IN October, 1997, when the story broke that an ordinary young man had been killed in Dickson with a lethal dose of heroin by his brilliant law student girlfriend, everyone in Canberra had an opinion.
That young man was Joe Cinque and the girl was Anu Singh, who had studied how to bring it off at Chifley library then announced her intentions to friends at a now-notorious dinner party. And we could all point to the very house in which it had happened.
In a kind of Lindy Chamberlain-in-reverse case, Singh was eventually found guilty of his manslaughter, not murder, because of diminished mental responsibility while her friend and apparent accomplice, Madhavi Rao, was acquitted.
“It’s so sensational, someone ought to make a movie about it,” the cry went out, and now, after a few modest attempts, someone has.
Author Helen Garner had dealt with the story in her searching non-fiction book “Joe Cinque’s Consolation” and now, in a film adaptation of that work, Canberra-raised director Sotiris Dounoukos has co-written, co-produced (with Matt Reeder) and directed a major drama of the same name. It helps that, as he says: “This was my year of law school, so this story is very personal to me”.
“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” has already been seen at the Melbourne and Toronto film festivals and in a private screening in the Newcastle home of Cinque’s parents, who expressed relief that the portrayal of their son by actor Jerome Meyer was respectful.
The film, co-scripted by Matt Rubinstein with Dounoukos, follows Garner’s book in most ways but, as he says, “there are aspects of Helen’s book if you are a trained lawyer that you approach in a different way… my reaction to the judgement in the Singh case was not outrage but concerned curiosity”.
“Matt and I felt in adapting the work we couldn’t allow the audience to be confronted by a proxy character, Helen Garner, so we decided to place the audience in the position of Helen, to let people confront the facts of the story.”
“To create suspense and to raise the tension, the cinema becomes the courthouse, but it is not a courtroom drama – it’s more a boy-meets-girl story.”
Central to the film is the role of Anu Singh, played by rising star and Dounoukos’ fellow Victorian College of the Arts graduate, Maggie Naouri. He auditioned hundreds of people to get the right combination for Anu and Joe, but ended up casting from the very first batch he saw.
Casting Anu Singh, a brilliant law student on the edge of mental collapse, was a challenge.
“You have to cast people who have a comparable effect on the audience that Anu had on the people who followed her,” he says.
Naouri proved intelligent and charismatic so that “Anu comes across as being several steps ahead of most other people,” Dounoukos says.
Dounoukos considers himself a Canberra boy through and through. A product of Campbell High School and Dickson College, he graduated in arts/law from the ANU and from its legal workshop. At the ANU he studied philosophy, French, drama and cinema with Roger Hillman, Gino Moliterno and Geoff Borny. What times they were in Canberra, he says, “it was a special age… you’d wake up and there’d be Meryl Tankard”.
He spent four years in a law office in Melbourne before taking out a masters in film at the Victorian College of the Arts.
His genesis as a filmmaker came to fruition in Paris where he directed his film “A Single Body”, which would be named Best International Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“But all my close friends in Paris came from Canberra, including Antonio Gambale, who also went to Campbell High School and Dickson College and who did all the music for both ‘A Single Body’ and ‘Joe Cinque’,” he says.
All the while, he kept coming back home to his mum and family, nurturing the idea of making a major feature film set in Canberra. Helen Garner’s book proved the perfect vehicle, with a ripper of a story that was quintessentially Canberran.
Dounoukos praises his supporters, private investors in Canberra, Sydney and elsewhere, Screen Australia and the ACT government, especially through Screen ACT’s CEO Monica Penders, who found them a production base in Watson.
The local crew, he says, were “fantastic perfectionists”. The cinematographer Simon Chapman has family in Canberra, the production designer Marisa Martin is a respected Canberra filmmaker, casting director Kirsty McGregor is from a famous Canberra theatre family and make-up designer Toni Ffrench, who lives here, is in hot demand internationally.
The locations are mainly North Canberra.
“Some of the key scenes are set in autumnal Canberra, raising the question, how can such terrible things happened in such a beautiful place?” he says.
It’s not all autumn – the real Joe died on a beautiful day in late spring. Cinematic cliché? Maybe, but as Dounoukos puts it: “We can show the light side and the dark, evil side of Canberra, too… people have free will to do the right thing or the wrong”.
“Unfortunately, many people will be saying: ‘Canberra is a weird place’.”
“Joe Cinque’s Consolation”, Palace Electric Canberra from October 13, bookings to palacecinemas.com.au