Joe Cinque’s Consolation director, co-producer and co-writer Sotiris Dounoukos on adapting Helen Garner’s true crime book for the screen in his native Canberra. By Caris Bizzaca.
Like many Australians, filmmaker Sotiris Dounoukos was deeply affected by Helen Garner’s true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation. But unlike others, it hit him on a very personal level, placing him in an unique position to one day bring the tragedy to life again on screens.
Not only was Dounoukos raised in Canberra, but he attended Australian National University with many people involved in the death of Joe Cinque, who was killed by his girlfriend Anu Singh with Rohypnol and heroin after a “farewell” dinner party with friends at their home in 1997.
Now, some 19 years after the death and 12 years since Garner’s book, and the film Joe Cinque’s Consolation, the feature debut of Dounoukos, has premiered at film festivals in Melbourne and Toronto is now releasing in Australian cinemas.
Research began in 2006, two years after the release of the book, and in 2009-10, through support from Screen Australia and Screen ACT, Dounoukos was able to attend the then Binger Institute in Amsterdam and write the first draft.
“It was a script and directing workshop that was based in Amsterdam and filmmakers from around the world would come together and develop their work. Australians were very much a big part of that because of the help of Screen Australia. I was in the 2009/10 intake for screenwriting there with several other Australians including Jennifer Kent who wrote The Babadook there,” he says.
The screenplay was worked on with co-writer Matt Rubinstein and “then the years before production were all about raising the money and putting the team together.”
“The challenge was to be able to keep the budget low enough so it makes sense for investors and still allow for it to film on location in Canberra with the team and actors I wanted,” Dounoukos says.
“So it also involved breaking ground there to be able to support a production of that size (over) a seven-week shoot,” he says.
In terms of financing, Dounoukos says winning the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Short Cuts Award for Best Film in 2014 with his short was A Single Body was a real turning point.
“It gave a lot of the investors confidence that I could tell the story and do it in a way that would reach an audience,” he says.
And that support from the investors remained strong, even into post-production.
“We were lucky in that we were supported by the investors to have a longer edit than we originally anticipated… we basically were able to have another couple of months of editing and that also allowed even more interaction with the composer (Antonio Gambale) as the edit was coming together.”
The finished product, while it shares the same title as Garner’s book, does not replicate it page-for-page.
The film does not play out as a journalist’s investigation or a court-room-drama, but Dounoukos says it focuses in on the same experience Garner and the court were having, as they tried to come to terms with the story unfolding before them.
On one level he says what they are adapting is “the experience you have when you read the book and enter Helen’s narrative and journey as she goes to court to try and understand what occurred.”
Dounoukos felt that film was a great medium to explore this on, because it can express so many points of view – from the characters, but also including his own.
“Looking at Helen’s book, that was an example where my point of view to the underlying facts was quite different,” he says.
“I had a very positive experience at the Australian National University and so that environment as a context for the story of Anu killing Joe was important to me as a counterpoint to their story, rather than necessarily saying it contributed to it or was consistent with the nature of that tragedy.”
It also highlights one of the important factors Dounoukos believes any filmmaker who wants to adapt true crime must heed.
“Your point of view as a filmmaker is what will both mark the film but perhaps give people some clarity over the underlying events,” he says, adding that Garner’s presence in the book is very clear, as he tried to do with his representation of Canberra.
“I think it’s important to put your hand up and declare your presence as a storyteller so that when you’re dealing with fact, in a sense you don’t obscure it.”
“These true crime narratives that bring people back seem to be things that still have unanswered questions,” Dounoukos says.
“There’s a place for people to return to these facts and stories, to reflect and have a conversation around them so as to understand their significance for all of us.”
Joe Cinque’s Consolation releases in Australian cinemas on 13 October with preview Q&A screenings on the following dates:
6.30pm Mon 10 Oct at Palace Cinemas Norton Street
7pm and 8pm on Tues 11 Oct
6.30pm on Thu 13 Oct at Palace Barracks
6.45pm on Fri 7 Oct at Cinema Nova in Carlton (nearly sold out)
1.00pm on Sat 8 Oct at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville
4.00pm on Sun 9 Oct at the Classic in Elsternwick
7pm on Sat 8 Oct in Geelong at the Pivotonian Cinemas
7pm on Wed 12 Oct at Newcastle Event Cinemas
6.30pm on Fri 14 Oct at Palace Nova Eastend
4pm on Sun 16 Oct at the Luna Palace Leederville