New Documentary Offers Rare Glimpse at Life Inside Reclusive Ultra-Orthodox Community
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New Documentary Offers Rare Glimpse at Life Inside Reclusive Ultra-Orthodox Community

City of Joel follows a year in the life of the secluded Hassidic village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, NY. amid a high profile court case with neighboring villages

The Satmar Hassidic village of Kiryas Joel, situated 50 miles north of New York, has received its fair share of media attention in recent years, much of it negative. Now, a Kickstarter campaign has been launched for a new documentary which aims to provide an impartial look inside the media-shy community.

As the director, Jesse Sweet, explains in the fundraising video “I realized there weren’t many documentaries that take you inside their [the Ultra-Orthodox] community in a real and honest way, so I decided to make one.” He described the film as “an intimate portrait of the village, that takes viewers inside their daily, spiritual and political life.”

The documentary was filmed over a year-long period, and principally follows the lives of three families in the community. Tying the narrative together is the burning political issue of the day; a highly contentious disagreement over land required to accommodate the rapidly increasing population, a result of an extremely high birthrate mixed with very low numbers of residents leaving. To suitably address both sides of this argument, Sweet also spoke to residents of adjacent villages who are opposed to the proposed expansion. It is a stylistic decision that Sweet stressed more than once during the interview, saying “I am curious and empathetic and sympathetic. I think when people see my style they understand that that’s what I’m about. I’m not about doing a take-down piece, on one side or the other.”

The filmmaking process has not been without its difficulties. For one, the residents of the town have had to deal with a wave of bad press in recent years, which made them reluctant to talk to Sweet, and even more reluctant to do so on camera. For another, there was a communication barrier; in Kiryas Joel, the majority of people speak Yiddish as their first language. That meant he had to work with “a somewhat self-selecting sample” of people, almost all adults, who understood and spoke English well enough to take part.

Despite the setbacks, the filming of the documentary is “95 percent finished” according to Sweet, leaving one final, financial obstacle to overcome. The crowdfunding campaign will allow the rough cut to be put together into a finished version to be sent out to film festivals by the end of the year. And if the Kickstarter were to fail to reach its target? “It would be tough,” admitted Sweet, “the Kickstarter is kind of the life-blood of this project at the moment, and it would be somewhat debilitating if we don’t get to it.” Nonetheless, he doesn’t regret creating the film the way he did, saying that “I’ve resisted taking the easy path in some way. I know that if I’d sensationalized it, it would have had more appeal. But that’s why, to me, Kickstarter is so important, because I believe there are people who are just like me who are generally curious, and this film will hopefully speak to them.”

To check out the Kickstarter and donate to the project, click here.

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