The Family (PG). Director: Rosie Jones. 98 minutes
In the alpine region of Victoria's north-east lies Lake Eildon, a massive embankment dam that feeds the local Goulburn Murray Irrigation District. It is a popular destination for holidaymakers and water sports enthusiasts. Its dark waters conceal the long submerged gold mining township of Darlingford; for years, too, during the 1960s and 70s, they listened in on the closely guarded secrets of the notorious apocalyptic sect, The Family, one of whose compounds crouched on the rim of one of its western bays.
Rosie Jones' documentary about The Family returns repeatedly to the lake, cinematographer Jaems Grant's camera plying its misty, rippling surface, which is pierced here and there by the skeletal arms of drowned trees. These images, with an elegiac piano-and-strings score by Amanda Brown, establish an eerie atmosphere. They also stand as a recurring metaphor for the life of a sect whose manmade ideology mashed Christian and Eastern philosophies with conspiracy theory paranoia, and whose motto was 'Unseen, unheard, unknown'.
Jones has assembled a wealth of archival 'home video' footage and an intriguing mixture of voices that illuminate the past's shadowy corners. They include former sect members, traumatised children grown to troubled adulthood; police officers who in the late 1980s made it their life-sapping mission to penetrate the sect; journalists who investigated The Family; and even, intriguingly, a present day member, one of a small handful who remain in thrall to the sect's charismatic founder and self-proclaimed Christ-figure, Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
Hamilton-Byrne's husband Bill died in 2001; she is today 95 and resident of a dementia ward. The cult's leaders thus remain frustratingly opaque, even as the film details the extent of their abuses, and as recordings of her voice float across the soundscape with fervent utterings of faith and love.
"The 28 or so children who passed through that Eildon home endured routine beatings, starvation diets, and 'treatment' with LSD."
Under their care, and that of the various 'aunties and uncles' of the sect, the 28 or so children who passed through that Eildon home endured routine beatings, starvation diets, and 'treatment' with LSD at ages, one former member claims, as young as eight.
Some were the offspring of sect members, most of whom were middle class professionals; others were illegally adopted with the help of members in the medical profession. Most of this detail has been known for years, including from media coverage at the time, and from the 1995 memoir Unseen Unheard Unknown, by former 'sect child' Sarah Moore, writing as Sarah Hamilton-Byrne. (Moore, who died last year, was instrumental in bringing the sect to the attention of Victoria Police in the 1980s; Jones' film is dedicated to her.)
The power of Jones' film then comes from bringing us the faces and voices of the victims in the present day, juxtaposed with archival footage of their police interviews; to hear in their words and see in their manner the ongoing trauma of those experiences. It is a timely and illuminating exploration of the impacts of child abuse, arriving during a period when many of our Australian institutions, religious and otherwise, have been facing the probing spotlight of a royal commission for behaviour that was equally as secretive, and traumatic.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.