How a Netflix documentary got inside New York City's intensely insular Hasidic community

  • "One of Us" is a Netflix documentary that gives a rare look inside New York City's insular Hasidic community.
  • Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady spent three years making it.
  • Two of the three people they spotlight in the movie said they suffered sexual or physical abuse before leaving the community.
  • Since the movie became available on Netflix in late October, young people within the community are watching it, the filmmakers said.

 
Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have spent their careers getting access to places most believed weren't possible to crack.

For their Oscar-nominated doc “Jesus Camp” (2006), they looked at a summer camp where kids were convinced that they had “prophetic gifts.” In “The Boys of Baraka” (2005), they chronicled the journey of 12 boys from Baltimore’s most violent neighborhoods who attended a boarding school in rural Kenya to get a chance at an education they couldn't receive back home.

So when Netflix caught wind that Ewing and Grady were making a movie about people trying to separate from New York City’s insular Hasidic community, it jumped at the chance to be involved.

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Hasidic community in New York City
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Hasidic community in New York City
NEW YORK - MARCH 04: Hasidic Jews celebrate the festival of Purim in the borough of Brooklyn March 4, 2007 in New York City. The holiday commemorates the deliverance of Jews from an ancient plot to exterminate them and is celebrated by giving charity to the poor, a holiday feast, the reading of the Biblical story, drinking wine and wearing costumes. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: A Hasidic teen walks through a Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn on April 24, 2017 in New York City. According to a new report released by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose by 86 percent in the first three months of the year. The group's audit of anti-Semitic events counted 541 anti-Semitic attacks and threats in the first quarter of the year, a significant increase over the same period last year. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: Hasidic rabbis prepare to pose a group photo, part of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, in front of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters November 19, 2017 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. They are among 4600 rabbis from around the world who are in New York for international conference aimed at reviving jewish awareness around the world. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 04: Hasidic Jews celebrate the festival of Purim in the borough of Brooklyn March 4, 2007 in New York City. The holiday commemorates the deliverance of Jews from an ancient plot to exterminate them and is celebrated by giving charity to the poor, a holiday feast, the reading of the Biblical story, drinking wine and wearing costumes. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 8/4/74-New York, NY: Although they are dressed soberly, young Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn seem to underscore a leader's statement that 'the people here are very happy.' Two big groups of Hasidic Jews live in Brooklyn neighborhoods and have halted the spread of urban decay in its tracks.
BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 17: Young Hasidic Jewish boy wearing eyeglasses with peyes sidelocks writing a lesson in his notebook at cheder aka cheider elementary school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on October 17, 1972. The boy is wearing a yarmulke and hair sidelocks (side locks) (peyes) and sits at a desk in an education classroom. The school is United Talmudical Academy boys elementary school Cheder aka Cheider. The students are from the pious observant Satmer Hasidim community. The writing with a pencil is in English. Lessons are in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. (Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 17: Young Hasidic Jewish boy with peyes sidelocks in lesson to read Hebrew book with help from his teacher at cheder aka cheider elementary school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on October 17, 1972. The boy is wearing a yarmulke and hair sidelocks (side locks) (peyes) and sits at a desk in an education classroom. The school is United Talmudical Academy boys elementary school Cheder aka Cheider. The students are from the pious observant Satmer Hasidim community. The hands of his teacher rabbi help guide the student. (Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 17: Young Hasidic Jewish boy with peyes sidelocks reads Hebrew book at cheder aka cheider elementary school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on October 17, 1972. The boy is wearing a yarmulke and hair sidelocks (side locks) (peyes) and sits at a desk in an education classroom. The school is United Talmudical Academy boys elementary school Cheder aka Cheider. The students are from the pious observant Satmer Hasidim community. A rabbi helps another student with his lesson. (Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Observant Jewish men examine and buy lulav palm fronds that are used in celebration in the Diaspora of the Sukkot holiday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York on September 22, 1972. Lulav is a closed frond of the date palm tree. It is one of the Four Species used by pious Jews during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Some of the men are Hasidic Jews and others are Orthodox and wear hats or yarmulkes. The reeds are displayed on the hood of a car as pop-up street market. Buyers count the leaves of the frond to insure that they are kosher. (Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19, 1972: Hasidic Jewish man with beard and yarmulke examines with a magnifying glass a diamond that he is polishing in 47th Street workshop in Manhattan, New York on October 19, 1972. The workers at this diamond workshop on 47th Street are religious and observant Jews mostly of the Satmer Hasidim community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and rent space at the diamond processors workshop for grinding diamonds. (Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) New York: Rabbi Schmuel Butman, a leader of the Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, his wife and children are shown at the end of a Sabbath ceremony and prayer in their home. From left are: son Velvel, 7; the rabbi; son Yossi, 4, and wife Rochel, holding daughter, Yehudis, who is 9 months. 8/4/1974
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“We were working under the radar for a year, we didn’t need to be pitching it,” Ewing told Business Insider.

