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Family, TheAustralia 2016
Directed by Rosie Jones
Running time 98 minutes
Synopsis: A documentary looking at “The Family”, a group which flourished in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges from the 1960s to the late ‘80s and “adopted” children in order to instill in them the knowledge to re-populate society after the Apocalypse.
Rosie Jones’s film is less a documentary than a tabloid diatribe, which is a pity as there is a compelling Australian story to be told here. Whilst the archival material that it has unearthed is fascinating, its main agenda comes across as being a demonizing of the group’s prime mover, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, something which, frankly, isn’t hard to do.
Cults don’t start off that way but rather with good intentions. It is only over time through a combination self-protective isolationism and the imposition of an unquestioned authoritarianism that they morph into the profoundly aberrant conglomerates that we call cults, entities on the fringes of mainstream society that grow increasingly extreme in their beliefs and always end up badly.
There is no doubt that The Family deserves the title of “cult” even if compared to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or Jim’s Jones’ Peoples Temple it was a relatively innocuous instance. It seems there was some over-enthusiastic disciplining of the children (although the group's heyday was the 1970s when attitudes to rearing of children were very different from today, the administration of LSD notwithstanding) and Hamilton-Byrne was clearly a crack-pot but there was no sexual abuse and no self-immolation.
This is where the documentary falls down as such. Other than Hamilton-Byrne’s deluded claim to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ there is really no more than a sketchy explanation of the group’s credo or why it attracted members of apparently good social standing (apparently accumulating some 700 followers during its heyday). Instead, the film launches straight into scare-mongering and by mixing modern day interviews with archival material sets out to be a shock-horror exposé of The Family as an evil sect (although there is no mention of the Manson group of the same name or for that matter the mutants going by the same name in the 1971 sci-fi classic, The Omega Man). The trouble with this approach is that whilst the now-adult survivors of the experience are clearly traumatized by their experiences they are also exemplary “unreliable witnesses”. It is ironic that the only nay-sayer, identified as a “current sect member” who claims that the survivors are indulging in a “victim” mentality actually appears the most credible of the bunch. Bu,t we ask ourselves, “what current sect”? Particularly given that Hamilton-Byrne is now 95 and institutionalized what do these people do/believe in? Who are they other than this sole rather smug interviewee who appears only in short sound-bites?
There are innumerable questions like this that undermine the authority of this account of The Family. Apparently Hamilton-Byrne had a sophisticated ‘insider’ scam running through a network of cult members who worked within the health system and who enabled her to adopt unwanted babies (she managed to accumulate 28 children who she dressed in matching gender-determined outfits and dyed their hair blonde) but who were these people and where are they today? Hamilton-Byrne had a farm in the UK to which various of the children who were not responding to group indoctrination at the Ferny Creek HQ were sent but who ran this farm and what became of it? (there was apparently also a "retreat" in the Catskills, USA) We hear from a handful of the adult survivors but what became of the rest? And it doesn’t help that the two presumably now-retired detectives who were responsible for investigating the group come across as considerably out of their depth at the time and that suggestions of a cover-up from above go unexplored. Cults are fascinating phenomena because from an outside perspective their beliefs and behaviour seem so obviously misguided. But then look at the Holocaust. Insanity has its own logic.
The Family feels like it was funded by a survivors group and that co-producer, writer and director Jones was hired for the job. This is not in itself a bad thing but as an investigative documentary The Family really needed more rigour to command our attention.