Escaping Utopia, gripping, brave and stranger than fiction

Escaping Utopia, gripping, brave and stranger than fiction

| Stuff | Amberleigh Jack |

RECAP: It’s all too easy to look at any situation where someone – especially women – appear oppressed, controlled or abused and think, “why don’t they just leave”?

But the first part of the documentary series, Escaping Utopia, explores the planning that goes into the clandestine escapes from the South Island Christian community of Gloriavale.

It’s equal parts anger-inducing and fascinating and – at times feels stranger than fiction.

Part one of the three part series aired on Sunday night on TVNZ, and what became immediately clear, is the psychological hold, growing up believing all roads outside the community lead directly to hell, is stronger than most can imagine.

It also highlights the strength and courage of those that – often spurred by the desire to protect children – made it out, the “underground network” helping others get out and even those still trapped within the invisible walls of fear who risked plenty to speak out.

Over the past few years, the Gloriavale community has been the subject of abuse allegations and court proceedings. In 2023 six former members brought a case to the employment court. Last week a Gloriavale man was jailed for abusing nine children over more than 30 years.

Through on-camera interviews, footage and coverage of that 2023 court case, the opening episode of this documentary gives a voice to the real fears and bravery of former members, as well as serving the perspective of the 600 that remain there.

Early in the documentary, we meet Pilgram – dad of 11 and the son of founder, Hopeful Christian – from the front seat of his car in the dark of night at the perimeter of the community he once called home but is now exiled from.

He warns the cameraman to put the gear down if a car approaches and speaks about the idea that crossing a bridge at the edge of the property – for those inside – means, “you’ve lost your soul. You’re going to hell”.

The psychological prison, Pilgram tells the camera, is, “way more powerful than a locked gate”.

There’s also Rosanna – former member – who speaks on camera about the commune’s belief that women are there to serve men and have babies, with rules that include no showing skin outside of hands and face, no speaking to the opposite sex, never being alone with the opposite sex and the archaic idea of ankles and elbows tempting men.

It was a culture, she said, that bred “abusive behaviours“.

Then there’s Marcus, a neighbour who never consciously sought to help those on the inside but, “if they came knocking on my door, I needed to help them”.

Pilgram, speaking again, gave the first introduction to an “underground network” of people supporting those through the process of moving out, but emphasised giving out names was “too sensitive an issue”.

He again emphasised a common theme throughout the first part of the pretty powerful doco – that reaching out for help is, “a pretty brave thing to do”.

Speaking of which, a message flashes across the screen that the “underground network” smuggled a message inside, looking for a current member to talk for the documentary.

Enter Boaz, a 25-year-old member with a wife, three children, one on the way and a concern for the safety of his kids.

If those inside found out he was talking to anybody with a camera, he’s shown saying, it would be the “epitome of evil”.

Benjamin talked on-camera about wanting to protect his kids and having experienced sexual abuse, but emphasised he and his wife were both born into the community. And he spoke on control within the community. Control over the wife, which means having control over the husband, and the whole family.

They learned early on that those wanting to leave are going against God’s will, and are on a path to hell.

“It’s a psychological barrier,” he said.

“You can’t walk out that gate and feel that you can still be a Christian”.

Clips of members’ script-like testimony in that 2023 employment court case and recounts of power sex plays, exposing children to intimate acts and encouraging members to have sex in front of others is fury-inducing, and gives an insight into the decades-long hold the community has had on its members.

And the bravery it takes to break free.