The Family, a Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund-supported documentary from writer/director Rosie Jones and producer Anna Grieve is a labour-of-love and the result of years of research. The final product is as fascinating as it is disturbing.
Exposing the life and times of former yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her sect (or cult) ‘The Family’, this uses subtle dramatisations, contemporary interviews, file footage and audio, a few cautious montages and creepy home movies. It doesn’t try to sensationalise any of its details, as they’re quite sensational enough.
Hamilton-Byrne founded the sect in 1963, and it first it seemed to be partly to do with her interests in yoga and health, but soon, like so many sects or cults or movements of this type, it all went very wrong. Into the ‘70s and beyond children were being essentially kidnapped via dodgy adoptions, or born via arranged marriages within the group. Anne and her followers were brain-washing the kids with tales of alien spacecraft, apocalypses and Second Comings as, all the while, they kept them terrified with regular abuse, starvation and worse.
Former Detective Snr. Sgt. Lex de Man is a key interviewee here, and he was present when the Ferny Creek, Victoria, property was raided in March 1987. Others also come forward to tell their stories, including deprogrammed sect members (like Barbara Kibby, who talks of years of therapy and shame) and now-adult sect kids. They’re quite a bunch too, with Rebecca, Anouree and Sarah relating their memories of Family life and how hard it was to fit into the real world after their liberation. We get very close to Roland Whitaker too, who was a mess for years and only now seems able to come to terms with what happened to him.
Documentarian Jones’ decision to play much of this as a mystery has been criticised but it seems perfectly fitting, as Hamilton-Byrne was a mystery. Did she really believe she was Jesus reincarnated? Why did she so profoundly hurt the kids when she said she loved them? How was Ferny Creek going to survive Armageddon? And what the Hell did the most controversial part of it all – the forced LSD dosings – have to do with God?
The Family will screen at the Mercury Cinema from Friday April 7 until Sunday May 7. All details: mercurycinema.org.au