The Family

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Rosie Jones’ new documentary, The Family, is an unsettling and unflinchingly in-depth look at the doomsday cult that lurked on the fringes of Melbourne society for the better part of thirty years. Forming in 1963 under the leadership of Anne Hamilton-Byrne and physicist Dr. Raynor Johnson, the apocalyptic sect known as The Family stole, adopted and raised children to worship Hamilton-Byrne as their mother and as the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ. She was their Messiah and they, at one point all 28 of them, were her children, schooled to reshape and reform civilisation after the end of the world.

Based on a book of the same name by Jones and journalist Chris Johnston, The Family presents a detailed portrait of the cult’s history and the indulgent sphere of society that allowed it to flourish. The film also delves into the physical and emotional toll these experiences had on both the sect’s victims, the 28 children who were stolen from their parents at birth, beaten, starved, dressed identically and injected with LSD, but also the detectives and journalists who dedicated themselves to taking Anne Hamilton-Byrne down. These people all still suffer from their encounters with the cult and through recreations of key events, archive footage and confronting interviews with the survivors, former members, and frighteningly enough, current members, Jones dives into both the methods and mindset of those who followed Hamilton-Byrne as well as the extreme psychological scarring that the victims still suffer. One former member, who was taken at birth from her mothers’ side, heartbreakingly recounts how she was unable to hold her own child after giving birth. It took days before she could find the strength.

Jones is aided in her endeavor by amazing cinematography of the isolated and almost otherworldly Lake Eildon, where The Family home was based, and the City of Melbourne. Under Jones’ direction these become two very different and distinct worlds, separated by a gulf that matches the extreme lengths the police, both and foreign and domestic, were forced to go to in order to bring stop these dreadful crimes from continuing.

Though the film pulls no punches in presenting the details of how the children suffered, what is most frightening is the reveal of just how influential the sect was in Melbourne’s conservative society. Members were recruited throughout the medical world, the constabulary, academia and the state government. The extent of their reach and the crimes that they were able to get away with will no doubt leave a rancid taste in your mouth, which speaks to the power of the film and the almost unbelievable nature of the story. This is not a happy story and, for many, there is no happy ending. But it is an important film, one that explores how easily, and how willingly, people of good intentions can be blinded and lead astray by beauty and delusion. 

The Family 
In cinemas, Thursday, 23 February

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