In one of the few interviews she's given since she was found guilty of killing her boyfriend in 1997, Anu Singh told News.com.au that the makers of a new film on her never bothered to get in contact. Sotiris Dounoukos, the director of Joe Cinque's Consolation, denies this thoroughly. He tells VICE that Anu never returned their calls or emails. It's just another lie, another half-truth, another mystery to add to the pile that's built up since she killed Joe—drugging him with rohypnol and then forcibly injecting him with needle after needle of heroin as he slept, passed out, in their Canberra home.
If you're to believe Helen Garner's 2004 account of Anu's trial, the 25-year-old law student was a master manipulator—privileged, highly strung, narcissistic. Anu invited her classmates over for "send off" dinner parties, informing everyone except Joe that she planned to kill herself, and take him with her. She bullied her dinner guests into not breathing a word, into lending her money, selling her heroin. Not once, but twice, after her first attempt to kill Joe failed.
Nearly two decades later, in a time of heightened awareness around mental health, Garner's judgement of Anu Singh reads as cutting. Sotiris Dounoukos' new film approaches her more softly, still tackling the "why" but shifting the focus slightly. He now asks, "Why didn't anyone do anything to stop this young woman, who was clearly experiencing some sort of mental break?"
Dounoukos actually went to to university with Anu Singh. "I was in the same year of law school at the Australian National University with Anu Singh and many of the people who are mentioned through Helen [Garner]'s account of what occurred," he says. "Even if you went to university with these people, the narrative is so extreme you ask yourself, 'How could this occur?' Even with what you might know about the individuals, we're talking about the execution of someone—a life being blacked off the face of the earth."
In Dounoukos' film, released in Australia on October 13, Anu's dinner guests aren't just witnesses on a stand in a courtroom—they are rounded characters, human beings who failed to act where many of us hope we would. I ask Dounoukos if, being so close to these horrible events, he ever wondered what he would've done if he was picked up by Anu and her friend Madhavi Rao, as they drove around the streets of Canberra, looking for dinner party guests.
"I think one of the talents of Anu, and Madhavi, was the ability to select people who they could more-or-less control," he offers, explaining the girls picked up students who were from interstate, or overseas—people who didn't have strong ties. "These were students who were away from home, and perhaps it was easier for them to get caught up in their day-to-day lives. To not engage as much with what was happening in the lives of people around them in a very real way," Dounoukos says.
The bystander effect factors strongly in Joe Cinque's death. It's a common aspect in social psychology—the phenomenon that the more people who witness someone in need of help, the less likely any of them will come to their aid. "One of the things the film is exploring is the distinction between spectatorship and being a witness," Dounoukos explains. "And the dangers when people remain spectators to the world around them; treating events like they're not involved."
"These people wanted to go to these dinner parties and their own inner-dialogue said, This has nothing to do with me. And yet the act of being spectators maintained Anu's momentum; it gave her an audience. To a narcissist, an audience is part of the air that they breathe."
But even after watching Dounoukos' film the question of whether Anu would've done what she did without an audience lingers. The young law student had convinced herself Joe, by all accounts a loving boyfriend, had poisoned her with the vomit-inducing cough medicine ipecac. She also suffered delusions that some rare disease was eating her muscles. Anu told people she had to kill Joe to punish him for this. Others suggest Joe was finally fed up with Anu, and it was his deciding to leave her that tipped her over the edge.
Was she having a massive mental breakdown or did she know exactly what she was doing? Both Garner and Dounoukos come back to Anu Singh's triple zero call to get help for Joe around noon on October 26, 1997—the day after the second attempt.
"Could I get an ambulance please?... I had a person potentially overdose on heroin," she cried into the phone. "Potentially overdose?" the dispatcher asked. "Well, he's vomiting everywhere blood... Is that a bad sign?" Singh had just spent the morning, and much of the night before, watching Joe Cinque's condition deteriorate, standing by the bed as his breathing slowed, and his lips turned blue. The 000 call stretched out for 20 minutes, while the dispatcher tried to get Anu to tell him where she lived. It was chaos and calculation in equal measure.
Originally charged with murder, Anu Singh was eventually found guilty of manslaughter. Expert witnesses at her trial pointed to evidence of borderline personality disorder to argue for diminished responsibility. For the death of Joe Cinque, she served only four years of a 10-year sentence. She got her PhD in jail, and published her thesis on female violent crime. Joe's family has never forgiven her.
Back in 2004, three years after Singh was released, Helen Garner told 7.30 Anu's motives still baffle her. "I don't understand why she did it," said the veteran writer who'd spent months covering Anu's trial back in 1999. "I think empathy can take you only to a certain point." Anu Singh herself, thinking back on her crime 20 years later, also comes up short. "I don't understand, either... I was mentally unwell, and I still grapple with that. I still grapple with the whys," she told News.com.au. "I don't know. There's no rational explanation."
And Sotiris Dounoukos, even after making this film, still can't parse why his former classmate did what she did, and why nobody stopped her. But he does qualify that whatever recovery has happened there, Anu's desire for control remains—he says she blocked every attempt by the film's producers to access evidence from the trial through freedom of information.
"She wouldn't allow any access to any of the evidence that she controls access to. She also chose not to participate in the writing of the book, after many attempts by Helen Garner to interview her," he says. "She also didn't want to speak at all during the trials as a witness. She remained silent at these critical times.
"Given Joe's voice had been extinguished by her... we wanted to avoid the introduction of her own take on what occurred in 1997 all these years later. She's had the time to reflect on it. But it's not a film about her reflection on that period, we're interested in what she did."
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