are on their own timelines, does that make it logistically challenging to track when their stories might unfold at a different pace from one another?
Heidi Ewing: Ideally as a filmmaker, you’re looking for people that can interact with each other, something like “The Boys of Baraka” or “Jesus Camp” where the characters are actually physically talking to each other in scenes, but that just wasn’t the case [here] These people were on their own journeys. Now they know each other [through the film], but we felt that there was a forward momentum in each one of their stories where you were curious enough to see where they would land in the end. We also felt that these people would not be the same two years after we began, and as storytellers, that’s important because you want to feel some kind of change or arc over time. They had enough hopes and dreams that remained unfulfilled and enough question marks in their lives that we went with our gut and felt it would be a satisfying journey.
Rachel Grady: And the fact of the matter is this particular journey that this small group of people are taking in the world is extremely lonely. The nature of the journey is loneliness and isolation, so we were never going to have a film that was about a group. It is a physical, emotional and existential journey that you’re by yourself on.
I imagine there were certain limitations in filming in this community…
Heidi Ewing: There were only limitations. [laughs] Isn’t that beautiful, though? I loved that you mentioned “12th and Delaware” because that’s like the ultimate limitation – we could literally not leave the corner. No one would let us go home with them, so we were literally like, “ahh…corner,” looking for a story. Compared to that, this was like, “At least we could film New York and it’s a very cinematic place.” But the community does not want to be photographed and we did not have special access into the elders of the community or invited in to someone’s sukkot. The access was through the perspective of the people leaving, so we’re able to get real glimpses of how the community operates and how people talk to one another, through our characters that are in that transition between in and out.
[Because of] the limitations, the way we photographed the film is very voyeuristic by design. We wanted the audience to feel that we were reaching – and they’re all trying to reach to understand and we get up just a little bit before someone evaporates into dust. That’s how it felt making it – little tiny moments of understanding – so aesthetically we tried to project that in the film.
Thinking back to “Jesus Camp” and all your films since then, it seems like these films have become more stylized over time in contrast to your roots in verite. Is there a conscious desire to push yourself with each film or is it confidence in your skills?
Heidi Ewing: Well, this is verite, but with style. We’re trying to do both.
Rachel Grady: I think we’ve just gotten better as we keep doing it. Hopefully. It’s a craft, and hopefully the next film we haven’t made is better than this one, and it is [also] a confidence thing, which is that [we feel] people will be patient with us as we do something different. A lot of times people are scared if they did something that was good, they don’t want to change that because it worked for them, but we’re willing to take risks and we’re hoping that our audiences will take them with us.
Heidi Ewing: You want to stretch as a filmmaker and a storyteller. You don’t want to be stagnant or stay in the same place as an artist. We do have a lot of conversations about the aesthetic and it’s a visual medium, so for example, making a film at Footsteps, which we never intended to do…
Rachel Grady: It’d be a good article [rather than a movie].
Heidi Ewing: It’s an article. Special things happen inside, but it’s a clinical place and it factors into our decisions how cinematic is a particular topic.
With Etty in particular, you obscure her brilliantly in terms of how you shoot her, which seems like it might’ve been a demand of hers to participate, but also creates this expression of how she must feel having to go into hiding after leaving the community. What was it like to make such a bold choice upfront like that?
Rachel Grady: What I wanted to add, and it feeds right into this, is that while we do want to push our craft and aesthetics are obviously important – it’s something that you look at – we would never want the style to get in front of the story. As a viewer, I can’t stand when that happens to me. I feel manipulated. So it’s always a relationship between the story and how it looks. In the case of Etty, when we first started filming her, she had just started the divorce proceedings with her husband. She was feeling very stressed, very fearful and very nervous about being part of the project, so she didn’t want her face to be shown. But as we continued to film her and as her case proceeded and as her life…
Heidi Ewing: …Imploded…
Rachel Grady: …and took twists and turns, she became more bold. So the film mirrors our experience filming her.
There are also these devastating phone conversations with her estranged husband and others that only she likely would’ve recorded. Did she become actively involved in telling her own story in that way?
Heidi Ewing: She started recording her phone calls before we met her. A few weeks before we met her, she just got an app on her phone because she was having conversations with her husband that were disturbing and she thought, “No one’s going to ever believe me.” For whatever reason, she had the foresight…I don’t even have that app on my phone.
Rachel Grady: Because she’s fucking brilliant.
Heidi Ewing: She’s really, really brave and smart. It was a while before we figured that she had [this] app on her phone – she almost said it like in passing a few months into shooting and we thought, “Well, a lot of the story must be in there,” so she agreed to turn those phone calls over to us and kept recording them. We integrated them into the film because it’s a really raw, unadulterated portrait of how the community is behaving towards her, so we wove that element into the film after listening to many hundreds of phone calls. And we have to give [Etty] credit. She trusted us a great deal. And there’s a great responsibility that we had in exchange for that trust, which is we had to tell the story well, tell the truth, don’t be exploitive, show nuance and take our time with her story.
For the scenes that take place in Yiddish, did you actually have on set interpreters to understand what was going on?
Rachel Grady: No, we had to translate [scenes] after the fact.
Heidi Ewing: But we actually did study Yiddish for a couple of months once a week, so we could mainly tell what was happening. Our associate producer was pretty good with it too, but then after that, we had to get everything translated word for word and there were some surprises.
Rachel Grady: It’s actually hard to find translators that know how to speak Hasidic Yiddish because it’s a live language. It changes all the time, [as opposed to] classic Yiddish, which a lot of people [speak] — there are these Yiddishists that study Yiddish art and theater, but they don’t speak street language, so it’s a tiny little minority of people that speak this particular kind of this language in the world. So it was difficult, but it’s fascinating. everything about it really interested us and we loved the challenge of it.
“One of Us” is now available to stream on Netflix.