Amanda Evans was introduced to storytelling around a busy dining table in in Manly, Brisbane. Money didn’t extend to ballet or music lessons; instead her parents, “keen narrators and raconteurs”, encouraged discussion around the (large) dinner table. Evans adored The Sound of Music, but soon realised she was more interested in telling other people’s stories than acting in them.
At 19, she found herself facing 35 children reciting times tables in a “stifling, Queensland classroom”. It was time for a change. An offer to become an education producer for the ABC — making programmes specifically for broadcast to schools — provided the chance she was looking for.
Evans calls her first screen job “a forgettable epic”: a documentary about a 10-year-old boy from a family of cave explorers, in the far outback of North Queensland. “It was the wild, wild west; the crew got ‘detained’ in our motel when a band of drunk miners tied our doors together with a long rope so we couldn’t get out...it was a hairy experience for a newbie.”
By the late 80s Evans was living in Melbourne, producing the ABC's junior current affairs show Behind the News, when TVNZ headhunted her to direct for Play School. In 1988 she took the reigns as director for the final series of another children’s classic, Spot On. Her next move wasn’t meant to be permanent: heading to Wellington to take charge of kids news show The Video Dispatch, where she upped the show's current affairs component, a la Behind the News.
Plans for a bigger OE were shelved when Evans met “charming, talented” cameraman Ivars Berzins in TVNZ's Wellington newsroom. They forged a personal and working relationship that has been a bedrock for both ever since.
The early 90s saw Evans take on production roles on TVNZ's Sunday morning arts show 10AM (presented by Kathryn Asare) and lifestyle shows like Alive and Kicking (1993) and Really Living (1994).
In 1996 Evans and Berzins created Pacific Crews, a crewing company set up to service the productions Evans was making through Pinnacle Productions, which she’d founded with Pamela Meeking-Stewart and Di Oliver-Zahl. She returned to the arts with directing and producing credits on For Arts Sake (1996) and book showThe Write Stuff (1997).
In 1999, now working exclusively through Pacific Crews, she created, directed and produced The $20 Challenge, a reality series about contestants surviving for three days in a foreign country, with only $20 to their name. An Aussie version screened on Network Ten in 2001, and the format was later sold widely across the globe by FremantleMedia; it was one of the first reality shows Fremantle distributed. Evans stayed on board as supervising producer for the Italian and Spanish versions, and as an advisor in Switzerland and Lebanon. Pacific Crews was set up as an incorporated company in Australia to handle their production.
In 2004 Evans produced documentary Till The Cows Come Home, which chronicled how people in the Manawatu town of Scotts Ferry coped following a major flood that year. The following year she produced and directed DIY Disasters for TV One, about home renovation injuries.
In 2006 Pacific Crews rebranded as Pacific Screen, to better reflect their concentration on creating content. They began with half-hour interview show My God, which allowed famous New Zealanders (like Joy Cowley and scientist Ray Avery) to dwell on varied matters spiritual.
Evans then sent her cameraman husband off into the 40 degree heat of the Sahara Desert with director Dan Henry for much lauded documentary Lost In Libya, which traces the path of the legendary ‘T Patrol’ — a Kiwi Unit from World War ll's Long Range Desert Group.
After five seasons of My God, Evans took the helm as producer and sometime director for ten documentaries from wide-ranging series New Zealand Stories. Evans ditched voice-overs in favour of people telling their own stories. She cites as a standout story Battle at the Basilica, outlining desperate attempts to shore up Christchurch’s Catholic Basilica after the 2011 quakes.
The next few years of Evans’ career involved a community that proved TV ratings gold. She and her husband travelled to the West Coast, and over time developed a close working relationship with members of Gloriavale Christian Community. From 2014 to 2016 Evans directed and produced three documentaries, focussing on life for the believers: A World Apart, Life and Death and most controversially, the extremely high rating Gloriavale - A Woman’s Place. Kiwi viewers were fascinated by Gloriavale’s wilful separation from mainstream New Zealand. But with the thousands of views came some fierce reactions from the media — especially towards A Woman’s Place, which focusses on the lives of two young women and the limited roles they're compelled to embrace.
Spinoff /NZ Herald writer Calum Henderson called Gloriavale a "sexist hellhole", and accused the documentaries of being “little more than a NZ On Air-funded PR exercise" for the church.
Evans staunchly rejects such assessments. "Having spent a lot of time at Gloriavale over four years, recording dozens of frank and open and entirely uncensored interviews with women, I feel I'm getting a fairly good picture of how Gloriavale women see the world," she says. "And I have a responsibility to show what I actually see, not what others hope I'll see.”
With the documentaries ranking among the most down-loaded programmes on TVNZ’s on demand site, Evans is pleased to be showcasing a more observational mode of documentary.
She argues that local TV has been dominated for too long by reporters who ‘investigate’ stories, using "abrasive techniques" that afford viewers few new insights. "It's a bit like trying to understand the lifestyle of a tortoise by poking her with a stick," she says. "The tortoise becomes defensive and naturally retreats into her shell. You achieve nothing by lurching into a situation with your camera running and the sun gun flaring. I've discovered you get a lot more revealing material about how other people think and behave by sitting back, shutting up, and watching and listening. It's more satisfying for everyone".
"Straight observational documentaries are a bit thin on the ground and aren't offered often enough to a younger TV2 audience. Gloriavale offers an opportunity to see other ways of living, so people can make up their own minds."
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Published on 31 October 2016
Pacific Screen website. Accessed 31 October 2016
Calum Henderson, ‘Gloriavale: Where a Woman’s Place is submissive and pregnant’ The Spinoff website. Loaded 28 July 2016. Accessed 31 October 2016
Ian Pryor, 'Ivars Berzins' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 23 August 2013. Accessed 31 October 2016
Writer unknown, 'Gloriavale becomes the most-watched show for 2016' - The NZ Herald, 29 August 2016