SXSW Film Review – Dreams of a Life
A woman sits alone in her apartment one late evening. She watches television while wrapping some gifts to give to her loved ones. After wrapping all the gifts and neatly putting them in a pile next to her, she relaxes in her robe, and lays on the floor with her head softly resting on her couch. Inexplicably, she dies right then and there. She was not a drug user, she didn’t associate with anyone who could possibly pose as a threat to her safety, and there are no signs of foul play. Days, weeks, months, years pass by. Three whole years pass before her body is discovered. By the time she is found, her body is decomposed to the point that dental records are the only way that she can be identified. The television was still on.
How can this be? How can someone simply drop from existence for three entire years and not have one person ever worry about where she is, give her a call, or knock on her door? Wouldn’t the stench overwhelm the neighbors? These are just a few of the many questions that are posed in writer/director Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life (2011). In it, we are introduced to and told the story of a woman by the name of Joyce Vincent who, more or less, appeared to be like any normal, spirited, lively person, which ultimately makes what happened to her all the more tragic and sad. Through interviews with her close friends and co-workers (none of her family members are interviewed), we get a collage of moments and memories of this person’s life put together, in hopes of maybe finding what it was that led to her untimely death. More so, the film examines just how precious every single life is, how closely we are connected to other people, and how important it is to never lose that connection.
An important element to point out is that Joyce’s life is told from the perspective of her friends and former romantic partners, and not through her own family. We do not hear from any authorities or investigators assigned to the case, and there is no word about whether or not an autopsy was performed. Few details were provided in London newspapers; not even a photograph of her was shown. I mention this because since the pieces of information we gather about who she was are told second-hand by those who knew her, we may not be seeing the whole picture of this person. Each interviewee describes her through their own unique lens, and because of that I felt that there was something missing. There quite possibly could have been something about her that she never cared to tell anyone, even her boyfriends. A number of times, an interviewee would claim that they could only guess or suspect what was going through her mind at certain points of her life. They could very well be wrong. Even the format of the documentary, which includes re-enacted scenes featuring actress Zawe Ashton playing the character of Joyce, is told through the vision of Carol Morley. Who knows whether or not what we are told actually happened in real life?
Here is what we do know. On the outside, Joyce seemed to be like any other person. Born to a mother from India and a father from Granada, she was often described as a fun-loving person, always laughing and having a good time. Tall, beautiful, and sociable, Joyce seemed to always be the center of attention whenever she walked into a room. She loved to sing from a very young age, and even had a chance to record herself in a studio (one key scene features an actual recording of her that affects all of the interviewees). From what we hear from those who knew her, Joyce could have been and could have had anything she wanted, but things did not turn out that way for her. There was certainly another side that was noticed by others: the way she withdrew inward, how the people she associated with she met through other people, how she never introduced her friends to her family, how she went from one job to another routinely, and would break up relationships that seemed to go well. Hints and speculations are made: maybe it had something to do with her family, or it could have had something to do with possible domestic abuse? These ideas are put out there, but never really explored. Everything is made up of theories and possibilities. Take these two examples: during one scene in the movie, it is revealed that Joyce once worked as a cleaning lady, something no one ever realized until a piece of mail was sent to the wrong address. In another, we learn that Joyce would often tell people that her father died when she was a teenager, when his death certificate shows that he really died after she did.
Why did Joyce lie about these parts of her life, to the very people she was close to and had said she trusted the most? There must have been something that haunted her, that stayed in the back of her mind, that she tried to get rid of for the entirety of her life. Unfortunately, it seems we may never know. For as well made as Dreams of a Life is, I came away with more questions than it had answers. I would assume that that isn’t necessarily the point of what the film was getting at. Clearly, this is not a documentary that delves deeply into the investigation of the cause of her death, which is too bad, because I walked away wanting to finish the puzzle, without having all of the pieces. Instead, it is more of a celebration of her life, what she was able to do, and how she touched these few people with the little time that she had. If anything, the film makes us look at ourselves and our own lives, how we fit into the grand scheme of things, and hope that we have that person who will call our phone or knock on our door.
Final Grade: B