I’m happy to say that I’ve never had personal experience with the relatively modern phenomenon that is the “cult”, but I’ve come close. When I was a kid growing up in the leafy suburb of Titirangi in West Auckland, the word “Centrepoint” was being tossed around by my parents and their friends, a vision of a utopia just out of the city where families could be raised free of society’s rules and at one with nature and the like. The vision was a strong one, and many were tempted by the charm of its leader, Bert Potter. Lots of my friends disappeared with their parents to live at the commune, which set up on a large plot of land in still-rural Albany. My mum loved the idea of the place but didn’t like the idea of relinquishing all of our worldly possessions, and her very unpopular financial nous proved to be my saviour. My mates went on to have their young lives destroyed within the walls of what became a truly hideous example of power gone mad, the notorious “sex commune” run by self-styled therapist Potter not exposed for the hell that it was until many years later. The charismatic guru, along with seven men and two women, was later imprisoned for multiple counts of child sexual abuse and drug manufacturing. The fallout continues to this day.
I’ve also talked here about a well-made documentary about the early 70’s US psychedelic phenomenon THE SOURCE FAMILY, which I immediately thought back to when I watched tonight’s film, just called THE FAMILY. A true spiritual collective - a cult, if you will - of what ended up being about 140 members, the original Source Family group were a new age dream. Most of them were under 30 and good looking, they ate raw food and home-schooled their home-born children; they dressed in floaty robes and made “right on” sounds with their house band. At their head was Father Yod - a hairy individual who cruised around Los Angeles in a sweet Rolls Royce, was keen on “nice things” for the “life trip” and believed that money was “magical green energy that will produce anything for you instantly.” It was a winning formula for kids looking for an escape route, and they flocked to hear his every word. It all turned to hell in a handcart eventually and some its followers were irrevocably scarred by their experience, but it definitely didn’t have the heartbreaking effect on innocent children to the extent that Centrepoint did, or in fact the ones spoken to as adults in tonight’s film.
A raw, heartbreaking investigation into one of Australia's most notorious cults and the scars its survivors still bear today, THE FAMILY is the work of award-winning filmmaker, writer and editor, Rosie Jones. Jones had an incredible amount of material to work with for the film, including videotaped police interviews, TV reports from the period, and present-day interviews with witnesses. There are snippets of bizarre propaganda footage shot by the cult, and dramatic re-enactments illustrating bizarre details, such as cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne's habit of putting a hex on her enemies by writing their names on slips of paper frozen into ice cubes.
Hamilton-Byrne was definitely unusual, and for many, unusually compelling. She was beautiful, charismatic and also, incredibly dangerous. Convinced she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Hamilton-Byrne truly ruled the sect, which was prominent in Melbourne from the 1960s through to the 1990s. With her husband Bill, she acquired numerous children - some through unbelievable adoption scams, some born to cult members - and raised them as her own, completely isolated from the outside world.
These poor children were dressed in matching outfits, had identical bleached blonde hair to appear more like a “family”, and were allegedly beaten, starved and injected with LSD. Taught that Hamilton-Byrne was both their mother and the messiah, the children were only rescued during a police raid in 1987. Many haven’t fared well on the outside, and the documentary shows former victims fidgeting nervously as they recount their stories to Jones' camera, while others look unsettlingly calm. Whatever their reaction, there is no disguising the pain they feel and the memories that can never be erased.
While nobody claims to understand what made the monstrous Hamilton-Byrne tick, the film gives us enough detail to speculate, although it is delivered in a bit of a scattered way. Her husband, the businessman Bill Byrne, remains a much more shadowy figure, as does Dr Raynor Johnson, the distinguished physicist who co-founded the cult.
Although not perfect by any means, this confronting documentary does effectively expose not just what happened within the still operating sect, but also within the conservative Melbourne community that allowed The Family to flourish. In fact, The Family lives on, and perhaps this film is not the last word on the bizarre beliefs that lie beneath.
THE FAMILY premieres Thursday 21 September on Rialto Channel at 8.30pm
Watch the trailer here
Remote record here