We’re looking back on some of our favourite big reads from TimeOut this year. Today, we revisit Chris Schulz' story on the women of Gloriavale.

They've already made two top-rating documentaries about the residents of Gloriavale, the controversial South Island Christian community that lives segregated from the outside world.

But the husband-and-wife team behind the award-winning series admit they have differing opinions about how Gloriavale's God-fearing residents live their lives.

Amanda Evans, the show's director and producer, feels as conflicted as the viewers who flood social media sites with inflammatory comments after her documentaries air.

"I'm agnostic, I'm a feminist, I could easily make judgments about them," says Evans, who has grown close to Gloriavale's residents over the seven years she's been documenting their lives.


"Sometimes I think, 'That's so cool. Isn't that lovely? Ten minutes later, I think, 'Oh, I could never live like that.

"That's so wrong on so many levels.'

"An hour later I'm thinking, 'Oh wow, that's so neat, I could really live here."

Meanwhile, as the show's cameraman, Evans' partner Ivars Berzins tries to stay as impartial as possible.

"I try not to have opinions," he says. "The way I best do my job is to observe and record by being as open to other people's way of thinking as I can."

Gloriavale's residents certainly have a different take on things.

Based near the South Island's idyllic Lake Haupiri, the Christian community's 500-odd residents live their lives unlike the rest of us.

There is little contact with the outside world, access to media and the internet is heavily restricted, limits are placed on clothing and diets, marriages are arranged informally, and if anyone decide to leave, they are ex-communicated.

Director/producer Amanda Evans, cameraman Ivars Berzins and sound enginer Tony Spear, from Gloriavale: A Woman's Place. Photo / Supplied
Director/producer Amanda Evans, cameraman Ivars Berzins and sound enginer Tony Spear, from Gloriavale: A Woman's Place. Photo / Supplied

Previous instalments of the NZ On Air-funded series, starting with A World Apart in 2014 and followed by Life and Death in 2015, have caused a ruckus, sparking multiple headlines - including Campbell Live's riveting coverage of several former members who had fled the clutches of the community to start their lives over.

Evans and Berzins believe their latest instalment, called A Woman's Place, which focuses on Gloriavale's "openly submissive" female residents and their role in the community, is likely to do the same.

It dives deep into the male-dominated society, following the roles of women who are relegated to kitchen or laundry duties while men undertake more physical activities, like building or factory work.

Much of its screen time is devoted to Dove Love, a 22-year-old kitchen manager who is preparing for her upcoming wedding to 17-year-old apprentice builder Watchful Stedfast.

When asked about his upcoming nuptials by the documentary makers, Stedfast says: "She's willing to submit to me, which I feel is very important for a marriage to last."

Dove Love and Watchful Stedfast from the TVNZ documentary Gloriavale: A Woman's Place. Photo / Supplied
Dove Love and Watchful Stedfast from the TVNZ documentary Gloriavale: A Woman's Place. Photo / Supplied

Evans knows statements like this, when framed against contemporary society, will shock viewers.

"They're a lovely young couple and I just know people are going to get on Twitter and bag them," she says. "People can be incredibly vicious [and] those girls haven't asked for this attention.

"[Gloriavale] is putting these people out to represent the community and exposing them personally to all sorts of things."

Berzins admits they both feel guilt for the attention their documentaries bring to Gloriavale.

"The ladies who answer the phones in the reception area ... they get massive amounts of prank calls [after each episode airs]. I think that's one of the things they don't look forward to." The couple, along with sound engineer Tony Spear, film for two or three days at a time, needing around six visits to complete each 40- to 50-minute documentary.

Mostly, they say residents have grown used to them and are happy to have their cameras around.

Love, the main subject in A Women's Place, says she didn't always enjoy their presence.

But she knew someone had her back the entire time.

"At first I wasn't too keen on having my wedding filmed, but I put my trust in God and I had peace that He was in control," she told the Herald via email.

