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A Face In The Crowd: Carol Morley Discusses Dreams Of A Life
Val Phoenix , December 7th, 2011 11:17

Val Phoenix speaks to filmmaker Carol Morley about Dreams of a Life, which seeks to piece together the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, found dead in her bedsit in 2006 after seemingly disappearing from society

Is it important to be remembered? Does anyone really know anyone else? How could someone born and raised in London die in her home city unnoticed? Boldly scheduled for a pre-Christmas release on 16 December, the Grierson-nominated documentary Dreams of a Life asks uncomfortable questions about life, death and memory.

The film, which had its world première in October at the London Film Festival, is of a life partly remembered, partly imagined: that of Joyce Carol Vincent, the woman whose body lay in her bedsit above a Wood Green shopping centre for three years. Vincent was 38, came from a large family, and dazzled the opposite sex, and yet nobody noticed she was missing. She may have died before Christmas, 2003, as her body was surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents. It was only discovered by bailiffs in January, 2006.

London can be a hostile environment for the sensitive, a playground for others. A cold, damp day provides a suitably grim backdrop for meeting the director Carol Morley to discuss the mystery explored in her self-described film noir and what it says about modern urban life.

“For me, it's a profound example of how isolating contemporary society can be," says Morley. "And I think that it's made me think a lot. It's very, very complex, but I do think that maybe our contemporary emphasis is a bit wrong, on material goods, and maybe we do need to look at ideas of humanity and what we mean to each other.”

Reading the sketchy details of Vincent's death in The Sun in 2006, Morley was puzzled. Who was this woman? There was no photo or biographical information, just a starkly related death, the cause of which was never established. A couple of haunting details leaked out: the woman's television was on and she was surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents. Morley's curiosity was piqued. “I just found it extraordinary that somebody could disappear for so long,” she says.

Casting herself as an (off-screen) detective, Morley set about unravelling this mystery, seeking information on Vincent, tracking her movements and trying to make sense of her death, not through any of the trappings of modern society, such as Facebook, but rather by old-fashioned gumshoe methods: placing ads in newspapers and scouring public records. The results reveal both the bare facts of Vincent's life and her troubled history.

Morley was also acting on an early hunch, that this sad little story would have greater implications. “I knew that it would probably tell a story about a contemporary woman," she says, "and I think somebody at the time, some commentator, a woman, did write, 'This is the dark side of Bridget Jones'. So I think she, too, sort of tapped into this idea of a woman of a certain age dying alone.

"I think there are so many pressures upon women, that in order to be fully functioning, you're supposed to marry, have children, or at least be in a relationship now. So, in some weird ways, the fact she didn't fulfil those expectations did lead to what happened. But, why should that be? That's really strange - that you should be so neglected because you haven't bought into something.”

Eschewing sensationalism, Morley constructs a fragmentary portrait of Joyce Carol Vincent: where she went to school, who her friends were, where she worked. They're all described by those who knew her at various times in her life, as well as by a few people who only discovered her after her death, such as a local reporter and MP. Several interviewees contradict each other. Joyce was a great singer, Joyce couldn't sing. Joyce was ambitious, Joyce had no ambition.

While this may be potentially bewildering to a viewer, particularly when there are no captions to identify the speakers, Morley is firm in her approach. “This is views of Joyce," she insists. "As much as possible, I don't want to erase the contradictions. I want to make sure they're in there, so that you're not all over the place, but there is a sense that you begin to question the very nature of being interpreted. We do choose to present ourselves differently to different people. It is a choice, as well. In film-making, you can only ever summon up a kind of construct of somebody, hoping, obviously, to create something very meaningful."

Morley is aware of the limits of the documentary form. She uses reconstruction knowingly - Joyce at a comically awkward birthday party, Joyce singing into a hairbrush alone in her flat. The actress Zawe Ashton portrays Vincent in these scenes, while photos of the real woman flicker in and out of the story. The narrative, though, is in the hands of the interviewees, all self-selecting, some still visibly shaken to realise the woman in the bedsit was the same woman they had known years, sometimes decades, earlier. Nobody expected her to end up like that. It must have been someone else. What happened to her?

This approach recalls The Alcohol Years, an earlier documentary by Morley made of her attempt to fill in the gaps of her own life. Unable to recall her teenage years in Manchester, she placed ads to search out people who knew her, gathering their testimonies to build a portrait of her lost years and create what Morley called “the construction of memory”. When the comparison is put to her, the filmmaker acknowledges the parallel, affirming, "It's always important for me that you begin to look at this idea of how you are constructed through other people.”

The ex-boyfriends interviewed in Dreams of a Life are quite revealing in their recollections, always commenting on Vincent's beauty, but perhaps not appreciating the human behind her exquisitely constructed façade. For Morley this is a societal problem. “I think that the way beauty is seen in Western society, for beautiful women, they almost become untouchable," she says. "I know that certain people talked about Joyce being a prize for men, so I think [there was] almost a trophy element. But I also feel with Joyce, the way she presented herself in the world - because she was immaculate, down to the bows on her underwear, is what some guy said - that she almost became untouchable, in that way.”

Dreams of a Life reaches its multiplex audience in mid-December, just when workers are looking forward to time off and some (but not all) of the populace will be heading home to family, while others might listen to the radio in their bedsits or watch reruns on telly. The perfect Christmas film then, at least for its director. “I always find Christmas a very difficult time," says Morley. "The idea that we should all be happy and family-orientated and all that kind of materialism is quite problematic for quite a lot of people, so I think that this film is the antidote to that, in a way.”