One of Us (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Out of their insular community

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Netflix documentary film “One of Us” looks closely into one insular religious community in New York City, and what it shows us is not so pretty at all. Here are three individuals who simply did not conform to the rigid religious rules of their former world, and the documentary gives us a number of powerful moments as observing the hefty price they have to pay for walking out of the world which once defined them.

The religious community in question is the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and the opening scene of the documentary shows us a bunch of Hasidims spending afternoon together in their neighborhood. As reflected by their old-fashioned attire and appearance, their life is strictly and firmly defined by their ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and the documentary later shows us how insular their community has been for many years. For example, they have not only their own community school for education but also their own policemen and ambulance workers, and many secular things including Internet are prohibited in the name of faith.

In this extremely conservative community, women are expected to be dutiful wives who obey their husbands and raise their children, and so was an ex-Hasidic woman named Etty. After two perfunctory arranged meetings with a guy who would be her husband, she was instantly pushed to marriage, and she had to endure her abusive husband for several years before she finally came to decide that enough is enough. She called the police, and she eventually decided to leave her community as well as her husband along with her children.

However, she soon found herself relentlessly oppressed by her community. Not long after her husband left the house as ordered, her husband’s family members came for threatening her, and that tense moment is indirectly presented to us via the recording of her desperate call to 911. Since she broke the religious rules as reporting her husband to the police and trying to get a divorce, she was quickly ostracized by many others in her neighborhood, and she even experienced a possible direct threat to her life at one point.

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At least, she gets some support from an organization named ‘Footsteps’, which has helped many ex-Hasidims like Etty. We see her attending a meeting with other ex-Hasidims, and the documentary makes a clear point on why it is quite difficult to leave the Hasidic community. Besides adapting to the outside world, they also have to build their whole life from the very bottom, and that is certainly hard for them, considering that they had no formal education or anything similar to that from the beginning. Not so surprisingly, only less than 2% of the Hasidic population leave their community every year, and that reminds us again of how difficult it was for Etty to make her important life decision.

Compared to Etty, other two people presented in the documentary are going through less difficult situations, but they also have each own problems and anguishes. In case of a young man named Ari, he openly shows that he does not have much faith, and he makes his position clear to others through cutting his hair. Open to many new things outside his community, he routinely checks Internet whenever he can, and he later tells us how he was particularly excited by Wikipedia.

However, we come to learn about the personal demons he has struggled with for years. He was molested by a rabbi when he was only 8, and he became more disillusioned as nobody around him took his words seriously. In addition, he came to have a serious addiction problem, and we later see him spending time at a rehabilitation center in Florida after going through a couple of overdose incidents.

Ari often talks with a local rabbi who kindly listens to him, and the rabbi later recognizes that the community does have problems. While trying to protect and preserve its culture and belief, the community has adamantly been out of touch with the outside world in many aspects, and something should really be done about that.

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In case of a guy named Luzer, he is the most well-adjusted one. After deciding that he had to pursue an acting career, he left his family in Brooklyn and then moved to LA several years ago, and he says he is all right with his life at present, but we observe how shabby his life is. While living in an RV car, he works as an Uber driver for making ends meet, and his acting career has so far been going nowhere, though he does not lose his hope yet.

It is amusing to see how he once tried to be a Hasidic performer, but there is some sense of melancholy when he talks about his former life, and that is exemplified well by the scene where he shows us a neighborhood where he once lived with his ex-family. He might miss his former life which was a lot more stable, but he made his choice anyway, and he does not regret it.

“One of Us” is directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who were previously Oscar-nominated for “Jesus Camp” (2006). Although it is not exactly objective in its storytelling, the documentary lets us muse on its complex subject for ourselves while maintaining its calm, thoughtful attitude, and I especially admire its sensitive handling of Etty’s story, which is certainly the strongest part in the film. This is a solid documentary which deserves to be watched by more audiences, and I hope that its wider availability via Netflix will draw more attention to its subject.

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