TIFF ’17: Heidi Ewing talks exploring Hasidic Judaism in “One of Us”

Religion isn’t unfamiliar territory for Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. Ten years ago, the pair released the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp — a doc that followed the children of an evangelical Christian summer camp called ...
September 12, 2017

Religion isn’t unfamiliar territory for Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing.

Ten years ago, the pair released the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp a doc that followed the children of an evangelical Christian summer camp called Kids on Fire. At the camp, the children took part in programs designed to strengthen and intensify their beliefs.

In their latest doc, Grady and Ewing are exploring another devout religious community, but this time from an adult perspective. The subjects featured in the doc are in a position to make their own decisions about their beliefs and lifestyles.

In One of Us, Ewing and Grady penetrate the insular world of New York’s Hasidic community, focusing on three individuals driven to break away despite the sometimes serious consequences.

Among the individuals featured are Luzer, a man in his late twenties who has broken ties with his family to pursue his dream as an actor, and 18-year-old Ari, who has suffered the trauma of sexual abuse and wants to explore a different way of life.

Perhaps most haunting is the story of Etty, a woman who was forced into marriage at 19 and birthed several children by the time she turned 29. After years of spousal abuse, Etty has decided to divorce her husband. Aside from the legal obstacles that come along with divorce, Etty must also confront the fact that she has been shut out from the community she once called family.

One of Us had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday (Sept. 10). Netflix picked up the doc in August, and will begin streaming it next month.

Realscreen chatted with Ewing about the doc and the process of filmmaking with a partner:

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

How much did know about Hasidic Judaism going into the project?

When you live in New York, you might feel like you know about the Hasidic Jewish community, but you don’t really know. You share the subway together and there are street festivals during the high holidays you might be aware of, but there’s very little conversation happening between New Yorkers and Hasidic Jews. It really was a learning experience for Rachel and I. We learned about the religion, but more importantly, we learned a lot about humankind, the way groups work and how exclusionary collective groups can be, Jewish or not Jewish. A lot of the bigger themes started to emerge once we began shooting. Once we had done our primer on Hasidism, we saw some larger human themes emerge and that’s what excited us.

How did access play a role in this doc?

This is not a community seeking publicity or coverage – it kind of goes against everything they’re about. We never planned on getting full access inside the community. We knew that wasn’t realistic, although we did make our attempts.

What was really surprising was how hard it was to get access to the people who are leaving or who have left the community. You can’t just walk up to someone on the street and ask them if they’re planning on leaving. So how do you find these people? You can’t read minds. The Footsteps organization became our crucial point of access and it took about a year for them to let us hang out without a camera.

They reviewed our work, they spoke to our board and they decided it would be in good hands. And that just got us in the doors. Basically, we had permission to come to events and game nights without a camera, and just meet people.

Why was it important to use verité style shooting for this project?

When you have a story that lends itself to verité, Rachel and I prefer to do it that way. We’re not big on sit-down interviews, but we’re always looking for stories that are unfurling in the moment. We believe that if you’re following someone who is in transition long enough, you can capture it without asking one million questions. So we track our subjects over a year, sometimes several.

It’s something we believe in. It takes more patience, but it’s satisfying for me to illustrate to you what happened as opposed to recapping it for you. In this case, the material was strong enough to shoot verité.

What do you hope audiences take away from the doc?

I think these characters represent real resilience… the power of an individual and the power of curiosity. Against their best judgment, these are people that are pushing forward because they want to learn more, and are willing to the pay the price. I think these are really brave characters and I hope audiences are inspired by their bravery.

How did your experience with Jesus Camp inform your work with One of Us?

Every project builds on the one before. It’s been 10 years, and Rachel and I are still fascinated with the subject matter – with the nature vs. nurture aspect of humanity. Does the way that you’re raised inform your future? In Jesus Camp we explored some of those issues but the people in One of Us are in a different stage, where they have agency and autonomy in a strict religious environment. What happens when there’s doubt? What happens when they see a stain on the pretty picture? Of course, we couldn’t look at that in Jesus Camp because they were children. So this is kind of putting a period at the end of the sentence. It was an itch we wanted to scratch, and we embrace the relationship between the two movies.

How has the working relationship between you and Rachel evolved over the years?

I think there’s a lot more shorthand. We don’t always go on location together, and we direct different scenes. We definitely watch the material of the other before we go out into the field, but we’re able to do that pretty seamlessly now. Once we settle on a style and tone and we’re in agreement for what we’re looking for in the field,  we’re able to hand off scenes and storylines pretty easily. It’s gotten a lot smoother over the years. There’s a lot more trust. You know someone’s aesthetic, and for whatever reason it works for us.

You and Rachel have spoken in the past about taking on other work in between projects, which is the case for quite a few docmakers. What advice would you give to emerging docmakers looking to pursue their passion projects while still trying to earn enough to pay the bills?

First of all, you don’t always have a big idea. If you don’t have a big film in production, you need to let it season and stew and in the meantime you want to keep your skills up, use your talents and make a living, so sometimes it’s good to jump on documentary series and we continue to do that. TV’s gotten a lot smarter and the taste of documentary is much more sophisticated in the U.S. now. So now the projects that are coming to us that are made for TV aren’t so bad.

I think there’s more opportunity to do smart work than there ever has been. I would go and work with someone you admire and a prodco that you think is doing good work – preferably a small one. Even transcribing an interview and seeing how it’s edited is an extremely informative lesson in storytelling. There are a lot of ways to learn the craft. It’s an art, but it’s also a craft. There are rules.

It’s lucky for up-and-coming filmmakers because there’s more opportunity than ever, and the cost of entry is lower.

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