Walk around New York City for a day and you're likely to encounter a member of the Hasidic community. The ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism has a significant presence in Brooklyn, and it's that presence that documentary filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing—known for 2006's Jesus Camp—focused on for their newest doc, One of Us.
The film follows the lives of three ex-Hasids, documenting the ways in which the Hasidic community ruthlessly retains its members, shrouds instances of abuse, and terrorizes any members who choose to leave for the secular world. Each of the subject's experiences illuminate different, harrowing aspects of their former community: Teenager Ari struggles with addiction and trying to gain practical knowledge while adapting to the real world; Luzer looks to make it as an actor while suffering from depression and attempting to reconcile; Etty fights her abusive ex-husband, looking to gain custody of their seven children in a court battle that's shockingly stacked against her.
we sat down with Grady and Ewing to discuss zealotry, getting harassed by the community, and filming people on the worst days of their lives.
VICE: Is there something that particularly interests you in religious extremism?
Heidi Ewing: You can learn a lot about the human condition by looking at zealotry and organized religion, because it has demands and rules and requirements that the rest of the United States doesn't have anymore. You can see the human animal in how much they can take and suspend their disbelief in order to align—how much they care about peer pressure and groupthink versus what they might actually be thinking.
Why did you decide to make a film about the Hasidic community?
Rachel Grady: We learned about the organization Footsteps, and we met their members and started learning about the community through their point of view. A lot of those who leave the community deal with a lot of abuse. You get a clear picture of this from people who leave. We didn't know anymore than you did when we started focusing on the film.
What was the filming process like then?
Ewing: We kept a low profile, but out in public. It was a skeleton crew, no boom man, leaving out things that would be telltale. We used a lot of long lenses. One of our characters, Etty, we hardly shot outside—it was too dangerous. It was so sad. No one would talk to her. She was still in the community. She didn't want to be in her neighbourhood.
Were there any moments during filming when a member of the community approached you?
I had one or two experiences where people would put their finger in the face. They don't want to make eye contact with a secular woman—or any woman. I think it was Purim and people were getting annoyed. We crossed a line, I don't know what line it was.
Grady: They kind of freaked me out. I was with three guys, and I think that did not help. Sometimes it was good to be shooting with a guy, and sometimes it was not good to be shooting with a guy. I think that if it was just two women, it was a benefit that they didn't take you seriously. Sometimes it was a benefit with a guy when he could go into spaces women couldn't. We were actually filming Kappores, which is this very colourful holiday where they take a live chicken and they spin it over people's heads and they say a certain prayer. They're really sensitive to it because PETA has attacked them about it. They were worried because they were thought we were PETA. They put these plastic covers all around them so you couldn't see the chicken unless you were right above. They followed me to my car.
How do you think this film reflects on extremism in America?
Grady: There are extremists and fundamentalists in every religion, and they're all the same. I think they all have a lot in common. Fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Jews—they have all of the same issues, and they offer the people the same stuff: an entire package of why you are.
What were the biggest obstacles doing this?
Ewing: It was really hard filming people going through these things. They were being abandoned and going through a lot of pain. It was excruciating filming a close-up of a face on a person who feels like they have nothing left to live for, and we saw that face a number of times. It's hard to be looking for that, or making a movie about that. Of course, they come out the other end, and that's really gratifying, but it's really hard to get up and film someone on the worst day they've had.
There are a myriad of ways that the Hasidic community puts a stranglehold on its people. Was there one way that you thought was the most effective?
Grady: Education is 80% of it. There's nothing more powerful than that. They just don't learn anything. Ari recently said, "When I learned about the Big Bang theory, I was furious!" I would be fucking mad too.
Ewing: They also make examples of people. They want everyone to know what happens to Etty. They point to the suicides of the ex-Hasidic community, like, "Look, see!" They tell stories of how everyone who's left is deeply unhappy and didn't make it out there. It's folklore. They all fall into drug addiction and suicide. It's very, very effective.
Grady: They grew up with that. Rabbis tell stories. That's something they learn about when they're a kid. The secular world is the bogeyman. You listen to everything your parent says, which is why we want to get people out of their bubble with this movie.
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