Amanda Evans has directed and produced three top-rating Gloriavale documentaries for TVNZ. Here she responds to criticism from one former resident of the South Island religious community that the documentaries don't dig deep enough.

Having read Melissa Harrison's criticism of Gloriavale - A Woman's Place, it's clear she is very angry about her family's treatment by the community. It's a well-documented phenomenon that families who leave closed communities like Gloriavale (or the Amish) are shunned by their families and not invited back. It is painful and psychologically damaging, without a doubt. I am surprised to read she was invited for a return visit, which shows some softening at Gloriavale to the previously 'dead-to-me' attitude to the departed.

People who leave the community do so for very heartfelt reasons and I can fully accept what a burden that places on them and their extended families, and the intergeneration stress they continue to feel as a result. It's not surprising, given this context that Ms Harrison refuses to believe people living inside the community can flourish there. However flourish they do, despite her claim that all 540 residents are collectively faking it for the cameras.

I am no new plum, recently fallen from the Film School tree. I have been documenting life in Australia and New Zealand as a broadcaster for some 35 years. I spent five years producing a long-running series on New Zealand spirituality with the critically acclaimed series My God. It explored the ethical decision-making of 50 individual New Zealanders. I have a deep and abiding interest in how people find spiritual fulfilment, sometimes in the most extraordinary circumstances.

That's what draws me to Gloriavale as a storyteller. I am fascinated that women like Dove and Angel can live so happily and find deep satisfaction in their lives, given the obvious restrictions. This is what the story is about - how do they make sense of their world and make the most of it? I believe that non-judgmental, observational documentary helps us understand more about the way people think and feel than the reporter-led issues-driven combative approach we're normally served.

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

I fully acknowledge that one man has served prison time for an offence committed 30 years ago. This is a fact of the matter and well covered by other media. However, I believe a living, dynamic community of 540 people (a town the size of Akaroa) shouldn't be forever defined by that event.

For the record, as an agnostic and a feminist, I don't condone every aspect of life at Gloriavale. It's not how I would run the place if I was a leader. However, it's not my role to judge the community and how they live. Bloggers, Facebook trolls and TV reviewers have that job well in hand.

It's utterly inaccurate to say I am giving the community an 'irresponsibly soft treatment'. I have very clearly covered the long hours, unpleasant work environment, burdensome responsibilities, submission to husbands and fathers, lack of contraceptive access, arranged marriage, no choice in clothing, food, reading material, and limited access to news from the outside world. Ask any viewer and they'll quickly rattle you off the challenges of living at Gloriavale.

Clearly, it's no picnic. Just what Ms Harrison means by describing my film as "LOL's in a steady stream of sound bites and sight gags" I have no idea. Are we watching the same film? It's not an investigative or historical piece - heaven knows we've seen plenty of them - it's an observational documentary. There is no intentional humour on my part, I haven't 'set up' scenes for entertainment, these ARE real people's lives and I have shot what's happening. Frankly, just why this series has become so phenomenally popular is a mystery to me. I am taking exactly same 'old school' approach as I have always done, nothing's changed. It's very similar to the approach of Country Calendar - gentle honest storytelling. No one is accusing Country Calendar of pouring on the saccharin or rosy tinting the spectacles. My first two Gloriavale docos have just won the prestigious New York Festival Silver Medal, in competition from 70 countries and an international board of judges, so the standard can't be that shabby, surely?

Ms Harrison may want readers to believe everyone inside is deeply unhappy because that would confirm her own world view. Inevitably a few may be discontent, but many are deeply satisfied and will never leave. It's what I have observed and documented over the last four years at the community, and I stand behind my work. James Ben Canaan, who left last year, has a creditable understanding on life inside Gloriavale over his 41 years there, and confirmed A Woman's Place was accurate showing residents as living satisfying, stress-free lives.

I doubt attacking me personally will make Melissa Harrison any happier or change her understandably negative experience of Gloriavale. What she feels is absolutely valid, deeply painful, and is her reality so I am not going to negate her experiences or views by bagging her in a public forum. By the same token, Dove Love is a genuinely happy, fulfilled young woman and no amount of personal vitriol, being re-printed by The Herald as a headline-grabbing opinion piece, is going to change that. It's a different reality but it's just as valid. Dove's story resonates with me, and with many viewers, because it shows us all it's possible to make a happy life out of whatever cards you're dealt. It's necessary, however, to stop succumbing to negativity and get on with it.

Read more: Former Gloriavale resident slams 'negligent' TV2 documentary A Woman's Place