When much of our media is dominated by fad and ‘false news’, it is quite interesting to see a film about a truly false prophet. This film takes the form of The Family, a documentary from director Rosie Jones and producer Anna Grieve about the notorious cult which operated from the 1960s, which is seemingly still lurking about.
The Family were in operation from the 1960s and into the 1990s, with the charismatic Anne Hamilton-Byrne at the helm. It would seem the group relied on a composite of Christianity and Eastern mysticism to form their beliefs, with Hamilton-Byrne putting herself front and centre as the messiah. She is said to have referred to herself on various occasions as Jesus reincarnated. Hamilton-Byrne was perhaps the exact opposite; demonically cruel to her victims.
The Family kidnapped many children during the course of their existence, with Hamilton-Byrne claiming to be the biological mother of many of them. The children were dressed identically, given matching hair cuts, and some even had their hair bleached to match the ‘siblings’. They were abused – beaten and starved, forced to take LSD; there is also mention of sexual abuse. Despite some knowledge of the cult by police, there was an extensive conspiracy at play which kept the cult from serious investigation. Anne Hamilton-Byrne had recruited wealthy and powerful Melburnians and she was well protected by a vast network of followers.
As a documentary, The Family utilises interviews with the now-adult victims to relate the narrative. While it is unlikely that this film introduces anything new to the factual body of knowledge, the personal stories and reflections from the victims are compelling. Former police detective Lex De Man is both an interviewee and consultant to the film; his recollections are disturbing and all too real.
While this film is both worthy and fascinating, there are a couple if issues with the finished product. In its style, The Family is very deliberately creepy and mysterious, the result being that the documentary is slightly manipulative. The use of typewriter-style font to give the vintage yet official sense of authority, as well as a brooding and eerie soundtrack, are measures, amongst others, that are not uncommon in ‘true crime’ type documentaries. The Jinx and Making a Murderer, two recent American documentary series, utilise similar techniques to go to some pains to steer the viewer to certain conclusions. The source material in The Family is shocking enough; the viewer does not need further prompting to assess the material.
There is only a short discussion of Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her history before she formed the cult. The information that is given is fascinating, with suggestions of a name change, a chequered history, and even transformative plastic surgery is implied. A deeper investigation of Hamilton-Byrne would potentially help to answer some of the questions the documentary raises. Brief comments from a Hamilton-Byrne devotee read as tokenism on the part of the filmmakers to be balanced. He claims to still visit her everyday, and this, along with the cursory view of the self-proclaimed living god, leaves the film wanting.
The Family is in selected cinemas from 23rd February through Label Distribution.