Dreams of a Life

Dreams of a Life is an impressive film about the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died in a bedsit (American equivalent: studio apartment with shared bathroom/kitchen) above a busy shopping center in 2003. She was found in 2006 with the television on, dishes in the sink, a pile of mail inside the door and the window open, surrounded by Christmas presents.

Filmmaker Carol Morley seeks to answer the question, “Would anyone miss you?” In seeking to give life Joyce Vincent, Morley spent years piecing together Vincent’s story. Her family refused to be interviewed on screen, but Morley found former friends and lovers who did agree to interviewed. Morley draws a picture of a woman who was ultimately a cipher for others. She was a gifted singer; she wasn’t a singer at all; she was warm and funny; she was aloof.

Ultimately Vincent left a well-paying job at Ernst and Ernst to travel with numerable friends, or so she told her co-workers. What we find out, though, is that Vincent was living in the bedsit to escape a domestic violence relationship. She gave up everything to escape and was working as a cleaning lady at the time of her death.

Morley combines on-screen interviews with dramatic recreations of Vincent’s child and adulthood. A possible sexual assault as a child is hinted at. The loneliness of Vincent as an adult is shown as she withdrew from any relationship where she might have become too vulnerable.

There are many unanswered questions about Vincent. The domestic violence shelter providing financial assistance for the bedsit is never interviewed. How did they forgot to check on one of their clients for three years? Why did no one call about the smell? The bedsit is a public housing unit in London that we in the U.S. would say is a ghetto, poor, drug-addicted and other individuals living in the shadows of the law preferred to not involve the police whenever possible. In such a disreputable housing environment, garbage was not regularly hauled away. So the decaying smell of Vincent’s body became mixed with the garbage left to rot below.

Friends did stop by her bedsit and knocked on her door, but assumed when they heard the television but no answer at the door, Vincent was again isolating herself.

We also might ask why the British media and the British constabulary refused to investigate her death. Repeatedly Vincent is described as exotic and beautiful. But as a woman of Indian and Caribbean parentage, full investigations are reserved for beautiful white women only.

We are left to wonder about our state in society today. Over the last few days I have sick and alone at home. Ms. H. is travelling with friends. After watching this documentary, I realized I could die at home, and were it on a Friday night, the first person to be alerted to a problem would be my boss, Monday morning. Ms. H. might have an inkling of a problem, but with the time changes, she would have to wait for many hours to hear back from a family member who could check on me.

What I came away with was an overwhelming sense of the consequences of being a loner most of my life, of the value of weekly and daily check-ins with family and friends, of the importance of spending time with people. I am also reminded of the extreme cost women can pay when leaving violent relationships. Vincent gave up everything to save herself. Her pride kept her from contacting her old friends, perhaps the need for a new beginning made her break contact with her family and I suspect shame kept her from connecting with new friends. Shame is powerful force working against all of us as we attempt to make and grow connections with other human beings.

Dreams of a Life is on Netflix. This documentary changed my life.