Joyce Vincent became an overnight UK tabloid sensation when her skeletal remains were discovered two and a half years after her death in a dingy subsidized flat.
On the surface it appears she had no one. Upon entering the North American premiere of the documentary Dreams of a Life during the Hot Docs Film Festival, I hadn’t the foggiest clue who Joyce Vincent was and departed the screening with the question unanswered.
Director Carol Morley’s attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death by conducting interviews with minor characters from her long lost past. The doc melds interviewees perceptions intertwined with dream like scenes of English actress Zawe Ashton, who plays a version of Grenadian/Indian Joyce. I’m left wondering; what is fact versus fantasy?
Certain facts are clear. Vincent died in December 2003 wrapping Christmas gifts; therefore we can assume she had someone in her life. When bailiffs entered her flat in 2006, Joyce’s body was decomposed beyond recognition. Remarkably, the television set was still on after twenty-four months.
Morley alludes to murder for extra seasoning although it’s unlikely. As the tale unfolded, my gut reaction felt the root cause of thirty-eight year old Vincent’s death was due to loneliness and potential poor health.
Sprinkled throughout Dreams of a Life, Ashton, at times, unnecessarily fills up space singing sorrowful songs into a microphone. The real Ms. Vincent, we learn, was a talented songstress. Blame it on a long day staring at a computer screen, combined with a dark theater and a well-fed belly – at the thirty-five minute mark my head nodded off.
When I awoke, what struck me most was the lack of substantial friend’s in Vincent’s life. Morley had to dig deep into her past to secure interviews with minor characters who were acquainted with her during the eighties and early nineties. Particularly fascinating are the inconsistencies in how two former lovers remembered Joyce; one sang high praises for her ambitious nature while another commented on her lack of drive.
Martin, a former boyfriend from the eighties stole the spotlight with his boyish charm and starry-eyed gaze into the camera. Joyce’s beauty was his intoxication, his woeful regret evident:
“I wish she’d rung me. ‘Cos I would’ve helped. ‘Cos I love you.” That’s right: I love you.”
Morley hit the emotional jackpot. Counting back from ten, I fought to restrain the tears. Martin’s grief unleashed that mothering desire to wrap my arms around his rolly-polly waist; to reassure him ‘it’s not you’re fault she died, everything will be OK.’ All interviewees used excessive modal auxiliary verbs “wouldja, shouldja, couldja” echoing their deep-rooted desires to change the tragic outcome. Had this been a drinking game; grief, whisky and a bucket would have been my best friends.
Why didn’t Joyce’s three sisters seek her out? The doc omits this part of the story and it’s only through blogs post UK launch we discover one sibling desperately tried to find Vincent through a private detective. Find the story here. For some unknown reason the family decided to stay clear of the doc project and Morley obeyed their wishes.
Clocking in at 90 minutes, the doc ends on a high note with real film footage of Joyce standing in a packed room with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison circa 1990. Her existence shone brightly at a pivotal moment in time for a few seconds before fading out. I was left with one thing on my mind – to rush out of the theatre, call my Mom and tell her I love her.