Credit: Film4/Dogwoof Pictures

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Orla Smith

‘As people, we are so much constructed by other people and what they think about.’

Carol Morley, audio commentary of The Alcohol Years (2000)

Scrolling idly through Instagram about a month ago, my thumb stopped on a cartoon about Breonna Taylor. Over 10 panels, it reimagined the night Taylor was murdered at the hands of police officers as a narrative with dialogue and emotive characters. This cartoon, and others like it, are well-intentioned attempts to humanise a movement and encourage empathy for a victim beyond the distancing nature of a headline or a news report — but are they ethical? The cartoonist puts words in Taylor’s mouth and ascribes facial expressions they imagine are accurate to her final moments — and perhaps they are — but the cartoonist wasn’t there, so they can’t know for sure. In order to generate empathy and action, they have co-opted the persona of a woman who can no longer speak for herself.

The ethical questions around projecting our own assumptions onto the dead are at the centre of Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life (2011). Morley’s film retells the life of Joyce Vincent — a woman who died in her North London bedsit and whose body wasn’t found until three years later — through the testimonials of old friends. They speak in dubious certainties, stating how lonely or confused Vincent ‘must’ have been, even though the interviewees’ accounts often contradict each other. Accompanying these interviews are staged reimaginings of scenes from Vincent’s life filmed by Morley and actress Zawe Ashton, two women who never met Vincent and only know what they’ve been told by her peers and the news. Suffice to say, we should take everything we see and hear in Dreams of a Life with a grain of salt.

This skepticism is something Morley actively encourages of her audience: she empathetically observes the way the interviewees remember and mourn Vincent while reminding us to be critical of what they tell us about her. It’s natural, human, and even sometimes useful to try to make sense of someone’s passing by interpreting their life (and death) through a personal lens. It allows us to turn a tragic, unexplainable loss into a growth experience, so we might move forward having learned, say, to pay keener attention to the lonely, withdrawn Joyce Vincents in our lives, or to take action to prevent future Breonna Taylor’s from being murdered. That being said, it’s imperative we understand that this personal interpretation reflects more on the interpreter than the interpreted. Morley’s subject is not Vincent, but the people who are memorialising her. 

Morley introduces us to the mythology around Vincent first, relaying the sensationalised details of her death so we start making assumptions before we’ve even gotten a chance to understand who Vincent was when she was alive. The first people interviewed are the journalists who investigated her death: people who only ever knew Vincent as a story and not as a person. Over Barry Adamson’s weighty, dramatic score that recalls stylised true crime cinema more than it does documentary, Morley lingers on newspaper headlines that yell the gory details of Vincent’s death in block letters. She includes a few glimpses of Ashton playing Vincent, walking amongst a London crowd, but she’s just a small, faceless figure in the distance at this point, anonymous save for the way she hobbles awkwardly down the street. By limiting what we know about Vincent to just the tragic facts of her death, Morley gives us room to assume what we may about her: is her gait weighed down by a thick cloud of sadness, or just the heavy bag of shopping she lugs around?

It’s thirteen minutes into Dreams of a Life before we see an image of the real Joyce Vincent, and it’s a shock to the system. Morley understands the power of an image to shape how we feel about a person, so she gives us time to form our own mental image of Vincent. Then all at once, she fills the screen with pictures of Vincent, focusing in on each picture one by one so we have time to really take them in. She looks like a real woman, rather pretty, smiling joyfully into the camera — nothing like the tragic figure we might have imagined her to be, nor the decomposing corpse the headlines inadvertently bring to mind. This moment hangs over the rest of the film. Even as the interviewees, Morley herself, and we, the viewer, continue to make assumptions about Joyce’s life, and her inner life, we remember to continually question these assumptions.

Morley avoids legitimising any one interviewee’s account over the other, because whether they were a close friend of Vincent’s, a casual acquaintance, or a news reporter, none of them have ownership over her story. The interviewees are never named with title cards on screen, and their relationship to Vincent is only inferred through their stories. They’re just faces against a blank, beige background, each presented as a speculative voice rather than a legitimate source. What’s more, their accounts of Vincent don’t always line up: one sequence sees multiple people gush over Vincent’s singing talents, only for Morley to cut to her music producer ex-boyfriend telling us that ‘Joyce was not a singer’. Because of how unreliable every single source is, the film becomes more about observing how Vincent’s friends process their memories in the wake of her death than seeking the truth about Vincent’s life.

The interviewees are telling stories about an avatar of Vincent that lives in their heads, not the real Vincent, and similarly Morley uses Zawe Ashton as a physical avatar for her own dreams about Vincent’s life. Morley opts to film these recreations rather than use archival footage of the real Vincent, because once again, it’s not reality but people’s fantasies that she’s interested in. The heavy stylisation of the staged sequences featuring Ashton — with dramatic music, the swoop of a steadicam, and even one musical scene — draws attention to their own fakeness. We’re constantly reminded that what we’re seeing isn’t real. Morley jumps between documentary interviews and staged fictional sequences, mixing them interchangeably; neither provides more ‘truth’ about Vincent’s life than the other.

As the film progresses, these staged scenes become longer and more presumptuous, to reflect how Morley’s (and the viewer’s) fantasies about Vincent’s life become more elaborate. These sequences are short and impressionistic, depicting small interior moments like Vincent, alone, setting the shopping down in her bedsit and taking a mournful moment to herself. But as we hear more of Vincent’s friends’ stories, we inevitably start to imagine our own narratives about her life, and Morley’s and Ashton’s reimaginings reflect this. One particularly moving scene lasts the whole length of a song, as Ashton’s Vincent sings to herself in the mirror. Later, in the most speculative staged scene, Morley depicts a younger Vincent (Alix Luka-Cain) in her family home and suggests that there was abuse in her household — a theory that many of her friends suggest but nobody can prove. Including this scene is a bold move bound to upset audiences who were already on edge about Morley telling a dead woman’s story. But because Morley makes the artifice of her film clear from the very start, these scenes become more a reflection of all of our wild and presumptuous imaginations than it is an attempt to depict what Morley sees as the ‘truth.’