“One of Us” Movie Review: Unveiling Struggles of Identity and Belonging
The documentary film One of Us gives an account of the life of three former Hasidic Jews found in Brooklyn. Heidi Ewing, the director of the film, explores the theme of religion through the three characters: Etty Ausch, Luzer Twersky, and Ari Hershkowitz. Each character struggles with the sense of ostracism from their ex-community and families as they reveal how they left their homeland. The three finally vacate their tightly-knit Hasidic community due to the suffocating and abusive conditions. The three characters are captured while in the pursuit of assimilating themselves into the secular American lifestyle.
The three are transforming to adapt to mainstream society while relishing the freedom that is associated with making bold individual choices. Nevertheless, the characters have a feeling of abandonment and hatred from their family and acquaintances who remained in their homeland. The three are now transforming into being members of the larger world but with disturbing past experiences. At the moment, it is not a matter of one of ‘us,’ but rather one of ‘them’ as they form a bond that enables them to adapt to the new life in a foreign land. This paper explores the film with respect to the manner in which the documentary develops on the themes of religious doubt, juvenile sexual abuse and domestic abuse among the characters.
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Religious Doubt and Struggles: Breaking the Shackles
A youthful Ari endures a dreadful crime during his childhood, and the delinquency is concealed by his society. However, the crime has an adverse effect on him, and he resorts to taking cocaine, and he eventually becomes addicted to the drug. The addiction sees him endure tough times as he survives two deadly overdoses. Luzer, who is in his mid-twenties, comes to realize that he cannot bear living under the restrictions set by his community, so he divorces his partner to pursue his dream career of acting.
As a result, he leaves his family in New York and then moves to Los Angeles, where he believes he can realize his dream. On the other hand, a thirty-two-year-old Etty has one of the most worrying stories. She is pushed into an abusive marriage when she is just nineteen years old and bears seven children. Her story is more disturbing as the whole extended family, as well as a wider circle of friends, joins forces to dissuade her from having a divorce. It is worth noting that due to their strict adherence to religion, the Hasidim rail against “earthly’ inventions and are thus mistrustful of technological inventions.
Juvenile and Domestic Abuse: Trapped in a Web of Repression
The subjects in the film had exceptional reasons for abandoning their community, even though some find their reasons to be somewhat flighty. Nevertheless, the subjects still had the right to determine their individual destiny without the fear of being punished. It cannot go without saying that the most enthralling, albeit quite short, section of the film is laced with some form of historical lesson. It comes to our understanding that the Hasidic Jewish people sprung up due to the disgraceful holocaust. The community sees itself as the holy replacement for the masses that were executed by the infamous Hitler regime.
It is for this reason that the three subjects are viewed as being betrayers to the community. The three are perceived to have left the holy land and joined the sinful world where every person, including the abusers, is entitled to act in the manner that they like. However, it is ironic that the subjects were subjected to acts of cruelty while in their homeland by their own people, who claim to be the descendants of the dead millions who were regarded as being the holy community. Nonetheless, the Hasidic faith teaches people to be compassionate of their friends, whether sinful or righteous.
That said, One of Us proves to be reasonably solid, as seen in some of the harrowing parts – more so in Ari’s childhood account, where he suffers a great deal. There are also details regarding the fight for freedom by Etty, which are somewhat difficult to watch and may make a person turn off the film. Furthermore, there comes the exhilarating section where an individual takes control of another person’s own life. Possibly the most disturbing feature we come to feel in the film is the magnitude of depression that one undergoes upon losing the rousing sense of persistence that a society like the Hisidic Jews can offer.
Deserting the world that one believed to be his ancestral home where they could seek refuge in times of distress just because of being oppressed and abused certainly leaves the person without the trajectory that they were brought up to believe as being their own. The feeling is, without doubt, dehumanizing as a member of society as one has no other place to call home in case the place of refuge proves to be hostile. Losing the sense of purpose comes with its own share of psychological consequences, as witnessed with all the characters: Luzer narrates his attempted suicides, Etty desperately weeps at the Footsteps meetings, and Ari fights cocaine addiction.
The subjects in the film undergo distress even though they come from a society that considers itself religious and holy before God. The situation offers a stark contradiction because if indeed the society considers itself the replacement of the holocaust, then they should conduct themselves in a noble manner. The situation mimics the current societies where many people pretend to be religious while their actions betray their talk. The Hispanic Jewish community would not have treated the three characters in the manner exemplified in the film if they had indeed cared and cherished the Christian doctrine.
It is worrying when the subjects seek comfort in areas that they feel a little accustomed to – religious activities that contain some trappings of aspects they have left behind. Nonetheless, all of them have no clue of what eventually comes next. The main religious content that I learned from the film is that of tolerance and compassion. I understood the need to be tolerant of other people’s actions and to never judge them regardless of the decisions that they make. I also learned the need to be compassionate with our family members and friends. The subjects in the film did not receive any form of passion from their homeland, regardless of their being depicted as a holy community.
- Ewing, H., (Producer)& Grady, R., (Director). (2017). One of Us [Motion Picture]. United States: Loki Films. https://youtu.be/feF2Ix2rCkQ
- Poll, S. (2017). The Hasidic community of Williamsburg: A study in the sociology of religion. Routledge.