When people think of cults they might imagine Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians. Few are even aware of the existence of The Family, a cult that sprung up in the sleepy Victorian suburb of Ferny Creek in the early 60s and is alleged to still be operating in parts of Melbourne to this day. The Family’s motto: “unseen, unheard, unknown” successfully ensured very little has been made public about this apocalyptic sect but that is about to change with the release of Rosie Jones’ hard-hitting documentary The Family. At the film’s centre lies matriarch and Family leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a charismatic yoga instructor from humble beginnings who was able to cunningly market herself as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ to chilling effect. With the help of Dr. Raynor Johnson, former Parkville resident, physicist and Headmaster of Queens College at Melbourne University (and her own John the Baptist), Byrne spent over twenty years recruiting members of Melbourne’s social elite into The Family, amassing for herself great wealth and unwavering loyalty.
Elevating The Family beyond mere character study, the film successfully explores the conditions that gave rise to Byrne’s success as a spiritual guru. Through a creative use of archival footage and well-produced reenactments that recall the work of Errol Morris, we are transported to the past and shown a version of Victoria caught between post-war malady and a bourgeoning counter-culture enamoured with the recherché. Within the upper-class milieu of Melbourne’s aristocracy, Byrne would find herself a captive audience in those already affluent but seeking spiritual fulfilment and quickly became perfectly positioned to take power. Preaching a hybrid of the Gnostic elements of Christianity and esoteric Eastern philosophy, Byrne focused on notions of spiritual cleansing and the promise of immortality that against all logic would see The Family thrive.
Along with her husband Bill, Byrne’s primary mission soon became adopting children into the sect. The couple would claim as many as fourteen, largely taken illegally from young, unwed mothers and raised to believe they were Byrne’s own (their hair all dyed blonde and cut into bobs so they would appear biologically related). With the aid of Byrne’s matronly acolytes or ‘Aunties,’ the children were beaten, starved and frequently dosed with mind-altering drugs to prepare them to be leaders after society’s imminent collapse.
Painstakingly researched and completed over the course of four years, Jones’ main achievement is giving a voice to those that suffered at the hands of Byrne and her cohorts. Here, Jones has managed to persuade many of these children, now adults, to talk candidly about their childhood experiences. Interviews are placed front and centre and it is these heartrending stories that give the film its incendiary power. While the aforementioned cults all ended in immense tragedy, Jones deftly highlights the internal damage, no less severe, that plagues those raised in The Family; a damage that we see has the devastating power to traverse generations. Without pulling any punches, the film is also remarkable in evenhandedness, presenting fascinating interviews not only from survivors but from current members of the cult and those who despite everything still feel in some way allegiant to Byrne.
The Family is indebted to recent cult/crime exposés like Alex Gibney’s Going Clear and Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s Making a Murderer. As in these works, the film borrows elements of the police procedural, following the affable and endearing Lex de Man, a now retired police detective (and consultant on the film) who worked a major international case in attempt to bring The Family to justice. It also uses the procedural format to expand its scope, making it, even apart from its explicit subject matter, an extremely pertinent and timely film. At a time when many world leaders are offering salvation but spreading fear and a mass of voters are seemingly willing to sign up and exchange their personal freedoms in blind faith, The Family is more important than ever. At once a searing examination of an insidious leader, the conditions that foster groupthink and true belief and the damage these can cause, the film represents investigative journalism at its very best. An appraisal of systemic power, privilege and abuse in a uniquely local context, The Family has already announced itself one of the must-see Australian films of the year.
With the film’s upcoming release, Jones has collaborated on a new book with Age journalist Chris Johnston entitled The Family. To celebrate, Cinema Nova hosts a special screening of The Family on Sunday February 19 at 4pm. A Q&A will follow the film with Jones, Johnson and producer Anna Grieve in attendance, along with in-cinema book sales and signings, presented by Readings. The Family will also have a limited theatrical released at Cinema Nova from Thursday 23rd of February.