Documentary series Escaping Utopia to reveal how former residents fled Gloriavale

Documentary series Escaping Utopia to reveal how former residents fled Gloriavale

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Local documentary Escaping Utopia explores the planning that goes into clandestine escapes from Gloriavale, with the help of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Trust. Screening across three nights, the series reveals new information from former and current members of the controversial religious community and seeks to answer long-held questions. Producer and co-director Natalie Malcon explains how Escaping Utopia came about and what she hopes to achieve with the series.

What prompted you to tell this story?

I was working on Heaven And Hell: The Centrepoint Story, a documentary about another notorious New Zealand cult, when I started growing interested in exploring a documentary about Gloriavale. While on the surface Centrepoint and Gloriavale may seem quite different, scratch the surface and there are many parallels. But whilst the Centrepoint documentary was a retrospective story about its implosion, here we have Gloriavale, very much a contemporary story.

Gloriavale began before Centrepoint and yet here it is still flourishing many decades after Centrepoint was shut down. Hearing the harrowing stories of the children who grew up in Centrepoint and knowing there are hundreds of children currently living inside Gloriavale was a definite driver behind wanting to tell this story. In fact some of the participants in the Centrepoint documentary were motivated strongly to tell their stories because they really hoped by doing so, and helping to shine a light on what it’s like to grow up in a cult or ‘group think’ environment that they could somehow help the people of Gloriavale.

I think one of the most gratifying moments of my career was a conversation I had while filming the Gloriavale documentary when I was told by a young Gloriavale woman that she had watched the Centrepoint documentary when she was still living in Gloriavale (on a phone that had been smuggled into her). It was a monumental thing for her to realise that there were actually people in the outside world that could relate to her if she left.

I can only imagine what it is going to be like for a young woman in Gloriavale to watch this series. I really hope as many of them as possible do watch, and that through that they will realise there is a lot of aroha, help and support out here for them. That’s the motivation.

Was it difficult to persuade people to take part? How many were you able to talk to and how many do you estimate have escaped via The Gloriavale Leavers’ Trust?

I don’t like trying to persuade people to participate in my documentaries. I want to help people tell their stories when they are ready to tell them. But it turned out I was spoilt for choice.

Every person who has left Gloriavale has family or loved ones still inside. That’s a fact. And the majority of them want to do something to help. There is a resistance movement growing as more people leave and they all want to do their bit to expose the truth about life inside Gloriavale.

We met dozens of leavers in the course of making this documentary and could have cast it many, many times over with all the warm, smart, perceptive people we met. We are absolutely thrilled with the cast we landed with and can’t wait for New Zealanders to have their misconceptions about what people from Gloriavale are like totally turned upside down.

The Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust and the wider network estimates they have helped over 200 people in their leaving journey in the past several years. But to put that in perspective, the average Gloriavale family has about 12 children. There are about 600 people still living inside Gloriavale – about 350 of them are children – so there are still more people living inside than out.

What sort of lengths do people go to in order to leave Gloriavale?

There is a growing resistance movement on the outside that casually call themselves the ‘Underground Network’. These are neighbours, former members, lawyers, media and just members of the public that want to help. To leave Gloriavale is much like being a refugee – most don’t have bank accounts, drivers’ licences, passports.

Many have never even handled money, never caught a bus. One of our contributors had only ever been to Greymouth a handful of times in her life for dental appointments – that was her only tiny window to the outside world, so she had never seen phones or ATMs or escalators.

She had never had her hair cut, worn anything but her uniform from birth, hadn’t even been to the supermarket. So to say leaving is difficult is a huge understatement.

Add to that the psychological barriers they have – they are raised to believe that leaving means eternal damnation which is a fate worse than death. So the process of leaving can take many years.

I have heard stories of very elaborate escapes in the dead of night involving multiple people on the outside and intricate planning, or fathers sneaking back in to get their wives and children out. That’s what some people have had to do to find their freedom.

What do you think viewers will find most surprising about the Leavers’ stories?

I can’t wait for viewers to see the fabulous, fearless and incredibly inspiring cast we have assembled. To our shame as a nation – and certain media have fed this – Gloriavale people have almost been de-humanised, the butt of our jokes. Well this documentary is going to dismantle those misconceptions. There is not a meek, mild or ‘weak minded’ character in this series.

One of our contributors was in a previous documentary where she was not allowed to be herself. So this is her opportunity to actually speak her truth (and she is just such a kick-ass cool woman). These are people who for the most part have been indoctrinated from birth.

They have all suffered abuse of one form or another, and yet they are not bitter or wanting revenge. Their motivation is simple – they want to help their loved ones still inside Gloriavale. Viewers will also be shocked at the things our country has allowed to take place, hidden in plain sight for 50 years.

What do you hope the audience takes away from Escaping Utopia?

I think it will be impossible to ever see Gloriavale in the same light after watching this series. We have put a lot of work into trying to really dig into the psychology of Gloriavale, so we hope the wider audience will have a much deeper understanding of why there are 600 people still there – and that it really is not as simple as just walking out. The psychological prison is much harder to escape than the physical one.

Escaping Utopia, TVNZ 1, Sunday March 24 to Tuesday March 26