A Life Unsaved: an Interview with Sotiris Dounoukos
True crime drama is risky business – with undeniable audience appeal and ready-made plots comes the inevitable threat of appearing sensationalist, insensitive or gratuitous. Avoiding all such perils, Joe Cinque’s Consolation stands out as film of sincere contemplation – a sophisticated and evocative meditation on human frailty and its inherent dangers.
In 1997 a mentally unstable Canberra Law student, Anu Singh, killed her devoted boyfriend over the course of a weekend by administering him with lethal quantities of heroin against his will. As grim a tale as that is in its own right, the fact that she’d made various versions of her plans well-known to fellow students – who all failed to intervene – is the story’s greatest tragedy. “There’s an expectation that people of a certain intelligence, of a certain milieu, would take action, and the fact that they didn’t is what is so shocking,” says Sotiris Dounoukos, the film’s director.
Photo: Jim Lee
Adapting from the acclaimed book of the same title by Helen Garner, the director says he hoped to retain its ‘melancholic’ mood but chose to steer clear of all courtroom proceedings. Instead Dounoukos and co-writer Matt Rubenstein take us all the way back to that first smile across the bar between the doomed young lovers and begin retelling their story from the very start. “We wanted to write this as a tale, as a story you could tell someone, seducing an audience into thinking it’s one thing and then allowing them to land somewhere else,” Dounoukos says. “That meant being very simple: relationships start with a look, a smile, and then a year later your life is completely different. We wanted something simple like that … that ultimately raises far bigger questions and that was more intricate.”
What begins as an everyday story of love on campus goes on to have extraordinary outcomes due to the unusual and often mystifying reactions of the people involved. Dounoukos is committed to pondering their possible motivations. Ensuring that the narrative remained rooted in these basic elements of human failing and interaction was integral to avoid sensationalising these harrowing events and to achieving dramatic success.
Dounoukos’s genuine interest in the mysteries of why we tend, or even choose, to misunderstand or underestimate each other drives the narrative for him. “We tried to make it more about how we read each other, what we presume and then how we can get burnt,” he says. “And, by doing that, hopefully the audience’s journey is closer to Joe’s … at some point are we always vulnerable to other people.”
With the erudite and philosophical Dounoukos at the helm, a simple tale of boy meets girl, and of true crime, becomes a much broader reflection upon people’s ability to gauge each other, and what drives the reactions they have to those assessments. “Our focus was the question of how could a life fall through so many hands,” Dounoukos says. In the end, we still don’t really know, but we certainly have a far more nuanced context in which to place the events – one that provides greater room for deliberation than any headline or trial record could ever hope to offer.
Ruminating on the puzzling chain of events, and their potential for a more universal interpretation, I asked Dounoukos about the idea of evil taking hold when good men do nothing and whether he thought the film could be seen as a parable. But his intentions in sharing this strange story were more delicate: “You know, we never used that,” he says. “It’s a very well-known expression, but for us it was about the dangers of what you choose to believe. I’m always thinking, ‘What motivates our decision to see things a certain way?’ Shifting perspectives takes a lot of effort, and it’s part of our frailty as people, and that can affect things like community – and that was really one of the biggest things for us.”
Dounoukos is a man evidently dedicated to keen and pensive observation of fellow human beings; his real interests in the Joe Cinque case are born of a deep humanistic curiosity that make this film so much more than a rehash of some distant tragedy. The film has been well-received and he’s happy with the response so far: “I think the encouraging thing about people’s responses has been that they’re coming out with feelings that aren’t black and white, there are a lot of questions raised and they’re the ones we wanted to raise,” he says. “At the same time there’s an acknowledgement of the injustice and the loss that occurred. We wanted that loaded, complex ending for people – that ultimately they will leave the cinema and need to talk to people about what they just saw. In that sense, a film that watches a tragedy unfold because a group became more and more atomised then becomes something that brings people together.”