Friday, October 20, 2017
Living in a diverse city like New York, you're made aware every single day of just how many communities exist. Even beyond race, orientation, gender expression, you see people united by the kinds of clothes they wear or their mode of transit. But even if crowded together on a packed subway car, there's one community that feels isolated. They exist just out of phase with the rest of reality, as if your hand would pass through them if you reached out. That separation is by design, giving this community a feeling of protection and strength. What the new Netflix documentary One of Us reveals, though, is that bridging the gap between worlds is nearly impossible–and sometimes dangerous–for those looking to break out.
Cut off from modern culture and cloaked in tradition, the Hasidic community seem like a small enclave on the surface–that is, until about halfway through One of Us when you see thousands and thousands of members of the faith gathered at a baseball stadium. It's then that you realize that all of that, an entire world, exists just out of sight of your day to day. This realization makes the world feel uncertain, unknowable. If all this can go on under my radar, what else is happening out there?
The disorientation that those outside the faith feel in that one moment is similar to the disorientation felt by the documentary's three subjects: Luzer, a man that traded in his faith for Hollywood (literally); Ari, a college-aged survivor of abuse within the community that's eager to escape via Google; and Etty, a mother of seven fighting for freedom and also One of Us' tragic heart. Their stories follow them as they traverse worlds, jumping from the dangers they know to the dangers of a mysterious new reality.
Leaving the Hasidic community is not an option given to its members at any point. That doesn't mean the Hasidic community has a perfect retention rate; when young Ari confronts a community elder about religious hypocrisy, the elder shrugs it off, telling the kid that he's far from the first person to have a crisis of faith. What's clear are the consequences: you leave, then you leave. You're done. No contact with anyone in the community, your family or friends, and–in One of Us' most painful sequence of events–the entire Hasidic community will unite to wreck your life. Those are the stakes, and the film–which comes from the same team that delivered the intense study of evangelical Christianity Jesus Camp–makes them feel insurmountable.
Aspiring actor Luzer lost contact with his family immediately after telling them that he had given up on religion. He relocated to the west coast and followed the same life path that plenty of others have trod: aspiring actor by day, Uber driver also by day. Unlike others, he doesn't have a familial safety net and lives in an RV to keep costs down. At times, the otherwise upbeat, Bee Gees singin' guy comes across as (rightfully) angry about his past. He's the one that makes the observation that life in the Hasidic community sets everyone who wishes to leave up for failure. This indoctrination starts with heavily censored textbooks with illustrations of cartoon women masked in black marker and continues throughout the formative years, resulting in adults that know how to live in the Hasidic community and nowhere else. Luzer explains what he's up against: "Everybody who leaves [the community], they end up in jail or rehab."
Through Ari, a similarly curious man about a decade younger than Luzer, we see the hunt for knowledge in action. "I couldn't Goole how to Google because I didn't know how to Google in the first place," he says, relaying with a wry smile just how difficult it is to learn what the community wants to keep hidden. Initially, Ari's journey seems like it's going to be the least fraught as he's a young, energetic guy whose quest for knowledge isn't combative. He cuts off his sidecurls but still wears a yarmulke as he searches for the way he wants to express his faith. But Ari's casual questioning leads to intense interrogation from everyone around him and, as the past traumas of our lead subjects come into focus, his story turns into a tense push and pull with no easy way out.
There are developments I'm withholding to preserve the narrative impact of One of Us, although I can't say that the doc really has spoilers. If you've seen other films about tightly controlled religious communities, ones about the Catholic church or even Scientology, then you're already familiar with what's at play in One of Us. The worst happens to those that speak out against the dangerous people in power, and then the worst keeps happening until the credits roll. As necessary as Luzer and Ari's stories are, One of Us feels, ultimately, all about Etty, a Hasidic woman married off to a domestic abuser at the age of 19 who spends her 20s in a nonstop cycle of battery and childbirth. Since it is against Hasidic code to take legal action against another member of the community, she quickly finds out that no one is on her side as she fights quite literally to save her life and the lives of her seven children. We see Etty become stronger and more defiant throughout the film as she finds a community with Footsteps, an organization founded to help ex-Orthodox adjust to outside life. But the more she fights, the stronger the community gets. Stalking, manipulation, intimidation, harassment, a hit and run–there are no lengths the community won't go to to expel Etty and separate her from her seven firmly entrenched children.
One of Us is not an easy watch, but there's no way that it could be. For all the stability Hasidism offers those who believes, this documentary and so many articles reveal that it's not kind to those that wish to step away from it. People that try to speak their truth to those in power are squashed, and this keeps happening–in many religions–time and time again. One of Us makes this conflict feel draining and damaging, albeit at a fraction of the intensity felt by its subjects. One of Us gives us a peek inside a mostly isolated world, and through it we learn that it has all the same problems.
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