Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on ONE OF US, the Evolution of Documentary Filmmaking and Partnering with Netflix

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grady ewing 2Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady live in Brooklyn, where they became aware of the distinct profile of their NYC borough’s Hassidic community, a population of ultraorthodox Jews who isolates themselves from the city’s diverse population, maintain age-old traditions and espouse a strictly structured way of life. Observing Hassidic men, women and children on a daily basis, the filmmakers were curious about the community’s inner life. It took them years to gain access.

grady ewing posterIn One if Us, Ewing and Grady’s latest film, the documentarians investigate the Hassidic lifestyle by following three young members of the community who are determined to follow a different path, but are deterred from doing so by threats and harassment from community elders. Presented in Ewing and Grady signature style, the personal and highly dramatic stories of the men and woman reveal a complex and arcane culture that exists right in our midst, but is largely unknown to all but the Hassidic community. The film, one of a slate of compelling documentaries financed and distributed by Netflix, is fascinating. Ewing and Grady spoke with me about making One of Us, the changes in documentary filmmaking during the 15-year span of their partnership and partnering with Netflix.

JENNIFER MERIN: We first met back in the days of Jesus Camp. You’ve had many filmmaking adventures since then. How have things changed during these years and evolved for you as documentary filmmakers, and particularly for you as women filmmakers? What’s available to you now that was not available to you then?

grado soloRACHEL GRADY: Well, there are more options and opportunities for documentary filmmakers now. And I think audiences are very savvy and have high expectations, which is great for a filmmaker. You know, you feel like you can sort of aim for the highest level you can achieve. Heidi and I have always said for all the years we’ve been together – and we’ve been working together for 15 years — that we feel like we’ve been able to get ahead and push forward in critical situations because there are two of us. It’s kind of like you get two for the price of one, or two women instead of one, And, I think that was like two women for one guy. Although I do think that even all these years down the road, it really is a benefit that there are two of us. We/re able to kind of back each other up. There is still a lot of discrimination, so it’s good to have two of us to stand up for each other. It still works.

grady but ewing solo 1HEIDI EWING: Another thing is that there are now more players and somehow documentaries have become like a cool thing to be involved in. Documentaries are now a good place to put one’s money and so the pot is bigger and therefore it’s naturally bigger for women, too. But although the pot has gotten bigger for everyone including women, the bottom line is that women are still at the bottom statistically. The fact is that women directors across all forms of directing in all cinema genres are just doing 7% of the work.

GRADY: Over the years, we’ve shown that we can deliver strong films so that that we’re not considered a risky investment.

EWING: Yes, we’ve been doing this for a long time so since Jesus Camp and Boys of Baraka all of our colleagues in documentary know that we make sure that everything our name is on is excellent. We don’t take anything for granted. We can’t phone something in or send someone else to do the job for us. We take it really seriously. That’s our “brand,” if you will, that has developed over the years.

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MERIN: When you started out, you were very independent and you were determined to succeed by doing things your own way. You developed a successful self-distribution model that worked very well for you, and you were generous in sharing it with other filmmakers. Your latest film, ONE OF US, is distributed by Netflix. How did that come to be and what effect will that have on your work in the future?

EWING: I like this question. To answer it, I’ll say that our process has not changed at all. Zero amount of change when we are in the field, and in how we direct our movies. We are a complete unit, a totally boutique company. We work with a skeleton crew. We work with the cinematography, bringing cinematographers from the ground up on our projects. You don’t see us going after big names, or anything like that. Not for anything.

GRADY: We have not changed at all in the way we make a film and that’s because it really works for us so well. We are independent filmmakers and our films are always going to have an independent feel to them.

EWING: We have not been asked by Netflix or told by any one of our distributors or our partners ever in our career to change anything or to alter in any manner the way we work or the results of our work. That is true with this Netflix partnership on ONE OF US, too.

MERIN: Netflix has jumped into film production and is doing a lot of commissioning, buying and distributing. And the company is spending a lot on marketing. Do you think that can be sustained over the long run, or might this be a temporary boost in opportunity for ocumentary filmmakers?

