Rosie Jones previously gave us the documentary The Triangle Wars, about a people powered community protest over a proposed development in the suburb of St Kilda. Her latest film, The Family, is a vastly different offering.
It explores the history of the strange abusive sect established by former yoga teacher Anna Hamilton-Byrne in Ferny Creek in the 1960s, and which flourished at a property in picturesque Lake Eildon in the late 1960s. In an investigative report, 60 Minutes described Hamilton-Byrne as “the embodiment of evil.” Hamilton-Byrne established the sect along with a handful of similarly minded acolytes, and managed to recruit some prominent and powerful people. There were lots of children on the property – some born to sect members, but others were adopted by illegal methods. Hamilton-Byrne used a variety of methods to control the children, including forcing them to wear similar clothes and dye their hair blonde, so that they looked like “the children of the damned.” Hamilton-Byrne also used starvation, beatings and administered LSD. Little was known about the so-called family until a former member went to the police in 1987 with a tale of physical and mental abuse. A police raid on the property managed to liberate many of the children.
In this comprehensive documentary Jones gives us some chilling insights into the sect and the personality of the messianic Hamilton-Byrne, who remained unrepentant and claimed that she had done no wrong. Jones has interviewed several former members of the sect, who still bear the psychological scars of their experiences. Some of their stories are chilling, but others – like that of Roland, one of the children of the sect – are heartbreaking; although Roland’s story has a sort of more positive outcome.
The Family explores the seductive power of cults and of charismatic leaders who feed on the vulnerability of people and are able to persuade them to take that leap of faith. The structure though is fairly straightforward; working with editor Jane Usher, Jones has interspersed lots of talking head interviews with some atmospheric location footage, and some re-enactments that are among the film’s weakest moments. There is also an extended interview with Lex de Man, the detective obsessed with the case but who was also frustrated by what he saw as the fact that justice was not done. Jones has included some rarely seen archival footage.
Not quite as hard hitting as it could have been as it only hints at the suggestion of sexual abuse as part of the cult’s operations.
Director: Rosie Jones
Release Date: 23 February 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television