Dreams of a Life Review

Minette Paes

The Berlinale may be over, but for those of you still wanting to get their fix of exciting, inspirational film, the Berlin Film Society is offering film fanatics just that. With screenings, director and cast Q&As and live music performances, they aim to reach out and engage with their audience, offering new perspectives on film with a monthly film event in different locations around Berlin. Starting at Kino Babylon, the Berlin Film Society made its debut with British documentary film Dreams of a Life followed by a discussion with director Carol Morley and actress Zawe Ashton.

The film exposes the grim true story of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent who was found slumped on her sofa in a flat in Wood Green, North London. Haringey council broke into the flat in 2006, three years after her death, to find Vincent’s skeletal body in front of the television still playing. Pathologists were unable to discover the reasons behind her death, as her body was so heavily decomposed. The heartbreaking circumstances surrounding her death – the half-wrapped Christmas presents around her body and the question as to how her death could have gone unnoticed for three years – all remain clouded in mystery.

Director Carol Morley unearths Vincent’s past in Dreams of a Life by contacting friends, colleagues and ex-partners in an attempt to reconstruct her life and explore the reasons as to how Vincent died in such tragic circumstances. The title describes the film perfectly as personal accounts are interspersed with mostly wordless, almost dream-like sequences played by talented actress, Zawe Ashton. The result is a painfully moving and beautiful film, which will linger in the minds of many viewers.

Vincent was born to a South-Asian mother and Caribbean father. Following the premature death of her mother she was brought up by her older sisters with little input from her semi-absent father. She later became estranged from her three sisters and as they refused to be interviewed for the film, you get the impression there are some crucial gaps to be filled in Vincent’s story.

Her story is one of contradictions; colleagues and friends describe her as a beautiful, outgoing and vibrant woman who had hopes of becoming a singer and find it difficult to understand how such an attractive and seemingly confident woman could have died alone. Yet we also discover a dark side to Vincent’s life – one marred by abuse, isolation and an inability to trust people, particularly men.

There is something to be said about Vincent’s palpable loneliness in the midst of London’s urban landscape. It seems almost extraordinary that her death could go completely unnoticed, lost to an emotionless urban hub. The film makes one wonder exactly how many other Joyce Vincent’s there are out there, desperately lonely single people living in their single flats leading their sad, quiet lives. Dreams of a Life raises questions about community, individual responsibility and the welfare state, begging the question: how could such a vulnerable woman with a history of physical abuse and medical problems be so terribly let down by society?

In the discussion following the film screening, Morley explained that while the circumstances surrounding Vincent’s death were indeed dark and upsetting, making Dreams of a Life was a way of bringing Vincent to life and to in fact celebrate it. Morley confessed she was obsessed with Vincent’s story after first reading about it in a newspaper and found it fascinating that the story lacked a photograph, spurring her to find out more. She claims there was a remarkable lack of information about her life and that it proved difficult to research her past and piece together her identity. Morley emphasised that her film doesn’t seek to glorify Vincent or place her on a pedestal. Instead Dreams of a Life aims to provide a refreshingly honest portrayal of her life (Alistair Abrahams, one of Joyce’s boyfriends, is the only one interviewed who comes close to criticising her). Morley claims that Vincent was someone we could all relate to, with strengths and weaknesses just like us. The film makes for gripping viewing right from the start – Morley doesn’t bring Ashton into the film until much later after many different personal accounts, giving the viewer room to imagine what kind of person Joyce Vincent really was and also to encourage reflection on our own personal circumstances and relationships. Both Morley and Ashton agreed that the moving, haunting story of Vincent’s death is something that will stay with them for a long time to come.

The Berlin Film Society’s screening of the poignant Dreams of a Life made for a dramatic opening and the discussion following the film with the director and actress provided a fascinating insight into how the film was made and their thoughts on Joyce Vincent’s story.

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