In January 2006, Joyce Carol Vincent was found dead in her flat in Wood Green, North London. Her body lay undiscovered since her death in December 2003, and all that remained was her skeleton. Her television was still on, a window was open and Joyce had died whilst wrapping Christmas presents. How could somebody be dead for 25 months without anyone realising? Did Joyce have no friends or family who ever thought of checking on her in those two years? Did nobody living nearby notice anything?
Writer and director Carol Morley was so moved by this tragic story that she decided to explore further into the life of Joyce Vincent and try to answer some of these questions. Morley has described that she felt compelled to explore Joyce life further as they had lived on the same street at different times, Joyce family called her by her middle name of Carol, and Joyce lost her Mum when she was 11, whilst Carol lost her Dad at 11.
When the story was in the news, there were only a few short lines of information with no photographs of Joyce. It had emerged that she lived above a shopping centre which thousands of people visited every week. She was 38 when she died, born in west London to parents from the Caribbean, and some reports suggested that she had previously lived in a refuge for victims of domestic violence. She also wasn’t seen as an ‘at risk’ member of society, as she wasn’t a drug user, an alcoholic or unemployed.
Morley placed adverts online, in newspapers and on the side of a London cab asking “Did you know Joyce Vincent?” Whilst waiting to see if she received any responses, Morley went about trying to find people who knew Joyce. The BBC had failed to find out anything more about Joyce, and the local paper in Wood Green didn’t have the time or money to seek out any more information.
Morley discovered that Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, had asked the police to reopen their investigation into Joyce’s death, but they decided there was no need to as there seemed to be no foul play, and the coroner recorded an open verdict with the cause of Joyce’s death being listed as “unascertained”. Featherstone also wrote to the local council, the housing association and several utility companies about Joyce’s unpaid rent and bills, and why no one had noticed she wasn’t paying them, only to be met with either no reply or a dismissive letter.
Morley visited Joyce flat, and discovered she had one neighbouring flat, with no one above or below her, and when she knocked on the doors of local residents, she received no answers. She managed to track down some people who had known Joyce, but no one would talk to her. She eventually received an email from a man called Martin Lister who had seen the advert, and was hoping this wasn’t the same Joyce he dated when he was in his 20s, but it was. He and Morley met to discuss Joyce at length, including what he knew about her family, and he produced photographs of her. Morley eventually received emails and met with several other people who had known Joyce, including past flatmates, work colleagues, school friends and ex-boyfriends.
Having got a fuller picture of Joyce Vincent and her life, and with an assortment of people who were willing to talk about Joyce to camera, Morley was ready to make her documentary. Fresh Meat actress Zawe Ashton plays Joyce, re-enacting scenes from her life with interjections from people who knew Joyce discussing her. There are several moments in the documentary when photographs or footage of Joyce are shown, which only makes the audience feel more connected to this woman who was apparently forgotten by society. The range of topics discussed by these people are compelling to hear, and give us an image of a woman who was beautiful, intelligent and a free spirit, with a ‘live for the moment’ attitude, but who ended up becoming more isolated as she got older.
There are a few elements missing from the film, including a lack of input from Joyce family. Although it is discovered that she has four older sisters, none of them are greatly mentioned in the documentary, apart from the information that some of Joyce family attended the inquest after her death. Although they didn’t wish to be included in the documentary, they had apparently hired a private investigator to find Joyce in the years before she died, but they could find no trace of her. This element shows Joyce was missed by her family, and she was being looked for. Joyce ex-fiancé, who wished to remain anonymous, is also not mentioned in the documentary at all, which also omits an important chunk of Joyce life. We also don’t know the reasons behind why Joyce was living in a refuge to escape domestic violence, and who she was trying to escape from.
The fact that Joyce had died whilst wrapping Christmas presents is a very heartbreaking way to end her life and the documentary on. Who she was wrapping the presents for was never discovered, but it could have been that she was about to try and get back in contact with the family and friends she had lost contact with over the years before her sudden death.
Dreams of a Life is a very moving and a thought-provoking look at loneliness and isolation in one of the busiest cities in the world. Morley has always described how she wanted to make a documentary that celebrated the life that Joyce had rather than dwell on her death, and she certainly achieves this. Morley has also said she doesn’t like the thought that Joyce Vincent could simply be forgotten again after her death, but now she will certainly not be forgotten, and if nothing else, her death may inspire us to look out more for those around us.
Dreams of a Life can be viewed here.
Read the article at birthdaymagazine.co.uk