A scene from the Netflix documentary "One of Us"
A scene from the Netflix documentary "One of Us"

Hasidic ties bind, confine and inform ‘One of Us’

The riveting Netflix documentary “One of Us” follows three New Yorkers in various stages of the painful process of leaving their Hasidic community. The lone woman among them is far and away the film’s most memorable character, in part because she has the most harrowing journey

Etty had filed for divorce after 12 years, claiming physical abuse, and she was fighting an uphill battle for custody of her seven children. At the same time, her family and friends had abandoned her.

“Etty was in the middle of a case and under massive personal duress from the beginning,” co-director Rachel Grady said during an interview in San Francisco. “She was apprehensive at first [about being in the movie] because she’s somebody that does not seek attention and would never under normal circumstances want to be filmed or photographed for her ego.”

Added co-director Heidi Ewing, “We had agreed we wouldn’t show her face. She had very good reasons for not wanting her identity to be shown to the world. … about halfway through the project she said, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose anymore. I’m not going to hide.’ ”

Etty “was very much alone and isolated and this insane, unexpected reaction from the community was happening to her,” Grady said. “She couldn’t believe it herself. I think she needed some documentation that this was real.”

“One of Us” received its Bay Area premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, shortly before it debuted on Netflix. The New York-based filmmakers were unable to attend, but visited San Francisco last week for a screening and Q&A with Academy members who will vote on Oscar nominations.

Grady and Ewing, whose films include last year’s “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” and “Jesus Camp,” took steps to include the community’s perspective, including part of a speech by a Hasidic leader at New York’s Citi Field that laments the threat of assimilation that the modern world poses to Hasidism.

“Anything we had to show the warmth among the people in the community is in the movie,” Ewing said. “If you’re in the community, if you’re standing by all the rules and doing the right thing, there’s a lot to be gained. People will know about you and care about you. It’s when you deviate a little bit to the left or right, there’s going to be consequences.”

While most of the duo’s films focus on a religious community, Grady noted that they are interested in the belief systems that create community rather than matters of doctrine.

“It’s really about the community, how you identify yourself, how you identify yourself compared to others, your worldview based on your community,” Grady explained. “It’s something we could explore over and over and over, and religion is just a great way to do it. You could do the same thing on the zealots at my food co-op.”

Grady, who was raised Jewish in Washington, D.C., confides that she had never thought more about being a Jew than during the three years that she and Ewing were making “One of Us.”

“This idea that Jews always talk about — is it an ethnic group, is it culture, is it religion? It’s all of those things, and it weighs heavily one way or another depending how you were raised. In this case, there’s a group of people who are my neighbors in Brooklyn that I see every day and I know that I have a deep connection with them.

“I’m always thinking, ‘Did my great-grandfather do that? Would I have done that?’ It was kind of like an exercise every day when I was working on this film.”

“One of Us” is streaming on Netflix. (unrated, in English and Yiddish, 95 minutes)

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.