A common refrain from those in non-religious communities often focuses on questioning a God that would allow tragedy. After all, a young child or baby has done nothing to deserve the wrath of others. It’s a sympathetic discussion, and one that can be easy to utilize as a straw man argument. The process of separating one’s faith, and questioning your place in culture, becomes even more difficult for those who must endure these frustrations. Director Henya Brodbeker chronicles her struggles with faith in The Three of Us, a new documentary at DOC NYC.
Henya and her husband, Arale, must question their faith and the practical purpose of their religion. Raised in and around Haredi Judaism (an Ultra-Orthodox sect), they have long engaged in devout practices. However, orthodox teachings and schools struggle to adapt to autism in social situations. Henya’s son, Ari, is diagnosed with autism but remains happy and upbeat. Still, his future within the community is far from perfect, and the parents must decide how to best care for their son – with or without the context of their community.
Brodbeker puts many of their most intimate moments on display. The frustration and anger from both Henya and Arale are palpable through the screen. To make matters worse, they cannot find acceptance even in the places meant to protect Ari. They move from location to location, consistently trying to put Ari in the best position. Yet, it is easy to be beaten down by the continued walls and roadblocks in their way.
It’s the intimacy of their struggle that makes The Three of Us hit close to home. Every parent believes in providing the best life for their child. Yet it can be difficult to manage the changing world – one that should theoretically help them. Even in the best of circumstances, forces and seemingly fate plot against us. Brodbeker goes through great pains to paint the differences between giving up, and finding a support system that works.
Even examining her own family upbringing and life, Brodbeker never lets anyone off the hook. She highlights her frustrations and even questions why she’s decided to turn their problems into a documentary. It’s rare to see self-awareness and even an imposter syndrome set in on the director actively engaged in making a film. Yet here, it serves as a stand-in for the more significant questions she faces. It’s undeniable that in the face of struggle, we question our choices. Having a child will always change our lives. Yet Brodbeker approaches making the film like she approached having Ari – he is beautiful and loved, so why would she have any regrets? Ultimately, her decisions may return her to an Orthodox life, but she cannot dwell on that possibility when crafting The Three of Us is calling her right now.
In the process of giving us so much insight into the bureaucratic and practical struggles autism presents for a family, there are times that The Three of Us drags. It’s a relatively thin film, running less than eighty minutes. It’s not that The Three of Us should cut footage, but its structure does not always provide the information to maximize its effectiveness. There’s genuine emotion and frustration on screen, and while we feel it at times, there could be more tricks to ensure we fully empathize with the family.
Towards the end of the film, Henya notes their families think “we’re young and reckless” despite moving mountains to care for their son. It reminds us systemic forces continue to frame our actions in a binary. Either you are raising your child in the right ways, or you’re letting things go. You might be too religious or not religious enough. Finding balance and embracing the gray areas of these situations helps the Brodbeker family thrive.