The questions that didn't get asked in Gloriavale: A Woman's Place

by Diana Wichtel / 29 July, 2016
Photo/TVNZ

The latest documentary on the closed Christian community is more like a promotional video.

It’s the question – one of many – that didn’t get asked. How is it consistent with Christian, or just human, values to forever cut off anyone who chooses to leave a closed community from their family who remain inside? The question didn’t get asked on TV2’s Gloriavale: A Woman’s Place because it seems as if the makers have well and truly drunk the Kool-Aid. This is the third NZ On Air-funded documentary directed by Amanda Evans about the South Island Christian community.

Evans has had “unprecedented access”. You can see why. Her first two wildly popular documentaries, Gloriavale: A World Apart and Gloriavale: Life and Death, also swerve tricky questions and the controversies, including the conviction in 1995 of Neville Cooper, aka Hopeful Christian, on sex abuse charges, that have been part of the Gloriavale story.

“Something that happened 25 years ago … It’s been done to death,” said Evans in an interview on RNZ National about A Woman’s Place. The documentaries were “observational”, she noted.

Well, not entirely. A Woman’s Place certainly observes the fortunes of the sweet, talented, charming Dove Love, a 22-year-old on her way to marrying 17-year-old Watchful Stedfast, a pairing over which she has no say. But there’s also the voice-over, which is less observational documentary than promotional Gloriavale in-house video. “Contrary to media speculation, they’re not all desperately tunnelling their way out,” snipes the narrator, of the women who live there. I’ve consumed a lot of media about Gloriavale and never encountered such speculation. Never mind.

The voice-over also offers some scientific evidence in favour of weird arranged marriages. Dove Love really wanted to get married. She is a very grateful person, we’re told. Research shows, reports the voice-over, that “gratitude is an important factor in how happy people felt regardless of their status or income”. Dove certainly has no status in the sense any 21st-century woman living in a free community would recognise, nor any income.

As for young Watchful, “She’s willing to submit to me, which I feel is very important for a marriage to last,” he explains of his bride-to-be. Viewers would find this “shocking”, declared the advertising for the show. No, just depressing.

In case we’re watching this with the view that it all sounds pretty socially suboptimal in 2016, the voice-over is there to reassure us that everything is sweet: “Statistically, Dove’s chances of having a long and happy marriage to Watchful are much better than the average for a New Zealand bride.”

Dove and Watchful, along with another couple, get married. “My love for you will only last while your love for Christ is stronger,” vows Watchful romantically. They both previously agreed that this bond before Christ would be over if the other ever decided to leave Gloriavale.

That’s the attraction. Here is a haven for people who won’t have to ever make a grown-up decision. That’s why God invented so many rules, down to headscarves and going off to lose your virginity in the middle of the marriage ceremony. “God has given something wonderful to the human female above the animals,” instructs an elder as the couples trot off to consummate the unions. “He’s given her a seal, a guarantee. And that seal was to be given to her husband. He was the one to open it.” Ugh.

These documentaries rate. I wouldn’t miss them. But this is PR. The documentary ended with a montage of misty moments from Dove’s perfect life, as if she’d scored the last rose on The Bachelor. She has choices, insists the voice-over. “She chooses to love the life she’s got.”

Really? Should Dove choose not to love it, she’d be dead to family and friends. No matter how you spin it, if you have to live without access to knowledge available to the rest of the free world in a place where you can’t leave without being punished, then you are a prisoner.

This article was originally published in the July 29 edition of NZ Listener.

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