Joyce Carol Vincent was born in Hammersmith in 1965 and died in 2002. She was found in her north London bedsit three years later with her television and heater still on, her body surrounded by wrapped Christmas gifts. BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Carol Morley knew nothing more than these few details before she embarked on a five-year quest to discover who the woman was behind the name and help return her dignity. The result is Dreams of a Life, a genre-defying meditation on life, death, friendship and community.
I am fascinated about how we exist through other people
Vincent's demise was so compelling and disturbing that a small newspaper article was enough to propel Morley's quest. She approached the journalist who penned the piece about the 38-year old woman of whom there were no details except those at the scene; the local Member of Parliament responsible for the area where Vincent's low income flat was located placed advertisements in local papers and on the sides of taxis searching for people who knew her.
“When I first began I didn't know if I would find anyone who knew Joyce, and if I did, whether they'd want to speak to me on or off the record,” Morley says from London. “So I thought that I would make this film even if I didn't find out anything about Joyce. I thought I would make something about her because you just can't let someone go. I was intrigued. Obsessed.”
It would be a year before Morley saw a photo of the previously vivacious and beautiful woman, courtesy of her former boyfriend, Martin, and another year before she filmed an interview with him. “I remember feeling terrified when I asked Martin to be in the film,” Morley recalls. “He said something like 'I'm going to do it for her; I'll do it for Joyce'. I think he was quite uneasy about the prospect, as many people were. I think it's because the subject itself, to be blunt, could be handled in a way that makes people feel bad. I didn't want to do that. I think in the end they trusted me, although I didn't promise anything.”
Martin was eventually in front of the camera for five hours, recounting his time with Joyce, their friendship and the way in which she disappeared from his life. His words echoed those of numerous other friends and colleagues who had once known Joyce and were universally shocked that the “woman in the article” was in fact “their Joyce”. It's a testament to Morley's exhaustive re-construction of Vincent's story via interviews and recreations that the many strands of her kaleidoscopic life come together to form a portrait, or in Morley's words, a “legacy”.
Morley is best known for The Alcohol Years (2000), her critically-acclaimed documentary in which she contacted people she knew in Manchester during the 1980s to piece together a long-forgotten self-portrait. Morley suggests this film equipped her for the challenges of making Dreams of a Life. “The Alcohol Years is the film that most relates,” she says. “I put an ad in the paper and went back to find people who used to know me in my days as a drunken teenager. People I had forgotten. In a way I was constructing who I'd been through the memory of others; it became all about those people rather than me. I am fascinated about how we exist through other people defining us, meeting us, talking about us. I think Dreams of a Life is as much about the people in it and their attitudes and perspectives as it is about Joyce.”
As one expects with a topic of this delicacy, many of those closest to Joyce, including her family, were reticent to reveal themselves on camera. Morley deftly navigates these and other challenges posed by the constraints of circumstance. Seeking to make “a film of consent” rather than any kind of exposé, Morley makes it clear that there are elements of Joyce's life that cannot be shown on camera. Out of respect for the family's anonymity, Morley even refrains from revealing certain information. Instead, she recreates a number of scenes using actresses Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Cain (as a young Joyce) as well as signposting her own detective work and the roadblocks she came across. Learning that Joyce was passionate about music, for example, Morley creates an evocative soundtrack comprised of Joyce's favourite song ('Midnight Train to Georgia') and another she felt best represented Joyce ('My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down)'), together with an original score by former Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds member, Barry Adamson.
“There are hypotheses in the film drawn from people telling me things,” Morley explains. “There were so many things I couldn't put in because I met people who didn't want to be in the film. There was always that difficulty of what you put in, what you keep out – how far you'll go to get someone's story. It was in the edit that I realised this is a film about friendship and that as adults we don't necessarily belong to our family; most people I know as adults don't reveal themselves to their family.
“It is a film that leaves a lot open-ended. We live in an age where people expect answers and are always looking for them but I felt Joyce deserved to remain mysterious in a way. It keeps Joyce's legacy going.”
Dreams of a Life screens at the ACMI in Melbourne. Visit the official website for more information.