Since its debut in 2013, the Israeli television show Shtisel, which revolves around a ḥaredi family in Jerusalem, has become a surprise hit, even generating an audience outside the country. It has been joined by Autonomies, a series set in the future, where Israel has been divided into secular and religious states. Recent years have also seen a number of films about Ḥaredim. Taking stock of some of these works, Sarah Rindner notes their relative successes and failures:
The 2017 U.S. documentary One of Us follows the paths of three young ḥasidic individuals who left the insular community in which they were raised. With brooding music and a disturbing storyline, the filmmakers paint a picture of a repressive, backward society nestled within multicultural Brooklyn. One plot line concerns a young mother who tragically loses custody of her seven children after she leaves her community. . . . The stories are devastating, but we are never told of the existence of ex-Ḥasidim who have warmer relationships with their families. . . . The filmmakers themselves seem to have neither the interest nor the tools to paint a more layered portrait of this community.
A refreshing contrast is offered in Paula Eiselt’s 2018 documentary 93Queen. The film depicts the trials of an all-female ambulance corps in ḥaredi Brooklyn, focusing on its dynamic leader Ruchie Freier. With a lively and evocative soundtrack, itself the product of a ḥasidic alt-rocker Perl Wolfe, 93Queen deals with a less conservative subset of the ḥaredi community than does One of Us and a considerably less fraught situation. [Therefore] 93Queen is able to explore [its characters’] subtleties because it does not paint the community as a monolith—rather, it is a real landscape upon which human life, in all of its variety, can play out. [In other words], One of Us plays as tragedy while 93Queen is a comedy; plenty may be askew, but people live within imperfect reality. Tragedy moves us, but comedy is a lot more like real life for most people.
Israeli cinematic treatment of ḥasidic culture is often in the comic spirit. . . . Shtisel, for example, is hysterical. Who can forget the joy of the grandmother when she gets a television installed in her room in a ḥasidic nursing home: “Master of the Universe, today there is everything!”? The new series Autonomy follows a more tragic line. In the future, ḥaredi political power results in a theocratic police state that is perpetually at odds with, but also a shallow reflection of, its secular, free Jewish counterpart. The extremist rebbe [who leads the former] receives secret shipments of Thucydides, which presumably influences his warmongering. Meanwhile the sympathetic ḥaredi protagonist abandons his family to have an affair with a jazz musician on the secular side of the sociopolitical divide.
The result, writes Rindner, reduces both secular and religious societies to shallow stereotypes.