Anne Hamilton-Byrne was beautiful, charismatic and delusional. She was also incredibly dangerous. Convinced she was a living god, Hamilton-Byrne headed an apocalyptic sect called The Family, which was prominent in Melbourne from the 1960s to the 1990s. With her husband Bill, she acquired numerous children – some through adoption scams, some born to cult members – and raised them as her own. Isolated from the outside world, the children were dressed in matching outfits, had identically dyed blonde hair, and were allegedly beaten, starved and injected with LSD. Taught that Hamilton-Byrne was both their mother and the messiah, the children were eventually rescued during a police raid in 1987, but their trauma had only just begun. With survivors and cult members telling their stories alongside the Australian and international detectives who worked the case, this confronting feature documentary exposes not just what happened within the still-operating sect but also within the conservative Melbourne community that allowed The Family to flourish.
The Family is currently screening in limited release in Victoria, with screenings planned for NSW, South Australia and Western Australia soon. Details here.
Without the ballasts of tradition and history, any set of religious beliefs can sound wacky or even psychotic, but The Family – a bizarre sect set up in Melbourne in the early ‘60s by a yoga teacher and a prominent physicist, Dr Raynor Johnson – was based on a set of beliefs so far-fetched it’s hard to accept that so many wealthy, educated people could have fallen for them. A concoction of Christianity, Hinduism, Alien-rescue theories and LSD trips gave birth to a belief that the founder – Anne Hamilton-Byrne – was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and that she and her husband Bill had the right to ‘adopt’ up to 28 children as their own, raising them in strict seclusion to be the new saviours of a post-apocalyptic world.
This fascinating feature documentary from writer-director Rosie Jones (The Triangle Wars, Westall ‘66: A Suburban UFO Mystery) doesn’t solve the mystery of why or how such a cult might exist, but it gives disturbing insights into the legacy of damage wrought upon the children involved, and the difficulties of investigating and prosecuting crimes perpetrated in secrecy by a group whose official motto was ‘Unseen, unheard, unknown.’
The film begins with snippets from a home movie, showing cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne mugging to camera with her husband in an English country garden. She’s blonde and beautiful and faintly regal. ‘You love the children don’t you darling?’ she asks him. ‘I do darling,’ he replies obediently, before declaring his love for her too. Then we move to eerie aerial shots of Lake Eildon, a body of water in country Victoria so shallow that bare trees emerge from it like skeletons or ghosts. It was on a remote property here in 1987 that police raided and seized six children from the sect, placing them in protective custody where they struggled to adapt to normal life.
Having gained extraordinary access and trust, Jones introduces us to these survivors as adults through extended close-up Errol Morris-style interviews that give a powerful picture of their early years, where they were dressed identically, had their hair bleached blonde (like Anne’s) and suffered beatings, drugging and starvation as punishment. Brave and articulate, it’s clear they still bear the scars. Interviews with Lex De Man, the police detective in charge of the operation (and a consultant on the film) are also interspersed with moody recreations, archival interviews, home movies and photographs, as well as comments from journalists and ex-members of the sect, and intriguingly, one current member. An incomplete but nevertheless compelling picture emerges of corruption and abuse of power, all the way up into Melbourne’s legal, media and medical fraternities.
Seamless and intelligent editing by Jane Usher creates a mystery story that’s gripping and moving, as well as visually poetic, incorporating repeated shots of the stunning Lake Eildon at misty dawn, and a stunning atmospheric instrumental score by composer Amanda Brown (formerly a member of the Australian band The Go Betweens).
There’s something unsatisfying about this tale – the petering out of legal proceedings against Anne Hamilton-Byrne, and the way as a character she eludes understanding, now residing in a dementia ward. Yet as a film, The Family manages some closure, while still allowing there’s a larger and even more sinister story untold.
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