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Review: Escaping Utopia shines a new light on the true darkness of Gloriavale

TVNZ’s new documentary series about leaving the West Coast religious community isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a necessary one.

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Pilgrim Christian is driving along a gravel road in the dead of night. He’s heading towards Gloriavale, and as he approaches a small one lane bridge, he slows down. This bridge marks a line between his two very different worlds. Christian grew up in Gloriavale as one of founder Neville Cooper’s 16 children, but was exiled seven years ago. Though his wife and children still live there, Christian now spends his days helping people escape the place he once called home.

Christian drives up to a milk shed and sneaks in, a stack of A4 papers in his hand. He’s holding leaflets that warn about the dangers of cults, which he quickly stuffs into lockers and drawers. His son works in this shed, and smuggling these messages in is a small but vital act of defiance. It’s a way of connecting with his family in the hope they will reach out for help. “Doing nothing is not the answer,” Christian says. “If nobody does anything, these people aren’t going to get free.”

It’s only the opening moments of Escaping Utopia, and already my heart is in my mouth. This intensely compelling new three-part docuseries takes us behind the scenes of what it’s like to live in – and leave – Gloriavale. The extreme religious sect has been a source of public curiosity for years, and this isn’t the first television show about life there. Escaping Utopia will certainly satisfy people’s curiosity about Gloriavale, but it takes us far beyond the bonnets and butter churning and into a much darker reality. It will enrage and upset you, and break your heart several times over.

The first episode leaves us in no doubt about the damage Gloriavale has caused. It speaks to a variety of people who have first hand experience of the community, like Rosanna, who gives an insight into the controlled lives of Gloriavale women. We meet Marcus, a farmer whose property backs onto Gloriavale and who acts as a conduit for those wanting to escape, and Melanie Reid, the 60 Minutes journalist who went undercover into Gloriavale in 1993 and recounts her strange and scary experience (which leads to a fantastic cliffhanger).

Rosanna holds her Gloriavale uniform (Photo: TVNZ)

The documentary also speaks with current members of Gloriavale, who we’re told are risking their place in their community by speaking out, to help us understand why people join and why they stay. People like Sharon, who joined Gloriavale in 1971 and tells of slowly losing her identity, and Boaz, who wants to leave to protect his children. It’s clear that getting out is not simple, particularly if Gloriavale is all you know. The remoteness of Gloriavale isn’t the main barrier to escaping; the psychological shackles are far more difficult to break free from.

The documentary itself is quiet and steady, because there’s no need to embellish or over-dramatise these powerful stories. There are uncomfortable moments, and the bravery of those who have escaped and the underground network of people who help them is inspiring. There’s also a lot of extraordinary archival footage from the early days of Gloriavale, which takes us inside the community and shows how the original utopian vision became more and more extreme and destructive over the five decades that followed.

Episode one of Escaping Utopia is not an easy watch, but it is a necessary one. By using archival footage and powerful, personal testimonies, the documentary packs an emotional punch in exposing an oppressive world ruled by fear, control, and abuse. Christian may have driven through Gloriavale under the cover of darkness, but Escaping Utopia shines a new light on the devastating realities of this hidden world.

Escaping Utopia premieres on TVNZ1 on Sunday at 8.30pm and streams on TVNZ+. A review of all three episodes will appear on The Spinoff next week. 

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