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Ordinary monsters, at a distance

Kirsten Krauth: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, the film

Kirsten Krauth is a writer and editor based in Castlemaine. Her first novel, just_a_girl, is published by UWA Publishing. She is the editor of Newswrite for the NSW Writers’ Centre and is working on her second novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation Joe Cinque’s Consolation

The only pulse in Sotiris Dounoukos’ feature film debut, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, is the blue vein of freeway that courses through Canberra’s suburbs. Cinque was killed by his girlfriend, Anu Singh, in October 1997. Based around events brought to dramatic life in Helen Garner’s brilliant true-crime-memoir of the same title, the film depicts Canberra as a cultural and moral wasteland, a monstrosity of suburban ordinariness, where the streets are empty, heroin deals are done over the front fence with a neighbour and the best way to suicide is popular dinner party conversation for the law students at ANU.

Writer-director Dounoukos was a law student at the same time as Singh and he has chosen to fictionalise not the court case or the dramatic aftermath of the killing, but the lead-up to Cinque’s death. In the book, Garner wrestles with this period too, the seeming disinterest of all involved, the ambivalence of engagement: with a girl who would make a suicide pact, talk incessantly about bringing her boyfriend with her and buy heroin and Rohypnol to kill him. Others look on, trapped by—what exactly? Inertia? Disbelief? An inability to take an ethical position?

Joe Cinque’s Consolation Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Much has been written about the bystander effect described by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley who observed the reluctance of onlookers to become involved in a serious crime, with “the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behaviour of those around them to determine how to act).” Although, in this case, the young people aren’t at the scene of Cinque’s death, there is still a sense of them as witnessing the immediate lead-up to it, while at the same time absolving themselves. Dounoukos brings us in to question our own ethical role as observers by framing things at a distance. The filmmaking is austere and removed with little access to the characters (a space Helen Garner had to fill) and the conversations are dull, everyday; there is no emotional depth or connection.

Garner is brutally honest in her analysis of Anu Singh. She reacts to her as a ‘type’: one many women know at a glance. Aggressive, sexual, predatory, impulsive, narcissistic, needy. Garner never really changes her initial view, despite the years of evidence she encounters in court. But she also sees that women fall in and out of that role, depending on their state of mind, their other relationships, especially friendships. And, then again, she hopes desperately for a conversation, some insight, that never comes— Singh won’t speak to her. Given this, Dounoukos has taken some risks with Singh’s characterisation. I kept waiting for that initial reaction to ‘type,’ that turning-away, but it didn’t happen.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Maggie Naouri’s portrayal of Anu Singh is surprising in its subtlety. She depicts a woman whose self-image is disintegrating as she fails at the things around her (study, lovers, friendship) in a blurry blend of drug use, body-loathing and mental illness, a woman desperately clinging to a notion of being ill in order to garner support; a woman whose loneliness is exemplified in a farewell party to people she barely knows. Above all, this is a woman who injects her boyfriend and watches him die slowly, over a weekend. Her friend, Madhavi Rao (also charged with murder and acquitted) is conspicuous only in her passivity, and actor Sacha Joseph and the writers seem to work around her to the point where she disappears (Garner says that even in the court room she seemed barely there). The film at no point tries to elicit sympathy for any of its characters. While Joe Cinque is portrayed by Jerome Meyer as guileless, the centre of a spinning compass, there is little tension in the build-up, perhaps because we all know the ending before the film begins.

The book was groundbreaking in Australian literature because, like Truman Capote and Janet Malcolm before her in the US, Garner dared challenge the negatives around writing nonfiction while exploring the symbiotic relationship between the writer and her subjects. The book’s release started a spate of exciting literary-true-crime by Chloe Hooper, Anna Krien, John Safran and Martin McKenzie-Murray, among others. Helen Garner had questions that couldn’t be answered. She wrote of the enormous gaps between the law and ethical decision-making, and the challenging spaces between the book she wanted to write and the one she had to accept. She wanted to be friends with Joe Cinque’s family. She had emotional needs that overrode her ability to make conclusions. And, in the end, all of that made the book a better one: all she could do was give Joe Cinque’s mother a voice, one denied in the courts.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation Joe Cinque’s Consolation

It seems wrongheaded to call the film by the same title as the book. While Garner’s narrative has an immediacy and intimacy that makes it hard to forget, its stated aim to keep Joe Cinque’s memory alive, the film’s effect is the opposite: to push the characters away to somewhere out of reach, where lives are wasted and no-one seems to notice, or really care. Singh only got four years for killing her boyfriend (manslaughter, due to diminished responsibility), hardly a consolation. She is out and about, armed with a PhD —Offending Women: Towards a Greater Understanding of Female Criminality in Australia. Out of a perverse curiosity and need for closure of some sort, any sort, I searched for her on Facebook, imagining she’d like to be there. Her name came straight up with a poorly scanned profile pic, and her most recent post an image of a figure in fog at the far end of a bridge, with the lines, “Never be defined by your past. It was just a lesson, not a life sentence.” Something tells me this profile is too neat a fit, a fiction.

Like Garner, I’d like to pin Singh down, come to a greater understanding. The film seems content to sit with the lack of resolution, to settle for enervation and, perhaps, this is the only option left open. In recent interviews with Anu Singh, it appears clear, that despite it all, she—along with the friends who surrounded her at the time and the writers who’ve examined her in forensic detail since—can ultimately provide no answers.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation, director Sotiris Dounoukos, writers Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Rubinstein, director of photography Simon Chapman, producers Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Reader, Consolation Productions, 2016, 110mins

Kirsten Krauth is a writer and editor based in Castlemaine. Her first novel, just_a_girl, is published by UWA Publishing. She is the editor of Newswrite for the NSW Writers’ Centre and is working on her second novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra.

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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