Under the influence of LSD, she had this vision, that you’ve got to collect all these children from birth because one day there’s gonna be either World War III or natural disasters galore where most of the world is going to perish. She was preparing us for when the time happens to reeducate the world — what’s left of it.
So describes a survivor of Australia’s most infamous sect, The Family, the subject of a new documentary from Rosie Jones, co-financed by Melbourne International Film Festival’s production fund. The greatest irony is that, despite her rationale, cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne created her own tiny dystopian world in the forests of country Victoria from the 1960s to the early 1990s. But Jones doesn’t rely on the tropes of apocalypses and war films. Rather, she uses creepy home-video images and horror-like characterisations of madmen, combined with true crime reenactments, interviews and archival news footage, to create a psychodramatic procedural of the mission that tried and failed to bring down the charismatic former yoga teacher Hamilton-Byrne.
Jones drops us into the outlandish action with a score of tinkling lullabies and thudding heartbeats, accompanied by news footage of a police raid on a property off Lake Eildon in country Victoria. Dozens of children, brainwashed, beaten and dosed with LCD, are rescued and put into state care. Slow-gliding aerial shots of the lake, looking down from a height, mimic a celestial being. The prophet and abuser in question was already on the run: with her husband William and several other key enablers, Hamilton-Byrne had created a highly disciplined sect of stolen children and entranced, paid-up adults, circling around an endless wheel of Eastern, mashed-up spiritual nonsense involving everything from UFOs, eternal rebirth and the promise to cancel karma.
Staying close the true-crime genre, Jones uses talking heads interviews to lead us through the police hunt. Lex de Man, former detective senior sergeant of the Taskforce Operation Forest, emerges as a key figure, but it’s the now-grown survivors who leap out of the procedural murk. One former Eildon Child, Roland, recalls being fed LSD at age eight. Another speaks of ceaseless torture. Those who wanted to leave were given shock treatments. Most children didn’t know the identities of their parents.
What does it all add up to, this litany of unfathomable abuse? To the film’s discredit, it skims across the conditions that allowed The Family’s growth. There were adults who knew what was going on and did nothing. Prosecutors were reluctant to move ahead. Solicitors falsified documents. Attorneys defended Anne against prosecution, when it eventuated. Doctors administered LSD. Nurses obtained “unwanted” babies for Anne, as part of an accepted medical culture of taking newborns from unmarried mothers.
Beyond her cult, her reach was enabled by a conservative society that sold out unmarried mothers and children born out of wedlock. And beyond her pathology, her madness, part of Anne’s motive was financial, in that her followers gave her funds which she used to secure a series of properties around the world.
The affectless way in which the survivors describe their abuse comes to counterpoint the sometimes histrionic choice of cinematic techniques.
But these factors make for less sensational subject matter than the fantastical, psychosexual associations the filmmakers opt to draw on, offering horror-like montages of flowers opening, red-silhouetted trees and yet more gliding shots of boats sunk in the misty lake. These techniques aren’t always subtle, and in aggregate, their power wears off rather than builds. Their mawkishness brickwalls the film’s deeper aspirations to be a sensitive exploration of trauma as it unfurls, churning away in the psyche, from childhood into adulthood.
The affectless way in which the survivors describe their abuse comes to counterpoint the sometimes histrionic choice of cinematic techniques. “It was like a new person emerged from this experience,” says one about being broken by an especially terrible beating. “There were no humans, just children getting about in an industrial way, making their society work.” “My personality changed,” says another Eildon Child.
Jones makes the mastermind decision to float the survivors’ voices, disembodied, over archival images, so it becomes hard to keep track of the identity of the speaker. The effect is an anonymous layering of lost children. They are people who had no identities whatsoever, and even as adults, many of them speak in stilted, alarmed, withdrawn tones, even when expressing their yearning to belong and their motherlessness.
And as for Anne herself — what to make of her? As a character, she evades a vivid portrait. The filmmakers have access only to some archival photos in newspapers, a television interview in which she glibly professes her love for “her” children and some news footage from her trial in the early 1990s.
To me, she seemed a strange combination of Joanna Lumley, in a physical sense, given her patrician, arch-browed British aesthetic, and Pauline Hanson, whose flat affect and empty intellect instantly deflects any attempt at examination or enquiry. There’s no cutting through that soap opera-ish vacancy. Like Donald Trump, Anne appears to have no depth whatsoever. She opens her mouth determined to talk, but with no idea what words will emerge, beginning a sentence with no notion of how it will end. The veneer of nothing is so impenetrable, the performance so strong, that half of the time, you think Anne believes what she’s saying, and the other half, she appears as the worst, most brazen liar. Does she know we know she’s lying, or, like Trump, does she just not care?
It’s a shame that a finer balance wasn’t struck between the intricacy and drama of the true-crime plot and a more impressionistic set of audiovisual moments that could communicate the children’s trauma.
It is quite a set of attributes for a documentary character, but they remain unexplored. The Anne we see is far from the person her victims describe: a woman who could “totally destroy the structure of a life”…“You’ve got to remember she had phenomenal presence”…”she was totally beglamoured, trancy”…”so loving, she had eyes that looked through your soul,” intone her victims. Whether it’s the power of their brainwashing or problems in the film’s characterisation of Anne, these qualities rarely came across to me as a viewer.
It’s a shame that a finer balance wasn’t struck between the intricacy and drama of the true-crime plot as it unfolded in the police and the courts, and a more impressionistic, abstract set of audiovisual moments that could communicate the children’s trauma.
The longing to belong experienced by The Family’s adult cult members and enslaved children is perhaps the least mysterious aspect of the story. To me, the institutional and adult disinterest in rescuing these children, in delivering justice, was both the real story and the most overlooked part of it. In a society that often seems close to dystopia, that is so careless to its mothers and children, it seems logical that figures like Anne (or Trump) will find a way to flourish — to burn up peoples’ desire to belong, to promise simplicity, to build a home in the heads of those who are adrift. Perhaps the cinematic language of dystopia would have been the best storytelling approach after all.
The Family is in limited cinema release now
You can buy the book The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones here
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