Apr 24, 2016

The man behind the award-winning Gloriavale documentary

April 23, 2016

Documentary-maker Ivars Berzins on location at the South Island Christian community Gloriavale at Lake Haupiri.
Documentary-maker Ivars Berzins on location at the South Island
 Christian community Gloriavale at Lake Haupiri.

It took a draw down on their mortgage to get documentary series Gloriavale off the ground, but the risk has more than paid off with international recognition for makers Ivars Berzins and wife Amanda Evans and this week's prestigious award at the New York Festival.

Turn on free-to-air telly to look for in-depth current affairs or a decent documentary today and it's a struggle to find anything compelling amongst the profusion of light "news" and reality TV.

So, a gem such as the documentary series about Gloriavale, the South Island Christian community at Lake Haupiri, restored some faith in the possibility that there is more to reality television broadcasting than The Bachelor, The Block, and The Voice.

The three-part documentary series won a prestigious award at the New York Festival this week in the renowned World's Best TV & Films competitions (community portrait category). It competed against titan docos funded by multi-million dollar budgets from around the world.

Understandably, the makers of the series, Ivars Berzins and his wife Amanda Evans, are thrilled with the industry recognition, which could well encourage more international sales and boost their good reputation in the business.

It's also a boon for other doco makers in New Zealand, who are increasingly struggling to get their products funded and shown through the traditional broadcast model.

Even in the good old days of "documentaries of the week" and long-format current affairs, making a living from producing documentaries was tough. However, Wellington-based Berzins, director of photography at Pacific Screen (Evans is the producer) has managed to succeed doing just that for three decades.

His career as a documentary-maker and as the former chief cameraman for TVNZ in Wellington has taken him to far-flung locations such as Antarctica, Norway, Germany, France, East Timor and Libya.

Television shows he's worked on range from Tagata Pasifika and Asia Downunder to current affairs assignments. His career highlights include working on his own docos: crossing the Sahara Desert in 40C heat to film Lost in Libya (about the Long Range Desert Group) and the Qantas Award-winning travel game show The $20 Challenge in London.

In 1996, Berzins and Evans formed their own company, Pacific Screen. It was inevitable that Berzins would branch out to tell his own stories.

"I've always had a commitment to documentary and 'actuality style' filming. I like telling stories that are not well-known and I've never really deviated from that. Other people in the industry have moved into making commercials and drama but I decided that's not really my bag."

Coming from a migrant background – his parents fled communist Latvia to search for freedom in New Zealand – has shaped Berzins' storytelling philosophy. "My parents always regarded the ability to have a free voice as a really important thing. Part of me believes that a big section of our society is under-represented and they need a voice."

The community at Gloriavale has certainly been given a voice, though they were reticent at first.

"We have always been intrigued by the Gloriavale story. It raises a lot of questions about where we are as a society, as well as where they are as a community. Their way of life is uniquely their own and they are not trying to impose that on other people. But I think sharing their story with the TV audience helps us all think about our own values and what's important in life.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but you can't deny some aspects of it are quite impressive and food for thought. The stories spark endless discussions with our kids and friends, and I think TV should be challenging. Not everything on the screen should come in bite-sized chunks."

The first two Gloriavale documentaries – A World Apart and Life and Death – rated their socks off. (The third is in production and expected to air in a couple of months). The response to the shows via social media was passionate and sometimes ferocious as people debated the way of the life in the extremely conservative, self-sufficient community, which some view as a cult or sect.

What is surprising is the amount of young people, who supposedly shun documentaries to plonk themselves in front of Teen Mom or Keeping up with the Kardashians, who have become avid watchers of the Gloriavale series. They have strong, independent opinions about the stories, which have become hot topics of discussion in school classrooms and on social media.

Berzins reckons young people are hungry for observational stories. "I really like watching people who are different to myself who aren't celebrities," tweeted one teen, which made Berzins' day.

Young people are, in fact, starting to look past narcissistic, selfie-dominated social media forums, he says, as is evident from the teens and young adults queuing up at film festivals. "A good yarn can re-evaluate where you are; make you ask what's going on in the world."


However, documentaries are an endangered species in New Zealand, admits Berzins.

"The thirst for knowledge is still there. Unfortunately, I think we're poorly served in this country for issues-based television: flick through the schedule and you're more likely to find talent or cooking shows. That's all entertaining, but there's just not much meat on the bone anymore."

Just why broadcasters pander to a younger audience when; a) they've got no money and hardly watch telly anyway; and b) the Gen X and Baby Boomer viewers are cashed-up and still want to watch TV but lament the decline of quality content, is a mystery.

"I think they [broadcasters] are trying to sell to a younger generation who are drifting away from free-to air telly, whereas the older generation who grew up with and are quite loyal to it are increasingly ignored. I don't understand the business case for that."

But all credit to TVNZ for backing the Gloriavale series, and perhaps more in the future, says Berzins. "It rates incredibly well across all ages and yet it's got a backbone of old-style storytelling. It's kind of an anomaly."

How the reinvention of free-to-air broadcasting evolves remains to be seen, as is how anyone besides Google, Facebook and streaming services make any money from the web.

"It's the big question of the time: how to keep the creative industries going at a time where everyone expects something for nothing from the internet."

Financing documentaries in NZ (and other arts projects) is largely reliant on publicly funded grants. It's not easy. For example, despite Gloriavale receiving almost $460,000 in grants from NZ on Air, the dollars needed still fell short.

"We have, on occasion, drawn on our mortgage to get a programme started, ie, self-funding a pilot or teaser to show the broadcaster the look and feel of what we are aiming for, says Berzins. "We did this for Gloriavale."

He may feel like he's "the last man standing" in documentary storytelling but Berzins has no plans to hang up his camera while there are still yarns to be told.

"I feel lucky to be doing what I'm doing. I get excited turning up and not knowing about a person or their life. I'm on the same journey as the viewer. My eyes become the audience's eyes, and I get a great thrill from that.

"The future is always a bit scary. Free-to-air broadcasting is evolving – who knows what format we'll be watching in five years' time? But just because there aren't as many independent documentaries being commissioned, it doesn't mean I won't continue doing what I love doing. It might take some reinvention and novel ways to reach the audience but I will always love the viewfinder: it's hard to give it up."


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