In my review of 21 Grams I wrote about how some films can change your perspective on life, expose and explore issues which we as society may not want to discuss or is difficult to approach. Dreams of a Life is probably the most profound, affecting film I have seen.
Released in 2011 with the help of the British Film Council (before it was closed) and Channel 4, the feature length documentary Dreams of a Life, directed by Carol Morely explores one of the most shocking events in modern Britain. Joyce Carol Vincent was estimated to have passed away in in December 2003, however she was not discovered until 2006 by bailiffs. Slumped on the floor in front of the television, still on after three years, in a badly decomposed state. He remains were skeletal and one of her friends in the film describes her as ‘melting into the carpet’. She was surrounded by freshly wrapped Christmas presents, and was said to be the life and soul of parties, a charming, sexy, intelligent and kind girl. So how did she end up dead on the floor of her small bedsit undiscovered for three years?
Carol Morely was inspired to make this film after reading a small snippet of news in The Sun, there was no details of Joyce’s death, no picture, nothing. After placing adverts in papers and on the sides of taxis, and contacting people through Friends Reunited (for all of you who aren’t aware, Facebook isn’t original, Friends Reunited was the first social networking tool available!) who may have known Joyce.
Through reconstructions and talking head segments, a picture of Joyce is painted. She was a fun loving girl, who had men chomping at the bit to go out with her, she loved singing and even recorded some music with some friends, she met Nelson Mandela, Stevie Wonder and Ben E. King. But she was also very secretive. Not many people knew about her upbringing or life away from her small circle of friends (which is explained by a former boyfriend that they were his friends first, she just latched onto them). Her mother died when she was 11 years old and claimed her father died also. As the film progresses and Carol reveals some details to her former friends we see the reaction on camera. For example, when Carol tells them that her father actually died a year after Joyce, they are shocked, and in one of the most heart-breaking moments, when Joyce attended A&E after suffering a particularly bad asthma attack, her next of kin on her medical records was her bank manager.
As documentaries go, there is little to comment on in terms of filmmaking, but what is key in Dreams of a Life is the story being told. I’ve read some reviews which have given this film a low rating because it doesn’t explore her death and why she died. I think this highlights how this film can be misinterpreted. Dreams of a Life isn’t about how Joyce died, in some respects, it doesn’t necessarily matter how she died, what is crucial is that she died, but no one cared enough about her to call and check in, not even her own family (who notably refused to take part in the film). Dreams of a Life isn’t about providing facts and answers. It’s about trying to piece together a human and their influence on those around her, a character, her life and soul. Something which was so tragically absent for those three years she lay dead in her flat.
What Dreams of a Life does is make you realise that even though we live in a world with 7 billion people in it, sometimes some people get forgotten about. How can society be proud of itself when one woman lays dead for three years before anyone knows about it? In the modern world of Facebook and Twitter, communication has never been so easy, from posting photos which can be viewed all over the world, to real time conversations, even ordering pizza at 3am from an app on your phone; communication is inescapable. Yet we are presented with a tragic desperate story of one woman who no one cared enough for to check on. The true horror of Dreams of a Life lies within the audiences mind. What if I died, would someone come and find me? Would I be alone? What must it have been like to die alone? It truly makes you appreciate those in your life, and the importance of maintaining relationships. The final scene shows Joyce’s former boyfriend break down in tears, talking to her as if she was still alive. And I have to admit, I cried. I felt the pain of regret. The overarching feeling of the ‘talking heads’ was an overwhelming sense of guilt. Who’s to blame? Her work? Her friends? Her family? The council?
Dreams of a Life is a tough watch, but in terms of the impact on audiences, it’s one of the best, most poignant and affecting pieces of film I have ever seen. I finished feeling like I wanted to phone everyone I knew and tell them how much I loved them. To make sure they were ok. An opportunity which was taken from Joyce. An opportunity none of us should take for granted.
You can find Dreams of a Life on Netflix, but also an article in the Guardian written by director Carol Morely, but all you have to do is Google Joyce Carol Vincent to find a wealth of online material about her and her death. I highly recommend Dreams of a Life, in fact I think you need to see it.
- The Story Of Joyce Carol Vincent (January 2006) (whatweforgot.wordpress.com)