Australia, 1987. Police swoop on a forest compound to rescue six abused children from The Family, an apocalyptic sect with the motto — unseen, unheard, unknown. Its guru, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful Kim Novak blonde with an obsession for cosmetic surgery, has disappeared.
For 15 years, police received reports of strange home-schooled bleach-blonde children. But it’s only when Detective Lex de Man discovers children as young as 13 are being injected with LSD that police intervene.
For devotees, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. They change their names, sign over title deeds and produce children with partners selected by Anne. They even adopt babies stolen from teenage mothers under her direction. At least 28 children are collected to fulfil Anne’s dream of raising a master race to survive the apocalypse.
For five years, Lex de Man traces the money trail and discovers witnesses. He compiles 35,000 pages of evidence detailing criminal activity – illegal adoptions, multiple identities, false land transfers and social security fraud. He conscripts Scotland Yard and the FBI to track Anne and her husband on the run. In upstate New York they stakeout her Catskills property next door to the ashram of Swami Muktananda. In 1993, the FBI make their arrest, and Anne and her husband are extradited. But back in Australia, she hires lawyers to obstruct charges and the children are too traumatised to testify.
Now 93 and with dementia, Hamilton-Byrne lives out her days in a suburban nursing home. A handful of followers cling to the belief she is a living god even as they divide her plentiful assets. Will she ever be called to account?
Set against an international landscape of child abuse, this confronting suspenseful feature documentary uncovers what really happened and why. For the first time, both sides have agreed to tell their story, those who carried out Anne's orders and those dealing with the scars of their stolen childhoods.
Inspired by Stories We Tell and Capturing the Friedmans, this provocative feature documentary is a story of pain, resilience and a determination to get to the truth whatever the cost. The film inquires not just into the sect but also into the conservative community that allowed the Family to thrive. What is it in our nature that allows people to act against what they know is right? And what separates them from us?
In a world that is finally talking about child abuse, The Family will resonate with international audiences. It is a true story that goes to a dark heart – cruelty to children. This stranger-than-fiction story deserves a big screen and an approach that asks not just how, but why was this sect able to flourish?
How does the project meet the aims of a philanthropic foundation?
This is a story about good people who allowed themselves to be swayed by a powerful cult leader to a point where some acted against their own natural instincts and moral codes. In the individual search for a more meaningful life, families were destroyed and continue to be severely affected. This is a powerful exploration of family dynamics – of love, betrayal, control and resilience.The Family accessed some children by forced adoption. Other children were handed over to the sect by their own parents. Our aim is to give those who were part of this bizarre social experiment a voice. How do we as a society effectively respond to the dark stories of childhood abuse now circulating in the public discourse? This is a story that demonstrates how it is possible for adults to reconcile difficult childhoods and overcome the most extraordinary of circumstances. It is a raw and confronting story that makes it possible to dig deeply into our behaviour as a society towards children and our capacity to support those who have been traumatised in their past. We envisage the project being used by individuals, carers, organisations as outreach resources around parenting, family, psychology and well-being.
What outcomes do you hope to achieve by making this film and how will you measure its impact?
Aims & Objectives
Our outreach campaign will interact with our community of potential users during the production of the film and then on completion. This will allow us to jointly stage community rural and regional screenings around the country to promote the issues raised in the film. Our potential users and their own social media networks can work with us to grow our audience. We will measure our impact by the number of people who interact with our websites, come to our screenings and participate in our outreach campaigns.
We are hoping to inspire lively discussion and debate. Our resources will be directed to reaching individuals and families dealing with adoption, separation and conflict. Our success will be evident in our strategic alliances with community organisations, NGOs, social service and education providers and our ability to raise the public conversation and awareness of the film, highlighting issues such as medical and legal ethical responsibilities when it comes to the treatment of children. A central focus of the campaign will be resilience. Illustrating a driver of our story ‘Damage done to us as children does not necessarily determine the adults we become’.
What is your education and outreach strategy?
We envisage a multi-platform delivery of the feature documentary film, with web and interactive media building a community around the film. ATOM have confirmed they will work in partnership with the producers to maximise outreach opportunities as they share our belief that this film will continue to have contemporary resonance for years to come. Together we will develop educational resources across a range of media. Distribution through iTunes and Android Play will be coupled with a strategic campaign utilising the network of 80,000 Australian and 20,000 overseas users of ATOM’s resources. . ATOM will assist in cross promoting the film, website and book tie-in with a campaign that raises the ethical and social questions underlying the protection of children. Together with ATOM we have assessed the educational impact of our film and clarified where The Family aligns with the Australian Curriculum. It will be suitable viewing not just for universities but also for students in Years 10 – 12 and we intend to produce an extensive study guide to support the film. In Ethics, the film can be used to discuss the principles that guide practical moral judgment and the justification for moral choices. In Legal Studies, The Family can be used to investigate the ways in which the law and the legal system serve individuals and the community and the administration of justice. In Psychology, it can be used to study aspects interpersonal and group behaviour and understand the interplay of factors that shape the behaviour of individuals and groups. There are further extensions in sociology and comparative religions.