Watching TV2's excellent Gloriavale: A World Apart doco the other night I found myself hoping that someone like Louis Theroux might have popped up and gently asked some probing questions of the clear minded, but possibly deluded, folk featured on the show.
But the makers of Gloriavale: A World Apart were not there to question their hosts, they were there to document their lives and let the people speak for themselves, in what was very much an authorised biography. Gaining access to such a closed off community would probably see the likes of Theroux off at the gate, but to her credit director Amanda Evans found a way, and it makes for fascinating viewing.
Gloriavale is a Christian community in Haupiri on the west coast of the south island. They were once known by outsiders as "Cooperites", after their founder Neville Cooper, aka Hopeful Christian. I'm pretty sure that he is still at Gloriavale but was kept at a distance for this film, for reasons made obvious by this 60 Minutes report from 2008.
An idealised vision of this world is pushed early on as the narrator marvels:
"There's no unemployment or no cheque books to balance ... teenagers get on with the job without grumbling, they don't talk back and they don't waste a single minute texting, gaming or Facebooking."
Instead we see these teens painting metal frames and digging sphagnum moss, (a big export earner) without stopping for so much as a selfie. No doubt it's an appealing notion for parents of tattooed layabouts the length and breadth of the country, because unlike the rest of NZ, Gloriavale is a world where "teenagers do what they are told and there are no excuses."
The journey through this mysterious compound comes via the appealing Paul Valor, who functions as the star of the show. (Families adopt inspirational names when they enter the community, Valor, Love, Stedfast etc) The young man is about to marry a girl chosen from a shortlist drawn up the leaders or "shepherds". Paul is clear about his mission. "I want to marry a godly wife, and the only godly women that I personally know are here."
Life for young unmarried godly women in Gloriavale is grim by outside standards. Think Dickens with fluorescent lighting.
"Most will spend their days cleaning, doing the community's laundry and preparing meals."
If the women look a bit glum, Paul's positive vibe is on hand to light up the screen throughout. Still you worry that there's something verging on the medieval going on as the Shepherds meet to decide who he should marry - checking the bloodlines like horse breeders so as to avoid any unfortunate foals.
Clearly the outside world is a place to fear, and you get the feeling this has been instilled in to the kiddies with some gusto. There was a telling encounter with a young lady called Dove Love, who had just spoken to some "outsiders" aka people like you and me. "It was a real blessing to talk to them but also sad because you get a little insight into their lives", she said, as she talked about the unfortunates on the other side of the walls.
"I spoke to one little girl this morning and she was saying about how her mum and dad have split and how she feels like her life is all topsy-turvy, but I'm just grateful that I'm not out there and don't have to face those things."
With the "divorce rate of zero" in Gloriavale, Dove feels safe from the perils of broken marriages and presumably, the wrath of god. Like Game Of Thrones, pure evil lives beyond the wall.
Still it seems a fair trade, we think they're weird and they think we have gone completely off the rails. The fear of "hell" instead of "heaven" seems palpable.
Within the community there is also an expectation of the impending return of Jesus Christ himself and all that that entails. Paul Valor expects to see this within a few years and "definitely" within the decade.
Not surprisingly, feminists and scientists need not apply. "At Gloriavale a wife lives in total subjection to her husband" And how about this schoolroom lesson on natural history?
Teacher: "Dinosaurs, they are pretty big things, how could they have fitted in the ark?" Pupil: "If you take two of the younger ones then they're smaller." Teacher: "That's right, Noah didn't have to pick the biggest ones he could have picked some baby ones."
Although happy to expose the bones of the baby T Rex, the film was not interested in human skeletons or disgruntled escapees, even though these most certainly exist. That's another film, and one that would struggle to reveal as much as we see here, thanks the incredible access the filmmakers have gained.
Although, I have to say, at times the staged moments and re-enactments reminded me of propaganda films, like those prosperous displays of life in Soviet era Russia, all those gleaming tractors and smiling babushkas.
Like the women in Gloriavale: A World Apart, the babushkas of the Ukraine cover their heads in the traditional manner. I'm talking of the women who featured on one of Matt Frei's excellent reports from the crash zone of MH17 on Campbell Live and 3rd Degree. They had come to the site to lay flowers and light candles. Weeping, they told (UK) Channel 4's Frei that they would come back every year to pray for the dead and their families. It was a lovely window into a country and world that we know little about. "These woman have never flown in a plane" explained Frei, in a rare counter point to the endless shots armed insurgents and debris.
It was one of the better moments during the media madness that exploded along with the Malaysian airlines plane. Some of the media behaved appallingly, sifting through the rubble (Mr Frei was even guilty of this) and worse still, falling immediately into cold war conclusion jumping. Within minutes it seemed that many were screaming: "The evil Russians!" "The devil Putin!"
Ok, so I'm sure that Vladimir wouldn't last 10 minutes at the lovely Gloriavale before being asked to leave by one of the shepherds. "I'm sorry Vlad but God doesn't want us to have vodka and machine guns in our bunkrooms, and did you shoot the Labrador?"
But to cast him as solely responsible for the disaster within minutes of the explosion seems as appalling as the nearly forgotten case of Iran flight 655, taken out by the US Navy in 1988.
Meanwhile in Gaza, the body count grows beyond our comprehension as Hamas goad the IDF to lay waste to so many people. The death toll in the Ukraine was probably accidental, in so much as whoever shot the plane down thought it to be of the military variety. In Gaza, that excuse wore increasing thin as the death toll broke a thousand.
It's moments like these that life in a place like Gloriavale almost makes sense.
* Watch Gloriavale: A World Apart here.