The Family is a documentary focusing on the controversial and notorious Australian religious cult of the same name. Written, directed and co-produced by Rosie Jones, with Anna Grieve producing, the 98-minute exposé takes the viewer down the long and winding road of the group, showing us its origins and methods, and relaying its philosophies via accounts from members past and present.
“The Family” was started in Ferny Creek, Victoria in the 1960’s by husband-and-wife team Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne. They based its key principles upon a blend of Eastern and Western religions, however at its core is the fundamental belief that Anne is the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ. They grew their numbers by befriending and then enlisting key and powerful members of the health industry (nurses, psychologists, doctors), using these relationships to facilitate the adoption of children. Things only get stranger, darker and more intriguing from there.
Anne is a charismatic, attractive and influential person with an ethereal quality to her, and she uses the combination of these forces to expand her followers and further her proclamations with little to no pushback. Those who speak out of turn are punished or shipped overseas to learn their lessons, and such reactionary measures are quick to show the members, particularly the children, where the line is firmly drawn.
Horrific tales of abuse, control, delusion and brainwashing punctuate this superbly researched and edited film, pushing the viewer ever deeper into this alarming and bizarre world. We travel across three countries and continents to get an understanding of the group’s scope and reach, and get first-hand reports of the clever deceptions, militant resilience and underhanded tactics “The Family” employed to survive and prosper. Seeing just how far their tentacles reach is truly troubling and astounding.
It is through the accounts from the surviving members, particularly the children, where the film really hits home. These recollections display the breadth of the sufferance and anguish this cult inflicted upon many of its members. Much of the pain is evidently still bubbling away just under the surface for the vast majority of the ex-members we hear from, and we are told or shown the direct knock-on effects of such trauma through disarmingly honest self-reflections and admissions from these brave but broken individuals.
The film itself is presented evenly, using only the emotions of those directly connected to this dangerous cult to develop its tone and stories. We see and hear from those in favour of “The Family”, those who oppose it, those who investigated it, and those who suffered because of it, and each aspect tells a crucial and related, yet ultimately different, side to the story. In linking up so directly to the subject matter, the viewer is given unbridled, first-hand access with which to analyse and surmise how to feel about this mysterious sect.
As with a great many documents covering similar subject matter, the viewer craves justice for the afflicted from an early point. Whilst I won’t spoil the outcomes or specifics, I can say that “The Family” mastered the arts of hiding in plain sight, often seeking comfort and solace from within the confines of that age-old societal bane – governmental red tape.
This doesn’t wallow in grief, nor does it overtly align itself with a particular angle – something very refreshing for a modern-day documentary, but its message is very clear: an influential individual afforded unchallenged power can be a very dangerous thing. The Family is deeply enthralling, challenging and alarming. I look forward to seeing what Jones tackles next.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10