Buvette Masthead

Joe Cinque’s Consolation hits the big screen

Emma Macdonald

It’s been almost 20 years since Canberra’s most infamous and sinister dinner party took place. A group of ANU students gathered at a nondescript red brick duplex on Antill Street in Downer.

They were brought together by Law undergraduate Anu Singh to take part in a bizarre final feast before she laced her boyfriend Joe Cinque’s coffee with Rohypnol and then injected him with three lots of heroin.

It took him 36 hours to die.

The chilling act, involvement of friends, and concept of diminished responsibility – which was the reason Singh served only four years in jail for her crime – have just been reopened for dissection, speculation and discussion. To an international audience.

Canberra-born film-maker Sotiris Dounoukos’ has crafted a feature film, based on the 2004 multi-award winning book of the crime by Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation.

Screenwriter and director Sotiris Dounoukos

Screenwriter and director Sotiris Dounoukos

Earlier this month the film made its international debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. American show business daily, Variety Magazine said of the film “Driven by an impressive performance in her feature debut by Maggie Naouri as the damaged and dangerously manipulative Singh, ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ offers a moody and compelling study of the facts while leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to the burning question of why people would act like this.”

The write-up suggests that time has not withered public fascination with the 20-year-old crime.

Dounoukos sits at a bench seat in Hotel Hotel’s Monster Kitchen and Bar for an interview with HerCanberra ahead of his return flight to Toronto. His life is increasingly hectic.

The film festival and impending Australian release has seen him in high demand, with question and answer sessions scheduled for the major cities – including Canberra when the film debuts at the Palace Electric on October 11. It is released nationally on October 13, with HerCanberra providing a special advance screening to selected audiences on October 12.

Dounoukos is in a unique position to create a film out of the chilling death. He studied law with Singh at the ANU.

Dounoukos wrote the screenplay (alongside Matt Rubinstein) using expertise gained from his degree at the Victorian College of the Art’s school of film and television following his law degree.

While their circle of friends intertwined, they did not know each other well. “But I had insights into her,” Dounoukos recalls.

He even saw Joe Cinque one night at the Private Bin. Canberra is like that.

His fascination for the case was immediate – from the time Singh was arrested at the Downer duplex and his email (he was living in New York at the time) filled up with correspondence from disbelieving and distressed friends.

Like Garner, who obsessively followed the court case and spoke to numerous involved parties (although not, as it would turn out, to Singh herself), Dounoukos has spent years immersed in his own legal (he graduated with Honours in Law) and personal research for the film.

And like Garner, he has not included the views of Singh in his work.

For this he makes no apologies. Firstly, the film is an adaptation of Garner’s book and Dounoukos has had to stay within those literary confines despite the intriguing span of new information his own research uncovered. Secondly, Dounoukos believes the narrative anchor lies within the legal framework of the case – beyond which interpretation depends on the individual.

“Joe Cinque is dead. He can’t tell his side of the story. Anu’s argument that she needs to tell her side of the story only works when Joe’s side can be factored in. And as we all know it can’t.”

“I don’t want to hit anyone over the head with the ideas presented in the film. There are many layers to the story and many questions to be asked and I join the audience in trying to answer those questions.”

Anu injected Joe with heroin after spiking his coffee with Rohypnol.

Anu injected Joe with heroin after spiking his coffee with Rohypnol.

One of the central questions goes to Singh’s mental state at the time of the killing.

She was found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, due to a history of body dysmorphia, and eating disorder, depression and the belief that she suffered a degenerative disease. She told friends and the police that she had intended to kill herself alongside Joe.

Dounoukos is clearly uncomfortable about Singh’s mental state being used to diminish her crime and sentence.

“I agree with the expert medical witnesses who didn’t diagnose her as clinically depressed – she had a narcissistic borderline personality disorder.”

More broadly, he had concerns that the “mental health discourse may be being misused.”

He also remains astonished at how such an intricately planned killing could become well known among Singh’s friends, and yet nothing was done to save Joe Cinque.

Meanwhile, the backdrop of suburban Canberra has reached an international audience – while playing neatly into the film’s dramatic theme. Variety rather unkindly notes “Cinematographer Simon Chapman (“The Loved Ones”, 2009) contrasts his warm lensing of intimate scenes with deliberately plain imagery of Canberra’s flat and uninteresting suburban landscape.”

Anu and her best friend Madhavi Raoplayed by Sacha Joseph.

Anu and her best friend Madhavi Raoplayed by Sacha Joseph.

Sotiris is more loving in his embrace of the city.

“The design and order of Canberra belies the level of chaos in the action and behavior taking place. The rational design of the city acts as a real counterpoint to the tragedy that unfolds.”

Dounoukos hopes that audiences who go to view the depiction of the capital’s most notorious case of domestic violence leave the cinema considering the idea of collective responsibility.

“Joe is the real victim here. The film invites people to come together and ask, what could have been done by the community that would have made a difference for Joe.”


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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author