The Family review: harrowing Australian doco reads like horror film

The Family review: harrowing Australian doco reads like horror film

IF I were to suggest The Family has touches of Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn, with even a smattering of Twin Peaks or The X Files thrown in, the response might be ‘Aah, wondered what David Lynch was up to’, or ‘Which wunderkind director has landed that (let’s hope it’s not M. Night Shyamalan)?’.

Oh no, I’d reply, this is an Australian documentary.

Indeed, if there’s an explicit criticism to be made of this movie about a cult (whether it becomes a cult movie is something else again), it would be that doing justice to the fantastical nature of this real-life material is almost beyond a filmmaker’s capabilities.

The facts are that a woman called Anne Hamilton-Byrne believed she was Jesus Christ and she was just beautiful, charismatic and crazy enough to get others believing too. Moreover, this was no fringe group, although the machinations of The Family were not mainstream. The cult had hundreds of followers and leaders drawn from the heart of Melbourne society and psychiatry while it operated from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Those caught in the maelstrom of this madness were, inevitably, the young and vulnerable, some 28 of them, who were to repopulate the master race after the apocalypse. Often with hair dyed bleach blonde (redheads were also apparently acceptable), these children were adopted out to Hamilton-Byrne in shady deals with institutions, or given over to her by members of the cult.

The most harrowing aspect of the documentary is their testimony, like that of Ben Shenton. He was a member of The Family from the age of 18 months until he was freed during a raid on the cult’s Lake Eildon property at the age of 15. He lives in Perth and his Christianity has been his salvation.

But trying to scrape together a sense of self and meaningfulness from the years when he was meant to be protected and loved is something else altogether.

The glue (somewhat stronger substances, such as LSD, were the hallucinogens of choice for The Family) that binds the narrative is the involvement of Lex De Man, the policeman who latched on to the case and couldn’t let go, leading (again, rather fantastically and cinematically) to an FBI raid on a Catskills property in the United States and the extradition of Hamilton-Byrne and husband Bill to Australia to face charges.

Hamilton-Byrne is a dementia patient these days, perhaps with scattered memories of her past, but for those who see her story, it will be hard to forget just how perverse the notion of ‘Family’ can get.THE ESSENTIALS

The Family (M)

Directed by: Rosie Jones

Three and a half stars

Review: Martin Turner

In cinema now