Hope and filmmaking in remote corner of NZ

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27 Jun 2012

An interest in the darker corners of New Zealand society took student filmmaker Cody Packer to a reclusive religious community on the West Coast. Next he’s off to the Chicago International Film Festival.

The documentary Gloriavale, made with fellow CPIT New Zealand Broadcasting School students Shani Annand-Baron and Nathan Joe, won the Best Student Documentary award and a showing at the film festival's "CineYouth Best of the Fest".

Cody’s original target was New Zealand’s Right Wing Resistance, but the group proved unreliable and difficult to work with. “I am interested in the smaller, darker corners of society so I started looking into New Zealand cults. Gloriavale showed up on the internet and a lot of people were debating whether it is a cult,” Cody said.

Connecting with Gloriavale

Initial contact suggested the community was not going to be exactly easy to work with either. Having watched old TV reports about Gloriavale Cody could understand their initial hesitancy. The reports used weird music to highlight the drama and pigeonholed Gloriavale as a cult without giving the community a voice. Cody wanted to let the community speak for itself.

However he didn’t quite anticipate the reception he received. “I went out there for a day and there were 12 of them. It was intimidating. They put chairs around us in a ring. I was petrified. They asked us if we were undercover and I assured them I wanted to just turn up and roll the camera.”

Convinced of the student filmmakers’ good intentions, the community cooperated. “They were a very welcoming, open-armed community once they got to know me, but there was always a residing undercurrent of control they still wanted to have over the film.”

Living the secluded life

For three days the team lived close to the community at Gloriavale, even sleeping in a room next to Gloriavale leader Neville Cooper who spent 11 months in prison for child abuse in 1995. It was unsettling, Cody said. “He came and preached to us every day at lunch. It got to the point where it was unbearable. He is a huge character with huge charisma. I’ll never forget it.”

There were undertones of a cult mentality. “It was quite bizarre; I felt like an alien on another planet. They were all staring, the children are all quite curious about the outside world.

 “I think a lot of the younger people were going through the motions, their lives were planned out and they were like zombies. Like girls as young as 12 had to get up horrendously early to make the bread and prepare the lunches. They looked half asleep.”

After student life in Christchurch the monotony was difficult, or as Cody says, “every day was the same. You get bored watching them live.”

Nonetheless, the community liked the resulting observational documentary, which is based on interviews with Faithful Pilgrim, a Christian Community Servant at Gloriavale. They have posted the film on their website.

Switching to a faster lane

Meanwhile, Cody has just finished a six-month internship with Desert Road Productions, working on a docudrama about the Rome Olympics, and is currently Assistant Director with the company for a nine-week shoot of Harry, a new primetime TV3 crime drama. Future work will depend on a NZ Film Commission grant application for his next film, a relationship drama about a child born in a coma who wakes up after 16 years.

The Chicago International Film Festival is in October. “I am planning to go to Chicago. My boss said I have got to go – it’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will be great to see my film on that stage and to network with the people there.”

Watch Gloriavale