Joe Cinque’s Consolation: Film of Helen Garner’s book a hot ticket at MIFF 2016

Karl Quinn

22/07/2016

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It’s the story of one of Australia’s most notorious murders, but the man who has turned it into a film hopes it is much more than that too.

If you want to see the film adaptation of Helen Garner’s true-crime story Joe Cinque’s Consolation, you’ll have to wait: the tickets to its two sessions at MIFF were snapped up within hours of going on sale two weeks ago.

That’s the sort of start Sotiris Dounoukos has dreamt of since his VCA graduating effort won best student film at the festival in 2004.

“I always wanted to premiere my first feature at MIFF; it’s a milestone,” says Dounoukos, a former lawyer who makes his feature debut with this adaptation. “It’s definitely a big moment.”

Garner’s 2004 book about the death of Canberra man Joe Cinque from a heroin overdose deliberately administered by his girlfriend, Anu Singh, and her subsequent murder trial is one of the most revered and controversial works of non-fiction published in this country. Tackling it – and the issues and memories associated with it – was never going to be easy.
Dounoukos has taken a different approach to Garner, focusing on the events leading up to Joe’s death rather than its aftermath.

“The film isn’t about a trial – it is a trial,” he says.

He and his co-writer, Matt Rubinstein, “wanted to treat the cinema as a courtroom”, he explains, “so people could enter and take the position of Helen in the book – and that meant embracing the way cinema can offer multiple points of view around a single event and allowing people to come away with their own conclusions.”

He talked with Garner for years before embarking on the screenplay, and slowly won the trust of Joe’s parents too. “It was really important to me to not add to the devastation that had been created in their lives by Anu,” he says.

Garner and the Cinques have seen the film, and he says they are “pleased” with what he has done, though neither party had any right of veto.

But what of Anu Singh, who was found guilty of manslaughter in 1999 after claiming she was mentally ill at the time of the killing (she served four years in prison) – did he approach her about the project?

“No,” says Dounoukos firmly. “Joe’s not here to tell his story, and given she has told her story a great deal in public and she’s been very consistent in how she describes what occurred and her point of view on her culpability or not, we chose not to. But we spoke to a lot of other people.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is that plenty of people knew Singh planned to kill her boyfriend beforehand, but did nothing to stop it. For Dounoukos, who grew up in Canberra, studied law at ANU and was in the same graduating year as Singh (“she was a friend of friends,” he says), this is the heart of the story.

“One of the reasons Joe died while people did nothing is that some people were just spellbound by the unfolding narrative, the way you would be if you were engrossed by a piece of theatre,” he says.

“Some people were simply engaging with this for its narrative value rather than, ‘Hey, this is someone whose life might be at stake – maybe I should do something about it’.

“I hope it’s more than just a yarn about someone dying,” he adds. “I hope it’s asking questions about how we relate to each other.”