Angel, Dove, Mercy and the rest of the flock are back, as happy as ever in blue. Writer Anke Richter, a cult observer, watches Gloriavale: The Return.
The best thing I could do to prepare myself for Gloriavale: The Return was to catch up on the latest episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’d be a sort of desensitisation treatment. Nothing, I thought, could come close to the dystopian nightmare-scape of Gilead – even if one takes place in a fictionalised United States and the other shows real life in a cult community only 230 kilometres away from me.
In the Lightbox series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the remaining fertile women are brutally enslaved by a fundamentalist Christian regime. The “handmaids” are walking wombs, all dressed in long red robes and barely uttering more than “Blessed be the fruit” from under their chastity hoods. If this doesn’t make you a feminist, then not even seeing genital mutilation up close will. Praised be, bitches.
Maybe watching Elisabeth Moss as pregnant June Osborne – “Offred” is her handmaiden name – fail to escape the horrors of the godly gulag wasn’t such a good idea after all. Some immunisations can give you a bad reaction – or in my case, more emotional cross-contamination than I asked for. And I don’t mean the similar costume designs. But let’s look back at happier, healthier days. Back to July 2016 when the last of a three-part observational documentary series about New Zealand’s largest religious community aired on TV2. Gloriavale: A Woman’s Place was the most popular doco on the network that year.
The last half of the last show was also the cheesiest, creepiest wedding video you would have ever seen, even as the best man or bridesmaid of ecstatic reborn Christians with a fetish for pink. Remember Dove Love, the rosy-cheeked 22-year-old virgin who was about to marry 17-year-old Watchful Steadfast after only talking to him for six weeks, “pure as a gift”? How they walked off the stage during their wedding ceremony to “consummate the marriage” while an elder commented on her “seal” that only the child-groom was allowed to “open”? All the while the narrator telling us in a cheery voice: “Dove does have choices: to be happy or not.” Exactly the same choices that, say, prisoners have.
But don’t call Amnesty International just yet. Let’s instead remember fondly all the lines of clean washing blowing in the West Coast sunshine and pregnant women gliding along in long robes, softly patting their bellies, folding baby clothes and smiling submissively at the men. A peaceful place where birth control is straight from the devil, the outside world is purely evil, marriages are arranged, teenagers expected to get pregnant, women work in the kitchen from a young age and the elders preach that vaccines are made from aborted foetuses. These heavenly indoctrinated creatures could have come straight out of the text book of Aunt Lydia, the Gestapo-like chief ideologist at the “Women Centre” in Gilead where the handmaids are tortured, broken and brainwashed into obedient breeding machines. In red, not blue.
One difference between what we’ve seen of Gilead and of Gloriavale is that in the latter place, everyone always looks cheerful. The fly-on-the-wall footage was taken by independent filmmaker Amanda Evans, who admitted in a 2015 TV Guide interview that she was “quite intimidated” when she first arrived in Gloriavale. Then she gained access and trust. “These days it’s like catching up with friends,” she added.
Fast forward three years, and we’re at Gloriavale: the Return. Now it looks like Evans is not just catching up with old friends but giving them a professional leg up by presenting their shiniest, idealised side to the outside world, for free. That’s called PR or propaganda and is usually paid for by the company, group or institution you are promoting, not by a broadcaster. Cheap side-sweep to Gilead: all the journalists there were massacred.
The Gloriarites hate the media too and have turned camera crews away. The three-part TVNZ series is the only video material they have on their website, apart from an old clip that shows how their leader – a convicted sex offender – miraculously survived a plane crash in 1967. TVNZ has served those elders well. But maybe it has made more people aware of this cult and sympathetic for the gentle people trapped in there.
Since we saw Dove Love in all her sweet innocence, a lot has happened over at Haupiri, and I’m not talking about the Waitangi picnic that the lovely folks there prepared for the residents of Greymouth. More voices about the suffering and suppression of Gloriavale families have surfaced, some of them “offended by the soft treatment TV has afforded the South Island cult”.
Last year, the government released a 33-page report that contains allegations of sexual assault, beatings, psychological pressure, forced isolation and forced marriage, abuse of power, shunning of renegades, withholding of money – all the hallmarks of an oppressive fanatical cult.
The police have since investigated the community, their charitable status is under scrutiny and a Gloriavale man was charged with sexual violation and indecent assault. That may be just the tip of the iceberg, but – spoiler alert – none of this will be mentioned on TVNZ in the weeks to come. (You can see TVNZ’s response to this piece below.) Those who cannot get enough of the happy Gloriavale flock, rejoice: the eight new mini-episodes, about ten minutes long, have exactly the same evangelical feel, tone and gloss as the three longer pieces before. Each zooms in on a certain aspect of daily life: the food preparation, or manufacturing wardrobe for 500 people. “You can even waterslide in it!”, we learn about the practical blue frocks, suddenly finding ourselves in an infomercial – but where’s the phone number to order such amazing outdoor garb?
If it wasn’t so one-sided, Evans’ work could pass as an educational “show and tell” or a good old Country Calendar piece. We see a young woman who spends three years just making butter. So much self-sufficiency and hard work! Think of all the healthy babies popping out soon, thanks to the good dairy! Praise the Lord. I couldn’t help being fascinated in the same sad way that I watched “Offred” doing her chores. And don’t forget: She does have choices – “to be happy or not”.
Nowhere in the first four episodes that I watched does the interviewer or narrator touch on the patriarchal control or any of the controversy that has followed Gloriavale over the last years. Only in a breezy half sentence, after boasting how rapidly the community has grown thanks to the lack of birth control and abortions, do we hear that some “families choose to leave”. No word about how they are pushed out and ostracised, with hardly more than a shirt on their back and no further contact to their families on the inside. Over 70 people so far.
Head over to Three and you can watch the latest reports by Patrick Gower on Newshub about John Ready. The father of nine was kicked out of his job and out of Gloriavale, forced to leave his family behind, because he had brochures from other churches who question the ideology and leadership of Gloriavale. Angel Benjamin, the dark-haired woman showing us her demure wardrobe, is his sister. They now have a night watch patrol at Gloriavale to stop such “contraband” sneaking in. Not part of the show, sorry. Instead we learn about their oven that can make 2,000 buns. Hallelujah.
A TVNZ spokesperson, knowing that this was coming, defended the programme as a “neutral observation, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions based on both the material in the show and other coverage they may engage with … We respect our audiences’ preferences and it’s not for us to dictate what people should believe personally.”
Anyone who comes to their own conclusions, with or without the The Handmaid’s Tale, can put some hard questions to TVNZ. As part of the programme, Dove Love is promising to answer them in episode five. Call me paranoid, but if the questions on air are only about food, clothes, babies and wedding songs, then our public owned television broadcaster is morally blind. Much like how it all began in Gilead. Under his eye.
A spokesperson from TVNZ has responded to this article:
“Of course we respect your right to have an opinion on the documentary series, but I did want to follow up on how the piece claims TVNZ doesn’t do and won’t do any critical coverage of the community.
“This is simply not true.
“We’ve featured hard-hitting coverage on 1 NEWS, Seven Sharp and Sunday from some this country’s most respected current affairs journalists, including Janet McIntyre and Jehan Casinader.
“A quick search of our news site turns up a number of 1 NEWS stories looking at these very issues in recent months.
“Your article could leave the impression in readers’ minds that TVNZ is silent in a News context. And that’s not the case.”
Gloriavale: The Return premieres on TVNZ onDemand tomorrow, Tuesday May 15.
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