Not many murders happen in Canberra, thankfully, and when they do, they draw considerable attention. Especially when they are as mystifying and disturbing as the killing of Joe Cinque in 1997. Not mystifying because we don’t know what happened. Because we do.
The events are now being relived across the big screen in a film, The Consolation of Joe Cinque, directed by Sotiris Dounoukos who also co-wrote in with Matt Rubinstein, that chronicles the events building up to the killing of a young man in his own home. The film draws its name and is adapted from the book of a similar title – Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law, written by Helen Garner (2004), although the approaches taken are very different.
This is not a film review, and the facts of the case are widely know. But if you intend to see the movie and want the outcome to be revealed gradually on screen as if it’s a crime thriller and you want to be surprised by the ending, stop reading. And if you’re expecting me to be flippant or funny as I attempt to be in many blog posts, you’ll be disappointed. There is nothing funny about this story. It’s a tragedy.
And it’s got me incredulous and angry all over again. So why would I, or anyone, want to watch a depiction of this miserable story and ignite those feelings again? Perhaps it’s to try and make sense of something which is so shocking and unbelievable. How did this happen? Perhaps it’s because there’s something that makes this case more biting and more personal – it took place in my city, where I live and where I was once a student, in a suburban house which I drive past. Or perhaps it’s just to remember Joe. His mother, a destroyed woman, wants him to be remembered, because that’s all she can possibly have.
Joe Cinque was a young engineer. He was killed at the hands of his girlfriend, Anu Singh, a law student at ANU (Australian National University), over the entirety of a weekend, for no apparent reason, and with the knowledge of a handful of ‘friends’, including her best friend and apparent accomplice, Madhavi Rao.
It is difficult enough to try to make sense of the state of mind and actions of the perpetrator of this crime and to ponder the adequacy or otherwise of the judgement and sentence (ten years for manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, four of which were served, during which time she completed her law degree). It is evident that mental illness played a significant role in this tragedy. The subject is complex, I am not an expert and the information I have is not complete enough to form my own conclusions, so I will refrain from making comment.
But what is even more unfathomable, though, are the actions or inactions of Singh’s friends who had knowledge of the event before it occurred and during its execution.
In fact, a number of them attended a so-called ‘farewell dinner party’ at which Joe was drugged with Rohypnol. He then languished over the course of a whole weekend, as he was injected with more and more heroin until he died, while others partied or made excuses.
He could have been saved. By any of a number of people.
How can that happen?
It is that part that seems so outrageous and unspeakable. What does it say for humanity, that friends or even acquaintances can sit by while someone is killed?
And Singh’s ‘best friend’ and surely accessory manages to avoid prosecution or any punishment. How does that happen?
These are questions that both the film and the book ponder, both leaving much of the deliberations ultimately unsatisfactory and the questions unanswered, though this is through no fault of their own. Although the film is described as an adaptation of the book, and borrows its name, they are essentially two distinct beasts, each concentrating on different aspects of the story. It’s not necessary to judge one by the other.
The film brings to life the day to day lives of the main players, their characters and the mental illness of Singh. It is up close and personal, and you can almost feel yourself sitting at the dinner party that night with them.
Helen Garner’s book is a meticulous account of the trial of Singh and the separate trial of Rao which attempts to make sense of the event, the people and the legal process. It is written in Garner’s deceptively simple and accessible English that belies her great talent and command of language. It is an excellent but tough read, full of thought and wisdom. It tries to be balanced albeit some subjectivity (it is essentially Joe’s story) and large parts of Garner’s own soul are laid bare through her assiduous recording and retelling of the tale, and grappling with the law. And it tells of a family gutted by the legal process.
I read an article in which Singh, now quite versant with the media, laments that she wasn’t given the opportunity to speak to the film director, who actually was a contemporary law student with her at ANU. But he makes no apology for that as the film is based on and named for Helen Garner’s book, despite their different coverage of the story. Singh chose not to speak to Garner at the time she was researching her book, as she chose not to speak at her own trial. She had her chance.
And there is yet more heartache.
Meanwhile, across our screens, quietly and without remark, another tragedy plays out in the background in snippets of real-life footage from another event the same year, as if one horror story wasn’t enough: the planned but botched demolition of the old Canberra Hospital on the lake foreshore , shocking those who were there back to the memory.
A day that was touted by the government of the day and the local media as a fun day out in the park, and taken up by the city in great numbers. Tens of thousands lined the shores of the lake to watch the implosion on a beautiful day, as I did with my girls. But it went horribly wrong and rocks and debris were flung with force from the building and peppered the lake in front of us. Some reached the crowds beyond, one striking and killing a young girl out with her family. We drove home to the sounds of sirens and didn’t twig to the horror it signified.
Katie Bender was a couple of years ahead of my girls at school, a pretty girl with long dark hair. We celebrated graduation masses in the school chapel named in her honour, her own youth and future graduation taken away from her in one split second that day as a quarter of the city sat around the lake to watch a spectacle, as if it was a circus parade.
All in all, a grim film and a grim tale, but one I felt I had to watch.
The title of the film, and the book it was named after, is at first a little perplexing. Garner chose the title as, as the legal process offered no satisfaction or consolation for the family, she felt the writing of Joe’s story may. It was all she could offer.
But a book isn’t enough.
Really there is no consolation. Not for Joe, by all accounts a terrific young bloke. Not for anyone.