Friday, April 19, 2024

‘It’s Death By A Thousand Cuts’: Are We Starting To See The End Of Gloriavale? A New Documentary Shows The ‘Turmoil’ Inside

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The new three-part TVNZ documentary series Escaping Utopia takes viewers inside the heartbreaking reality of life inside the secretive Christian sect, and the devastating choices made by those who leave. Capsule talks to the producer and co-director of Escaping Utopia, Natalie Malcon, about why it was so important to show the psychological barriers in place, and why the cracks are beginning to appear in the secretive community.

In one of the opening shots of the new three-part documentary, Escaping Utopia, there’s an early morning look at the bridge that runs as between the land of Gloriavale and the wider West Coast. It symbolises two things – one, the very literal end-of-the-road that stretches between the secretive community and the real world; and two, the psychological barrier that those leaving Gloriavale must battle. Because it may look like a bridge, but really it’s a one-way road. Once you’re out, you’re out.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Natalie Malcon, the producer and co-director of Escaping Utopia. “That’s the thing about this story; there are just so many broken families. Every single person that has left Gloriavale has people still inside that they love. So families have just been torn apart and turned on each other.”

It was one of the high stakes that Natalie was so passionate about getting across in the documentary, which screens Sunday-Tuesday this week on TVNZ 1. The refrain she kept hearing from those who only had a cursory knowledge of the Gloriavale community was ‘why don’t they just leave.’

“You see it in the comments, whenever an article appears about Gloriavale,” Natalie says. “People either say ‘Just leave them alone, they’re not doing anybody any harm,’ or ‘Everyone’s got a choice; if they didn’t like it, they could just leave… so why don’t they?’”

It’s the ‘why’ that was the crux of Escaping Utopia, and to tell that story, Natalie, her co-director Justin Pemberton, and their small, extremely determined team needed to get to the heart of those who stay on the other side of that bridge. “By the time the viewer gets to episode three, which is very much set in the ‘now’ of this story, the viewer understands exactly why those people are still there,” Natalie says.

‘I want people inside Gloriavale to watch this, because I want them to know that there is help on the outside.’

Throughout the three-part series, we as the viewer are introduced to many members of Gloriavale. Those who have left and, surprisingly, some who are still there. In episode one, we meet Boaz Benjamin, a young, fresh-faced member of Gloriavale who is stuck with the bad options those inside are left with – try and escape, knowing he may be unable to see his four children ever again, or stay within the confines of Gloriavale, knowing the possible future he is condemning those same children to.

It’s a future that not only contains a life of servitude, isolation and terrifying spiritual indoctrination, but the very real threat of sexual abuse. This week, a sentence of 11 years was handed down to Gloriavale member Jonathan Benjamin for 26 charges of sexual offending that took place over three decades; it’s just one of the multiple abuse allegations that have been levelled against leaders in the community. For Boaz, it’s a risk he knows well. In Escaping Utopia, he discusses the sexual abuse he experienced in Gloriavale as a child.

Documentaries like Escaping Utopia play an important role for two reasons – firstly, they educate the public on the realities of Gloriavale. Not the ‘kooky Christians next door’ that were shown in the documentary series that ran in 2016 and 2018, but the harsh living conditions of the religious sect, the trauma inflicted upon the community members, and the Sophie’s Choice given to those inside on whether to stay or go.

But these documentaries also offer a crack of light to those within the sect. And this is something that Natalie knows from her work. Her first foray into New Zealand cults came with her documentary Heaven And Hell: The Centrepoint Story. That documentary looked at the impact of the controversial North Shore commune Centrepoint, which came to an end in the 1990s.

Natalie knows that that documentary made its way into Gloriavale – on a smuggled cellphone – and that it helped show those who saw it two very important realities: that the circumstances they’re living in aren’t normal, and, most crucially, cults are not as infallible as they seem.

It was probably about three years ago that Natalie first started the research for what would become Escaping Utopia, and that involved conversations with Liz Gregory, Manager of the Gloriavale Leaver’s Trust. “She told me that there was very, very little hope that we would ever get a current member to appear on camera,” Natalie recalls. “But I think we started [this project] at exactly the right time, because there is a lot of turmoil inside Gloriavale. Things are changing really rapidly – people are starting to question things more.”

Does she think the cracks in the once impervious Gloriavale community are getting bigger? Absolutely. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Natalie says. There are the multiple court cases being levelled against the community, as well as the growing resistance movement of the Gloriavale Leaver’s Trust, which involves the dogged work of former members “doing everything they can to open the eyes of the people still inside,” she says.

It was important to her and her co-director Justin, Natalie says, that Escaping Utopia continued their kaupapa of ‘heart-hitting’, rather hard-hitting, documentaries. “We’re not out to destroy Gloriavale, this is not a ‘take down,’” she says. “This is telling the story of the people who grew up there, and getting their truth out there.”

It’s an important distinction to make – the discussion around cults can too easily sway into the language of villains and victims. But it negates the lived reality of those who are still inside – those who know there is an outside world but are all too aware of what they might lose to reach it, or those in power who – for better, and definitely for worse – believe what they have been taught, like their parents did before them.

Gloriavale is a community of generational trauma, and as Natalie says, it is an incredibly complex situation with no easy answers.

“There are about 200 people who have left Gloriavale in the past 10 years, but to put that in perspective, an average family in Gloriavale has 12-14 children; so a lot of those who have left are children,” she says. “I want people inside Gloriavale to watch this, because I want them to know that there is help on the outside.”

The timing of this three-part TVNZ documentary obviously comes at a complex time for New Zealand media; with the announcement of the shutting of Newshub swiftly followed by the proposed ending of heritage investigative news shows at TVNZ like Fair Go and Sunday. As an experienced director and producer of news media in this country, Natalie says that having funding for these kind of projects is ‘crucial for the state of our democracy.’

“We are standing on the shoulders of great journalists,” she says of the Escaping Utopia team. “We’ve used archive footage from Radio New Zealand, from Newshub, and from TVNZ.” One big section of the footage used is from investigative journalist Melanie Reid, who did a lot of work looking into Gloriavale, including going in undercover.

“She’s got a lot of great sayings, but one of her best ones is ‘you can never underestimate the power of a pull-together,’” says Natalie of Melanie’s work. “In a lot of ways, that’s what this is – it’s bits of news from the past 50 years, compiled into one place. And when you see it all together, it’s undeniably compelling.”

Escaping Utopia premieres Sunday, 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ+ and continues Monday and Tuesday.

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