Escaping Utopia: TVNZ’s Gloriavale documentary revisits the secretive community – The Front Page

Escaping Utopia: TVNZ’s Gloriavale documentary revisits the secretive community – The Front Page

| NZ Herald |

A new documentary has revisited the origins of the Gloriavale Christian Community, as ongoing legal challenges continue to threaten the secretive commune’s future.

The first episode of Escaping Utopia aired on TVNZ 1 last night, with two more episodes to follow tonight and tomorrow.

Series co-director Justin Pemberton told The Front Page podcast the name comes from how children born into Gloriavale are taught to believe the community is the Utopian vision of Earth, and if they leave, they will be “damning themselves to eternal damnation”.

Many have left the community in recent years though, with many women who were born and raised there taking Gloriavale to the Employment Court over allegations of mistreatment while working there.

That and a separate Employment Court case have dominated headlines around the community in recent years, but Pemberton said that the motivation for the series was the death of Gloriavale’s founder, Neville Cooper aka Hopeful Christian.

“At that point, me and Natalie Malcon, who is the producer and the co-director of the series, were finishing up a one-off docudrama on the Centrepoint Cult, and it just really struck us, what’s gonna happen now? In Centrepoint, Bert Potter didn’t die, he ended up going to prison and the place eventually imploded.

“Gloriavale’s leader held it together for over 50 years and then died. He had left the succession plan. That was 2018. [The documentary] didn’t get funded until I think 2022, by the time we actually were getting into production was early mid-2022 and at that point there had been quite a few court cases and you could get a sense that the place was imploding.”

Pemberton said the story is “very much alive” and it’s not clear what’s going to happen after all the court cases, which could challenge the community’s commercial operations and the money they’ve made from it. The new leader, Howard Temple, is accused of 24 charges of indecent assault towards young women.

Pemberton said it was fascinating to look back at the creation of the community, which is not often discussed anymore.

“In some ways, they did have some utopian ideas at the beginning… people get seduced by an ideology and Hopeful Christian was talking about sharing communities, a compassionate way of life, rejecting individualism and the commercialised world that was starting to appear in the early 70s.”

The early members would do things like find old cars and fix them up for people in the community who didn’t have anything, Pemberton said.

“But as the group evolved, this charismatic leader becomes very cult-like, very controlling, and starts indulging himself and creating rules that really are just to cement his authority, his power and his control over everybody.”

The series does show how people are able to escape the community, with support from charities and locals who help get them to safety, but Pemberton said anyone who thinks of leaving is subjected to “incredible psychological abuse” and the loss of privileges.

“They certainly don’t want people to leave. So even that aspect of it feels like, you know, people trying to escape East Germany, it has that sense of it, and phone drops at night and stuff like that.”

Listen to the full episode for more about Escaping Utopia. The final episodes of the documentary air tonight and tomorrow on TVNZ1, or can be streamed on TVNZ+.

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am. The podcast is presented by Chelsea Daniels, an Auckland-based journalist with a background in world news and crime/justice reporting who joined NZME in 2016.

You can follow the podcast at iHeartRadioApple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.