The two had received foundation money to start the movie, which would go on to be titled “One of Us.” They were at the very beginning stages of trying to gain trust with people in the community, but Netflix saw the potential and wanted in.

Finding people who didn't want to be found

“We were very reluctant because we felt we hadn’t landed our final subjects,” Ewing said of talking to Netflix. “When they wanted to come on board we told them the people on the footage you saw probably aren’t going to be in the movie, we need a couple of years to make this. They were willing to do it.”

Netflix “One of Us” is a striking movie that looks at the lives of three Hasidic Jews who make the tough choice to leave the community. Twenty-something Luzer breaks ties with his entire family to pursue acting; Ari leaves while still suffering the trauma of alleged sexual abuse while in the community (which led to substance abuse); and Etty, the movie’s standout, leaves her children behind after saying she's had enough of the physical abuse from the man she was forced to marry at 19.

Ewing and Grady eventually chose to focus on these subjects after meeting them at the organization Footsteps, a support group for former Hasidic Jews that the filmmakers found out about.

“The Hasidic community was a topic Heidi and I were both very interested in but never thought there was a point of access because they have their own community and have their own language, literally,” Grady said. “It seemed out of the cards. But then we learned about Footsteps. They had been approached many, many times by many filmmakers, but we managed to persuade them to at least let us meet their membership and let us make our pitch. It’s essentially the same process that we always have had.”

But the get-to-know-you process was longer than anything they had gone through before with a reluctant group. It took the filmmakers six months of talking to the leaders behind Footsteps, but they were finally allowed to come to meetings without cameras three years ago. It then took another six months for them to find their three subjects.

“We really wanted to capture a transition,” Ewing said. “Some people we didn’t go forward with because they were too fragile and couldn’t endure being followed by us. Others were too far out in the world already.”

23 PHOTOS
Ultra Orthodox Jewish wedding
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Ultra Orthodox Jewish wedding

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride takes part in the "mitzva tantz", the custom in which relatives dance in front of the bride after her wedding ceremony, in Netanya, Israel, late March 15, 2016. Thousands took part in the wedding of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya on Tuesday night.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man uses binoculars during the wedding ceremony the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya, Israel March 15, 2016. Picture taken March 15, 2016.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Family members lead Ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride Parowol Mirel Lamber, from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok (Hasidic dynasty), to marry the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Tzanz Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community at a wedding ceremony on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men take part in the wedding ceremony of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya, Israel, March 15, 2016.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride takes part in the "mitzva tantz", the custom in which relatives dance in front of the bride after her wedding ceremony, in Netanya, Israel, early March 16, 2016. Thousands took part in the wedding of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya on Tuesday night.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidim attend the wedding ceremony of Parowol Mirel Lamber, the bride from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Hasidim community, and Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Family members lead Ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride Parowol Mirel Lamber, from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok (Hasidic dynasty), to marry the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Tzanz Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community at a wedding ceremony on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidim attend the wedding ceremony of Parowol Mirel Lamber, the bride from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Hasidim community, and Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride takes part in the "mitzva tantz", the custom in which relatives dance in front of the bride after her wedding ceremony, in Netanya, Israel early March 16, 2016. Thousands took part in the wedding of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya on Tuesday night.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidim dance during the wedding ceremony of Parowol Mirel Lamber, the bride from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Hasidim community, and Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groom Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, arrives on a horse-drawn carriage for his wedding with the granddaughter of Rabbi Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidim attend the wedding ceremony of Parowol Mirel Lamber, the bride from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Hasidim community, and Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Family members lead Ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride Parowol Mirel Lamber, from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok (Hasidic dynasty), to marry the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Tzanz Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community at a wedding ceremony on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidim dance during the wedding ceremony of Parowol Mirel Lamber, the bride from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Hasidim community, and Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children run next to a horse-drawn carriage carrying Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, before his wedding with Parowol Mirel Lamber from the Toldos Avrohon Yitzchok Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Family members lead Ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride Parowol Mirel Lamber, from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok (Hasidic dynasty), to marry the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Tzanz Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community at a wedding ceremony on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children stand next to a horse-drawn carriage carrying Natan Meir Neta Hilbershtam, the groom from the Tzanz Hasidic dynasty, before his wedding with Parowol Mirel Lamber from the Toldos Avrohon Yitzchok Hasidic dynasty, on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women attend the wedding ceremony of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty, and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya, Israel, early March 16, 2016.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men attend the wedding ceremony of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya, Israel March 15, 2016.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride arrives to her wedding ceremony on a carriage in Netanya, Israel March 15, 2016. Thousands took part in the wedding of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya on Tuesday night.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride takes part in the "mitzva tantz", the custom in which relatives dance in front of the bride after her wedding ceremony, in Netanya, Israel, late March 15, 2016. Thousands took part in the wedding of the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Moshe Halberstam, religious leader of the Sanz Hasidic dynasty and the granddaughter of the religious leader of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Hasidic dynasty, in Netanya on Tuesday night.

(REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride Parowol Mirel Lamber, from the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok (Hasidic dynasty), arrives on a horse-drawn carriage for her wedding with the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Tzanz Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community on March 15, 2016, in the Israeli central city of Netanya.

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

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The three they eventually went with were a mix of both. Etty and Ari were literally a week or two from deciding to leave the community when the filmmakers met them at Footsteps. And Luzer had been out for over a year, so he could show how people adapt when they are more removed.

The sudden change of heart by one of the movie's most compelling characters

But the backbone of the movie is Etty.

At first she refused to have her face shown on camera, which led to a challenge Ewing and Grady had never encountered before, as they had never allowed someone in their films who didn’t agree to be shown. Yet the stories of women being abused within the Hasidic community were coming up more and more as the filmmakers got deeper into making the movie, they said. And they knew they needed to have a woman featured who would speak about it.

Netflix“We just struggled creatively how we were going to show her,” Grady said. “Animate her? Shoot her from behind? It was a horrible puzzle.”

The filmmakers decided to animate the Etty footage with a chalk outline look. Tests were done with footage to get it right. But then halfway through filming Etty decided to let Ewing and Grady show her face.

“She became a different person at one point of shooting,” Ewing said. “She shed a skin and someone else was there. As a filmmaker, this is one of those rare moments.”

The drama of the Etty reveal is shown in the movie. Her storyline begins with the viewer only seeing the back of her head, while she describes disturbing moments in her past. Then, halfway through the movie, there’s a moment when Etty turns and shows her face on camera.

It's the movie's most striking moment that shows Etty taking that first step into starting a new life for herself.

Since filming the movie, none of the three main subjects have returned to the community, Ewing and Grady said. Lozer has been acting on stage and in films, Ari has gotten sober after a stint in rehab, and Etty is going to community college and an educational trust fund has been started to get her to a four-year college.

Why Netflix's worldwide reach has mattered for the documentary

Though Ewing and Grady had almost no contact from leaders inside the Hasidic community while making the movie— though after two years, a Rabbi who is friends with Ari agreed to be interviewed on camera — word about the movie has grown since “One of Us” became available on Netflix in late October.

“A lot of young people are watching it on their iPhones in the bathroom,” Ewing said. “I was in a shop the other day and there were a group of Israeli girls there and they showed me their WhatsApp group in Hebrew that they were having with their conservative family members about the movie.”

The filmmakers said being involved with Netflix turned the movie from just another powerful documentary that people hear about (but isn't playing at a nearby theater), to one that can cause change because it’s so easily available to those who need to see it.

“Everywhere there is a Hasidic community there happens to be Netflix available: the United States, England, Canada, and Israel. We passed on a traditional theatrical release to have this movie drop globally on the same day.”

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