24 Jul 2016

Gloriavale's not what you may think - film-maker

2:00 pm on 24 July 2016

A director with unprecedented access to the isolated West Coast community Gloriavale tells Wallace Chapman about the "magic and brilliant" place that's more progressive than most people think.

Amanda Evans and her husband have won the trust of Gloriavale over the years. With that trust has come access, which has enabled the couple to create the three part series Gloriavale, screening on TVNZ.

She told Sunday Morning Gloriavale was not a compound, as some might suggest, but rather a community.

"We would have searchlights and barbed-wire fence if it was a compound. It's a very bucolic scene with cows in the field and people pottering about their daily business."

Mothers and children from the West Coast Christian community Gloriavale.

Mothers and children from the West Coast Christian community Gloriavale. Photo: SCREENSHOT/ TVNZ

Although rural life can be quiet and monotonous, Ms Evans said it was concert season during the time of this interview.

"Every two years they put on this incredible event. The concerts are four hours long and they give people a four-course meal during that time. There are animatronics, and choirs and juggling, in the style of a scout gang show, if you like."

But aside form the month-long "extravaganza", what's the fascinating thing about this Christian community of 500?

"If you took a group of people in the '60s and put them under a dome and allowed them to develop their own community completely separate from the rest of society, this is what you end up with 40 years down the track, which is - they have their own traditions, they have their own set of values, their own skillset...[they have] their own philosophy and approach to life which has developed separately from New Zealand.

"There's a lot of values here that hark back to the '60s and '70s. And much the same way as feminism has rocked New Zealand and the rest of the world, and we've seen a lot of changes to women's lives... to a great extent they haven't experienced the effects of feminism here. They live very traditional roles. From a story-telling point of view that's fertile territory for following up with a documentary."

Ms Evans dismissed the idea that Gloriavale was less progressive than other Christian communities such as Riverside.

"I think Gloriavale is quite progressive in terms of their approach to technology and what they need from the world in order to live in a modern world.

"They use computers, they're very progressive in their farming and they're also quite welcoming to people from the outside world.

"They're very open-minded. There have been visitors from overseas and universities. Midwife interns come here and join the community. There's always someone staying. Not as insular as the media would like to make out."

Women 'stand up for what they believe'

The latest part of her trilogy A Women's Place, features two women, Dove and Angel, who, like the other female members of Gloriavale, spend long days in the laundry and communal kitchen.

"Dove's a particularly interesting character because she's very calm, peaceful person," Ms Evans said.

"When Dove was keen to get married it was a good opportunity to follow Dove into the future."

The over-riding theme of the series is women's submission to their husbands, their father and God. But Ms Evans said being submissive did not mean the women of Gloriavale did not speak up when something wasn't right.

"They want their husbands to be submissive to the church and they then let the husband be the leader in the house and they follow him," she said.

"They have clear minds about what they want. Passionate, fun, intelligent and perfectly happy to stand up for what they believe."

If there was disagreement a wife might sometimes "entreat" her husband into a different approach.

Gloriavale, as seen from Google Earth.

Gloriavale, as seen from Google Earth. Photo: GOOGLE EARTH

When questioned about free thought and its correlation with happiness, Ms Evans said the women of Gloriavale were free to think for themselves if they didn't agree with their environment. And the women she interviewed appeared happy.

"Happy is kind of a relative term," she said.

"In my life I can pick and choose... what I wear every day, what I eat, where I'm going to work...but that's no guarantee that I'm going to be happy.

"In fact, sometimes the more choice you're presented with the more conflicted you can become. Whereas when you meet Dove you see Dove's life unfolding for you, Dove has a choice to be happy and she is happy.

"I genuinely believe Angel is happy as well. Calm, relaxed, a lot of good humour here."

She understood how someone from the outside world could find their values conflicted with Gloriavale's, even if it was a "magical and brilliant" place.

"As a liberated, feminist, agnostic, middle-aged woman it wouldn't suit me but if you plonked them in my world they would want to go home."

The members do spark curiosity when they venture out of their community - three Gloriavale girls were filmed visiting Riccarton Shopping Mall in their blue smocks - and were patient and charming in response, Ms Evans said.

"Jordan is charmingly honest about it. She understands that they're fascinated. She'll stop and let selfies be taken. It's not like they go there to escape. They're perfectly happy to go to the mall. They buy food at the Food Court like anyone else."

Showing Gloriavale for what it is

As for the idea that the documentary was an example of "embedded journalism" where tough questions had to be put aside in order to gain access, Ms Evans said there was no pressure to resurface allegations of sexual misconduct at Gloriavale, as she had chosen not to revisit it.

"It is an observational documentary and really I'm only interested in observing what's happening here and now.

"The events that have happened 25 years ago, I don't find them particularly relevant to what's happening now.

"People keep saying, 'why aren't you raking over those coals?' I don't find that story particularly interesting, it's been done to death. It would take up precious screen minutes when there's plenty of other really interesting things going on.

"Obviously the audience have voted with their remotes controls and they're tuning in in their droves."

Ms Evans believed the transparency in her approach was what led to the show's success.

Her crew first made contact with Gloriavale in 2006 and it took three years of communicating with TVNZ and NZ On Air before the first season got off the ground.

"There's a great deal of honesty and trust there. They are completely open with us. We can film wherever we want, whenever we want in whatever context.

"We said 'we want to do an interview there and want to do this and that' and haven't had any resistance there, but at the same time we always do what we say we will do. There's a real kind of honesty and joy in the programme making."

The Gloriavale series won an award in the community portrait category at the New York Festival in April, celebrating the best of the year in films and television.

Ms Evans hopes to make another series.

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