When documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady hunt for a new film subject, the project must meet their demanding criteria. The first requirement: “special access, some kind of in that no one else has,” Ewing told IndieWire. If they’ve got that, the pair uses a metric that asks a number of questions, including “will the characters be different by act three?” and “is there observational, verite material to be had? is something happening now?” and “is it high stakes?”
The pair’s latest film, their sixth after such lauded documentary features as “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia,” meets all of those demands and more. “One of Us” follows a trio of Hasidic Jews who are each attempting to break away from New York City’s tight-knit community — while facing tremendous backlash from their former tribe.
“Something about this one is a different experience for us,” Ewing said. “Partly because our subjects live here, and there’s contact and we’re involved in their lives right now. It’s like an ongoing saga. The movie is over, but it really still feels like we’re in the middle of it.”
“A Different Experience”
It’s their first – and so far only – movie that takes place in New York. It’s also their first foray into partnering with Netflix, which offered the filmmakers a chance to premiere a film on their biggest platform to date (more than 110 million subscribers in 190 countries). After bowing at TIFF, this vital window into a hidebound culture is now watchable by one click on Netflix all over the world. “It’s a different experience than we’ve ever had, and this is our sixth feature film,” said Grady, who is awed by the global feedback.
That doesn’t mean that they’re not still fans of theatrical releasing, especially for awards attention: their Netflix deal includes a one-week Oscar-qualifying theatrical window. “It’s very, very limited,” said Ewing. “That is painful to any filmmaker. We did a self-release with ‘Detropia,’ we love the theatrical experience…but we’re provided with a massive audience to a story that we think is important.”
“One of Us” landed a Critics Choice Award nomination for Best Documentary, going up against heavy hitters “City of Ghosts,” “Cries From Syria,” and “Jane.”
They mean that “but.” Ewing and Grady are adamant that there is a middle ground between streaming and theatrical. But they’re more than happy with what initially drew them to Netflix. “It’s living up to that expectation,” said Grady, “which is, at a certain time, 12:01AM, someone turns a switch, and it’s BOOM. That’s beyond thrilling for us, who have been by ourselves with this story for three years.”
The fiercely independent duo have long worked outside the studio system – their other features have been distributed by outfits like Magnolia Pictures and the now-defunct THINKfilm – and were surprised to find the same level of freedom at the streaming giant.
“We made exactly the film we wanted to make,” Ewing said. “A very risky film, it was barely developed when Netflix came on board. They wanted to work with us as directors, they believed that our vision would evolve. They were just like, ‘Go do your movie.'”
“And they didn’t seem nervous,” Grady added. “And it’s a nervous movie.”
Too Close for Comfort
They’re not kidding about the nervous part. The film follows three very different people struggling to break free from a hermetic Hasidic community that shuns both outsiders and defectors. Subjects Etty, Luzer, and Ari have their own reasons for leaving – Etty’s are perhaps the most heartbreaking – but the fallout from their choices comes with discomfiting similarity.
“Our office was almost like the only safe space that they could go to and no one would know where they are,” Ewing explained. “It was definitely, at some times, a little too close for comfort.”
Their subjects would occasionally show up when Ewing and Grady were editing the film, but the filmmakers never allowed them to see anything, following another rule: they never allow any editorial input from their subjects, nor do they show them footage during the process. Their first look at the films are at private screenings – no audience, limited attendees – after which Ewing and Grady discuss the final result directly with their subjects.
Ewing and Grady had long felt compelled by the Hasidic communities in and around New York City, though they suspected that they wouldn’t be able to gain access, just by virtue of the very element that lured them: all that secrecy.
“You’re just curious and you want to know,” Ewing said. “But we never thought to make a film about the community, because we’re two secular women and they hate cameras. We were never like, ‘Let’s try that!’ because we don’t like to set ourselves up for failure. I mean, there’s a reason why it hasn’t been done.”
About three years ago, the pair came across a small article about Footsteps, an organization in New York City that helps those looking to leave ultra-Orthodox communities. It seemed like the right way into the story they wanted to tell. “It’s more than a fish out of water story,” Ewing said. “It’s like you’re an alien in your own country.”
They were hardly the first ones to call. But the pair remained persistent, driven to prove to the Footsteps leaders that it was high time for a film, and that they were the right ones to make it. “This should be our movie, we will do you right,” Grady told them.
After about six months, they were allowed to attend some events – without cameras – and scout for subjects. Gathering people willing to participate took considerable time, but when they landed on their principal trio, things clicked. “It was one of those things, like as we met them, it was done, it was a lock, there was no question,” Grady said.
All told, the process took the pair about three years, and while that sounds like a long time, it’s become the standard for Ewing and Grady (though Grady joked that, for their “Jesus Camp,” they did “three years of work in two”) who are choosy with their projects and have learned not to race out projects.
A Career At Its Midpoint
Being picky has paid off. Twelve years into their shared career, and Ewing and Grady have managed to deliver enough top-grade material that next week they’ll join other DOC NYC honorees to accept The Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence which, per festival criteria, goes “to a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema.”
“Did we get old?” Ewing asked. “It’s called the middle-aged award,” Grady joked.
As ever, though, they’re focused on the future and all the other new things they can try. Mid-point? That just means there’s six more films to make.
“We’re career filmmakers,” Ewing said. “There’s a lot of filmmakers in documentary that are not career filmmakers, because they’re hard to make and maybe it takes ten years to make a film. We’re in it for the long game, and we’re interested in a body of work. We’re trying to build a body of work that matters.”
“One of Us” is currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.