"Although I can't say that I enjoy the cameras or being filmed, I am happy for the opportunity to testify of God's goodness and the blessings of our Christian community life."

Of eight questions put to Love, nearly every response referenced God and her faith, showing just how big a presence religion has in the compound.

It means tight restrictions are placed on relationships: contraception is banned, potential partners are vetted along bloodlines, and any time Love spends with Stedfast before their wedding is chaperoned by elders. The first time they kiss, or share a bed together, is during their wedding celebrations.

In an era when apps like Tinder allow instant hook-ups, it's a barely believable view on how modern relationships form.

But Evans and Berzins also use their documentary to capture another side to Gloriavale's residents.

It's one that's a little more relaxed, showing why viewers -- and Evans -- have such conflicted views about their lifestyle.

Leading up the wedding, residents are seen enjoying carnival-style activities, like ball sports and wheelbarrow races.

Stedfast is also seen dunking his wife-to-be in a giant water trough. While that can be seen as an atrocious thing to do, Love says it is "all good fun" and part of their recreational activities.

"With a mountain for climbing, a lake for boating, a river nearby and a large indoor swimming pool being just some of the activities we enjoy. We also have a family night and a young people's night each weekend, so our life is very full," she says.

The documentary also captures an outing to a Christchurch mall, where several residents attract attention because of their uniforms but end up taking selfies with fellow shoppers.

Evans and Berzins say the community has become more open over the seven years they've been filming, and they tried to show residents weren't as conservative as viewers might think.

"Because they are openly submissive in their marriages, that creates an impression that the women are very timid and mild and unable to make up their own minds and don't have forceful personalities or strong beliefs," says Evans.

"That's not our experience of Gloriavale. A lot of the women are quite forthright in their beliefs, and quite open and able to express themselves in a very clear and concise manner.

"It's not like everyone's under the thumb and watching what they're saying the whole time."

Berzins: "There's a great kind of sense of humour -- a bigger sense of humour than you'd expect. That's the thing that strikes a lot of people when they go to Gloriavale for the first time."

The threat of ex-communication, though, hangs over anyone who decides to leave.

In that email interview, Love says she decided to stay "when I was very young".

She doubts she'd ever change her mind and she's prepared to say goodbye to Stedfast if he decided to leave.

"I have no desire to leave because everything that is taught here is straight from the Word of God," she says.

"If I did leave, I would be going against God's will and be cut off from the Church. That would be throwing away the privilege of salvation that God has given me".

She ends with: "I have seen the world in news articles, on town trips and in movies. It doesn't interest me at all."

Evans feels inner turmoil every time she visits. She's wrestled with it a lot, but believes if the tables were turned, Gloriavale's residents would feel the exact same conflict if they were to document her life.

"If they came and stayed at our house they'd feel some things were cool, and others [would make them think] we were terrible sinful heathens with no moral compass at all," she says.

"It's easy to make judgments. I will feel like I've done a good job if, whatever opinions you bring to the documentary when you see it, there will be moments when you feel conflicted."

Both Evans and Berzins believe Gloriavale's residents are "deeply happy" with how they live their lives.

In fact, they might even be happier than they are.

"I think I have this lifestyle nailed, I have access to all this choice, I think I'm really happy," says Evans.

"Then I go down there and see all these people with no access to anything, and they seem happier than me."

She ends with what might be the perfect summation of our endless fascination with Gloriavale.

"The world is messy. When you see Gloriavale, they haven't got all the answers, clearly, but they've got some of them.

"You see it and you feel angry, but you also feel charmed."

* An earlier version of this story quoted Amanda Evans as using the word "vile" instead of "wrong" to describe some of the events she had witnessed at the Gloriavale community. The Herald regrets the error.



Gloriavale: A Woman's Place

Where and when:

Screening on Wednesday on TV2 at 8.30pm


Previous instalments A World Apart and Life and Death available via www.tvnz.co.nz/ondemand