It's funny how connections work. I had seen Rosie Jones' marvellous film "The Family" on Monday and told her I was going to write about it that night. In fact I wanted to let it sink in while the various connections and reverberations kept coming so I decided I would do it after my usual Tuesday morning swim. On the way to my car from Il Fornaio after breakfast I ran into Rosie's partner, Peter Tapp, and commented that I had seen the film and how much I liked it. Then Robert and I drove off to get his car from Mary St.
We were chatting and as I had done a thousand times before signalled my turn from Park St to Mary St at the roundabout and almost got through it when a deafening noise accompanied by the side air bags and a swerve of the car alerted us to the tram that had hit the car.
I was in shock, I now realise, and pretty soon I was being led out of the car by Robert, my swimming partner, and told to sit on the ground and an ambulance was called as well as a tow truck. Pretty soon there was a crowd with all of the above, the car stuck on the roundabout blocking trams in both directions and now three trams sitting there immobilised.
Two policewomen from South Melbourne station attended and they couldn't have been nicer or more helpful. The ambo paramedics got me into the ambulance and cleaned me up, I had some blood from cuts around the nose and under one eye and eventually Robert drove me to my doctor who I was due to see but was running late for now! She took me in straight away and did all the tests to make sure I had nothing broken and that I had no internal injuries or bruising. Blood pressure and so on. Finally I got home and thought about writing this piece but then though better of it.
When I was watching the film it brought back to me something else. In the sixties I went to Monash University and in my second or third year met Cypra Helmer and friends of hers As it turned out I had come across her brother Michael who was at Scotch College when I was at Caulfield Grammar and although I didn't know him well we did both belong to a wider friendship group. My one abiding memory of Michael was him facing me as I bowled him out in a school cricket match and him refusing to walk after the umpire raised his finger. No big deal. He was annoyed. Not out!!
Cypra was a tall willowy young woman who was high spirited and loved to chat and laugh and sing. I don't think she finished University and when I did I went to London to go to film school so it was probably the early seventies by the time we caught up again. She had a few musician boyfriends and I think also went to live in London for a while with one of these who it was said was physically abusive to her. In any case by the eighties we had drifted apart and she was becoming, by reports, more involved with drug taking and behaving erratically. The sixties lifestyle, sex, drugs and rock and roll, was embraced by most of us but some didn't see the onset of latent problems.
In 1988 I was shocked to hear that she had died after jumping from the top of the Trak building on Toorak Rd. She was naked and there was a note. She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic before this some time before this event but I hadn't heard about the involvement of The Family at this point. I also don't know if it was a Family doctor who had made the diagnosis,
As is Jewish custom I went to the home of mourning that night which was Cypra's parent's home also In Toorak Rd. The parents, Maurice and June were overcome with grief. Cypra's two brothers were studies in opposite reactions. Her elder brother John said to me "what do you think happened?", and I was too shocked to answer only having heard the mental illness suicide version at that point. Michael on the other hand looked calm and smiled the beatific smile that was on display in Rosie's film where he was the only sect member who spoke positively about Anne Hamilton-Byrne. He said, "she's gone to a better place" and continued smiling while holding my look which must have been one of complete disbelief.
Rosie has crafted a feature length documentary that thriller or film noir style takes us through the setup of the cult that became known as The Family through reconstructions, interviews with both survivors and the two main policemen, Lex de Man and Peter Spence who led the task force and whose lives were changed and affected by the four year process and which still showed through years later both in the film and in the follow up Q&A at the Melbourne Film Festival following the screenings - of which there were four after the scheduled two had created more demand.
As it turned out I saw it at the Nova at a 1pm screening that was so full that the seat I had been removed for a wheelchair at a previous screening and so I saw the film from the discomfort of the stairs. Anyway the film was so engrossing and disturbing I noticed the postural issues less than the horror story unfolding before me.
The end credits revealed two more connections. I was on the Council of the national film school, AFTRS, and one of the two student reads on that council was Anna Grieve the Producer. Anna showed then that she was and is very bright and had great values, and the film was beautifully shot by James Grant who I met when he was a tertiary student and then we worked together on Pure Shit which I produced and he was the camera assistant for. Round and round.
Rosie came to directing from the cutting room and has made a number of films now. The previous doc of hers that I saw was a chronicle of the community battle in St Kilda with developers and the Council against the Triangle development next to Luna Park, a battle which was ultimately successful and which saved the Palais and the site for community use. The film was inspiring and as a long time resident of St Kilda it was a boost to my love of the place. The film was The Triangle Wars and I recommend it too.
I don't want to say too much about the film but do urge you to see it when you can. Having said that, as the film establishes, the sixties threw up a lot of gurus and followers in all kinds of flavours.
Hamilton-Byrne was a self described reincarnation of Jesus Christ and among her early devotees were academics, psychiatrists, doctors nurses and social workers all of who made it possible for her to "adopt", legally at the time, children who were died blond, dressed the same and indoctrinated to the point that even when it all came crashing down some, not many, spoke in her defence but none as forcefully or as devotedly as the now Michael Stevenson (Helmer) did in the film with that same beatific smile he showed the night of Cypra's mourning. Hamilton-Byrne gave new names to her disciples too.
One thing Cypra had told me was when she went to visit Michael in (I think) the Gold Coast one of his Anne H-B's chosen wife for Michael's children was trying to escape and this child was afraid of him in a genuinely terrified way. This was third hand at the time and that was nearly forty years ago. He is in the film and Rosie says is doing OK considering.
I remember a post card I got from an old University mate in January 1980. The note on the card read "the year 2000 is now closer than the year 1960, Philip". Aye to that and a lot more.