EWING: I have no idea about that, really. In the end, our job is to make movies as well as we possibly can and to find partners that work well with us. And, we’re always glad if the partnership works well, as it has on ONE OF US, and we’d be happy to work on another one with the same partner. But each film has a partner that’s right for it, and it may be a different partner every time. The key point is that we will only make a film that is worth making.

MERIN: Hw does each new film evolve or expand your notions about the essence of documentary filmmaking and what would be an appropriate and interesting subject?

GRADY: I think we evolve through our own experiences. We are older and wiser and understand more about the process. If I could stand outside and look at our career, I’d say we’ve been pretty incredibly lucky.

EWING: I’d say I have an awesome job. I love my work and I think I’m evolving on a personal level in terms of my life. It’s a weird weird complement of interests and skills and I feel really lucky that I found someone to work with who likes it as much as I do. I mean we’re having a great time.

GRADY: As for choosing stories, a lot of very interesting stories present themselves, but not all constitutes a story worth telling as a documentary. The key questions are whether it is cinematic enough, and are the elements strong in that there is a transition that occurs. We are very calculating about this — or maybe calculating is the wrong word. We are more laser focused on what the outcome of storytelling could be for the characters and for the audience. This is something we knew back when we started and by now we know quite definitely whether a topic is or is not a film.

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MERIN: You mentioned that there are required cinematic elements? What do you mean?

EWING: Yeah. you need to determine whether the elements in the story will shape the right way, whether the place and the characters are cinematic — not like window dressing pr a pretty picture, but a character who might be very different by the end of the film. After that you look at place. Sometimes you don’t know quite where the story is heading, and you wonder are we going to get stuck in an office all day every day, or will we be able to tell that story in the contest of interesting surroundings? And, are you going to be able to shoot scenes that are pivotal. Sometimes you cannot get access to film crucial scenes, although you know they’re gonna happen or have happened — like you can’t be there t shoot the Deep Throat meeting in a parking lot. It’s not gonna happen. But that’s a crucial scene in the story. So that story might be told more effectively in a narrative feature.

GRADY: At any rate, that’s a story that we wouldn’t choose to document. It is an important story, ‘though, and other documentary filmmakers might be motivated to find ways to bring it to life using actors for those inaccessible scenes, or by using animation. Every filmmaker see things differently, and finds different solutions. We are constantly examining what we find to be cinematic and workable. We are asking ourselves questions about this all the time.

EWING: A lot of documentary filmmakers use reenactments and animation very effectively. That’s just not our style. But we did have to seriously consider it while we were making One of Us because one of our lead characters who is very shy and afraid didn’t want her face shown on camera. We were at the point of questioning whether or not we would have to cross over into animation. You really need to see her face, so we were looking for ways to paint over the live action. Then she changed her mind and agreed to have her face seen.

MERIN: Your concern about her is indicative of your respect for your subjects. As documentary filmmakers, you become involved in their lives,perhaps losing your objectivity to some extent. How do you how do you end the film and end? How do you extricate yourselves when the time comes to move on to another project?

GRADY: It’s a long process. Things that happened in the film are still evolving, so we’re still involved in their lives. And we will stay involved in their lives. It’s a weird relationship, in a way. We are asking people to tear themselves open and share a dramatic couple of years in their life with us. The fact that we become involved in each other’s lives doesn’t affect the outcome of the story or eliminate edits that might be uncomfortable for the characters in the film. You don’t ever ask their permission, but you say thank you and you tell stories that you think are important.

EWING: Rachel and I and our editors are not cold and hard, but we are not going to pull punches either. We are going to seek and tell the truth in our films. But having your personal story told in a documentary does change your life. Everyone knows your story. And there are personal appearances and publicity. And that changes your life.

MERIN: How do you, as filmmakers, feel about having to make personal appearances at festivals and screenings to make sure your film is seen?

EWING: We are so allergic to the dog and pony show, but it s great to watch audiences watch and be moved by your film. There’s great satisfaction and joy in that.

MERIN: Is that the thing about filmmaking that gives you the greatest joy?

EWING: For me, it’s watching the film while it’s happening in the field. It’s the magic of the moment when something unexpected happens and you’re there as a witness and you capture it on film. It’s something you can’t write. You just have to be patient and stand there and wait and be quiet and keep alert so you don’t miss it when it happens. It’s magic. I love it. We both love it.

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