Filmmaker probes nightmare among Satmars

If half of what Israeli director Nitzan Gilady asserts in “In Satmar Custody” is true, the world’s largest Chassidic sect has a lot to answer for.

The Yemenite Jewish filmmaker’s bizarre documentary about one Yemenite Jewish family’s American nightmare is suffused with tension and mystery, but precious few facts. Gilady relies on emotion and innuendo to indict the ultra-religious Satmars, but some viewers will require more convincing.

“In Satmar Custody,” which received an Israeli Academy Award nomination for best documentary, screens Monday, April 26, and Thursday, April 29, at the San Francisco International Film Festival with an appearance by Gilady.

The film opens with some text describing the American Satmars as anti-Zionists who in recent years persuaded numerous Yemenite Jewish families not to emigrate to “secular” Israel. Yahia and Lauza Jaradi, a religious Yemenite couple in their late 20s, bought the pitch from Satmar representatives in the mid-’90s and moved with their two children to New York state.

After they joined the Satmar community in America, the Jaradis had another three children. Then disaster struck.

Their infant Hadiyah was injured when she fell from a chair and was hospitalized in a coma. The authorities concluded that her injuries likely were due to abuse and removed the other children from their home, placing them with other Satmar families. Compounding the couple’s woes, the authorities were weighing whether to bring criminal charges against Lauza.

For her part, Lauza accuses her upstairs neighbor — whom she turned to in panic when Hadiyah fell — of causing the injuries by shaking the child in an effort to wake her up.

The film gets rolling a couple of years after these events, when the Jaradis get word that Hadiyah has died. Yahia embarks on a frustrating merry-go-round, trying to locate and bury his daughter’s body.

There are hints that prior to Hadiyah’s accident Yahia and Lauza didn’t go along with all of the Satmar dicta and fell out of favor with the community elders. The movie suggests that the Satmars capitalized on Hadiyah’s injury to orchestrate the placement of the Jaradis’ children with other families in the community.

No evidence is provided, but any skepticism the viewer harbors is undercut in a wrenching sequence where the couple surreptitiously visits two of their children on the street and gives them presents.

Yahia and Lauza’s plight is monstrous, and it’s exacerbated by the language and culture difficulties of living in a complex foreign country.

Gilady’s unmistakable antipathy toward the Satmars, and empathy for the Jaradis, colors every frame of his documentary. He may go a bit too far on occasion, but his fervor is fueled by the knowledge that lives are at stake.

“In Satmar Custody” screens 3:30 p.m. Monday, April 26, and 8:45 p.m. Thursday, April 29, at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, 1881 Post St., S.F.. Tickets: $7.50-$12. Information: (925) 866-9559, or


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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.