It’s the sort of story you find yourself repeating to friends. Phone conversations, chats at bus stops: “Did you read that thing in the paper about that woman?” The kind of story that lodges somewhere in your brain —unbelievable, horrific, depressing, and absolutely true.
A woman, Joyce Vincent, is found dead in her flat, surrounded by Christmas presents, the TV still on. Her body has been there for three years, and no one has noticed that she’d been missing, or the awful smell coming from the open window, or that she hadn’t paid a single bill. Neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic, Joyce was just 38 years old when she died. Once bubbly, vivacious and an aspiring singer, now the police can only confirm that the decomposed body is hers by comparing its teeth with a photograph of her smiling. It’s not the sort of story that one forgets.
If anything, the actual cause of Joyce’s death is the least compelling part about the quest to discover what happened to her. What about her friends? What about her neighbours? How can a person just be forgotten like that, for so long? It makes you wonder how it happened. More selfishly, it makes you wonder if it could ever happen to you.
It’s easy to see the case’s appeal for a documentary filmmaker: a tragic real-life mystery that raises questions about community and friendship in modern society, a society where communication has never been easier. The kind of documentary that might be made about the case can also be imagined: a retelling of events by a reassuring narrator, carefully laying out all the known facts. Interviews with the police, perhaps a few loved ones expressing shock. A generous smattering of photographs of Joyce from when she was alive.
Over the five years that it took Carol Morley to finance and make Dreams of a Life, her examination of Joyce Vincent’s lonely death, many funding organisations would push her to do this very thing. “They’d question who would want to see this story told the way I wanted to make it,” Carol says. “It might have been easier. But if you’re telling people what to think, don’t make a film—write a journalistic essay, or make factual television.”
A film without voiceover, captioning, or many of the other crutches employed by mainstream documentaries, Dreams of a Life instead relies on testimonies from the people that knew Joyce, with dramatic re-enactments of their stories featuring the actress Zawe Ashton. “I was really interested in the idea of constructing somebody,” Carol explains. “She’s not here to actually contribute herself, so you can only ever construct that identity through other people.”
These glimpses of her life through anecdotes and re-enactments show the many different sides of Joyce Vincent, while also being distorted by time and the slipperiness of memory. The interviewees’ stories are often contradictory, not just in the details of events in Joyce’s life, but in how they viewed her. “We’re trying to get close to somebody, but it was important to me imply that what you’re looking at is a reconstruction, that it didn’t feel like I’m presenting you with the ‘truth’.”
By being honest about the limitations of filmmaking, Carol illustrates how difficult it is to truly know a person, and without Joyce present to give her own version of events these fragments are all that anyone has. “I think that’s what film does so beautifully, better maybe than any other medium. You can push forward ideas of contradiction within a person.” It leads the viewer to contemplate the nature of identity, both in how someone presents themselves and how our own perceptions of people are coloured.
The theme is a familiar one in Carol’s work. Her first documentary, the Alcohol Years, also built up a picture of a woman’s life through the testimonies of the people who knew her. In that film, the person was Carol herself, exploring her libidinous, intoxicated youth in Manchester from the ages of 16 to 21. Aside from a shot of her tongue, Carol is absent from her own documentary too, refusing to confirm or deny any of the claims made about her.
You can imagine that a part of her wishes she could: the difference between the interviewees in the two films is striking. Where the recollections of Joyce’s friends are complimentary and rose-tinted, perhaps due to her death, Carol’s old friends and associates aren’t so forgiving, questioning the mythologising nature of the documentary and her own actions of the time. One interviewee claims that everyone hated her, a sentiment that isn’t unique. Did she recognise herself? “It’s weird. I saw it a couple of years ago, and it means different things, because I’m getting older. So now it’s also about the person who made that film. I recognised what was going on, but I’m not even sure if I do know who I am.”
The slander of the Alcohol Years is no more or less truthful than the eulogising of Dreams of a Life. The testimonies reveal as much about the interviewees as about the subjects themselves. Their interviews are fundamentally about themselves, too: in Dreams of a Life, again and again an interviewee will talk about the last time they saw Joyce alive, and imagine that if they’d done something differently then perhaps she might still alive. “They’re writing themselves into the narrative,” Carol agrees. “You’re going to look back at something and imbue it with a significance that you wouldn’t have. When somebody dies the tendency is to think, ‘What did I last say to them?’ or, ‘What did I last leave them with?’”
As much as that response is to do with ego and self-image, it also stems from friendship. The interviewees feel guilty because they fear they might have been able to do something to save Joyce, and they’re burdened by their awareness that they can never know for sure. Even after her body has been found, most of Joyce Vincent’s friends didn’t make the connection.
Carol thinks that these lapses in effort, tragically, may be the real reason it took so long for Joyce Vincent’s body to be discovered. “You don’t necessarily worry about these people, even though you think about them. You just assume that they’ve gone on to better friends, or someone more interesting than you.” The guilt of the interviewees is an extension of the guilt we all feel, as we let friendships drift, assuming that we’ll see our old friends again at some point. All the while, the years pass.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nine. Photograph by Rosanna Durham.