Joy is a documentary about family homicide, told from the distinctive point of view of a child. What makes this film truly unique is that the story is told over thirty-three years, as the child grows into adulthood and grapples with the lifelong consequences of her father killing her mother. Today, Kathryn Joy is a young woman with an extraordinary story to tell. And tell her story she must as she faces an existential crisis on the eve of surpassing her mother’s age.
This is a murder mystery: not because police doubted who killed Carolyn, but because as Kathryn grew, those around her maintained a damaging conspiracy of silence about the person her mother was and how she died. It was literally a mystery Kathryn had to fight to unravel. And fight she did. At seventeen, Kathryn secretly gains access to a transcript of her father’s murder trial and she learns the legal truth: how her father in the presence of infant Kathryn shot Carolyn once in the abdomen and twice in the head. She also steals a photo of her mother from her father’s bedroom, and finally she knows what her mother looks like.
Kathryn’s father is no monster however, he is any man; a quiet, white-collar professional with no previous history of violence. Because Carolyn was having an affair, the defence of provocation was used to downgrade his murder charge to manslaughter. The all too familiar narrative of ‘the good bloke who snapped’ meant he served less than three years for killing Carolyn, a thirty-two year old mother of three young children.
But knowing the truth only made Kathryn’s situation more terrifying as she realised she was living alone with the man who killed her mother, in the house she was killed in. Extraordinarily, on his release Kathryn’s father resumes raising his three children. As Kathryn hits puberty, she begins to resemble Carolyn, and her relationship with her father takes a dramatic turn. Joy asks what access to his children Kathryn’s father should have had? It also asks should Carolyn’s affair make Kathryn’s father less guilty? That’s certainly how the law saw it.
Children who have lost parents unnaturally young can struggle to conceive of living beyond the dead parent’s age. Carolyn’s death has shaped Kathryn’s life, and now it threatens to end it. As the day she will surpass her mother approaches, Kathryn suffers a bout of depression and insomnia and we ponder whether she will make it through. If Kathryn does survive, her story will be a beacon of hope for victims of family violence everywhere; that as difficult as it might be, one can survive through the tragedy and trauma and live a meaningful life, and even one of joy.
Though positive change is happening, the global tragedy of family homicide is not abating. In Australia we have one of the highest rates of amongst all developed nations. Yet there remains a lack of honest renditions of the topic within our screen media; a problem Joy seeks to address. In a reversal of the media’s propensity to obsess over male perpetrators, Joy instead privileges the female victims’ point of view. Every character in this film is a woman who is intimately tied to Kathryn’s story.
In Kathryn we have a unique character who is both articulate and courageous enough to tell this difficult story. And while Joy documents the life-long and devastating impacts of family homicide on the children, it is also a story of hope. Joy will ask the audience to engage in a critically important question: what is the story we as a society want to tell about domestic violence and family homicide?
The story Joy tells and how it tells it can ensure that an alternative to the ‘good-bloke who snapped’ narrative exists, that the children in cases of family homicide feel their experiences are valid despite their fragmented memory, and that women like Carolyn who die at the hands of their intimate partners weekly in Australia, are remembered as people, as women and as mothers first and victims second.
This is why this story matters now.