Documentarists. This pioneering feminist documentary team of Holly Dale and Janis Cole has produced a rich and diverse oeuvre, together and apart. Largely steering clear of explicitly lesbian projects, their films, almost always independently financed, have consistently shown a deep, impassioned and unconditional identification with women who are on the edge, whether sexually or socially. Cole and Dale started their collaboration at Sheridan College in the 1970s, and already expressed an interest in sexual and social marginality in their early shorts: Cream Soda (1976) about sex trade workers; Minimum Charge No Cover (1976), about Yonge Street sexual outlaws; and The Thin Blue Line (1977), about detainees in an institution for the criminally insane.
Cole and Dale’s important first feature breakthrough may also be their most explicit lesbian work but it followed the day’s fashion for treading ambiguously along the line of homosociality: P4W: Prison for Women (1981, 58, Genie). This documentary version of Caged and its dozens of B movie “women behind bars” genre successors, is more gripping than the lot of them combined. It wasn’t easy for Dale and Cole to get permission to film within Kingston’s notorious Prison for Women, but they were finally allowed in. Basically a portrait of five of the women, the film never uses the L or D words, perhaps out of sense of ethical commitment to the subjects, perhaps because the early-1980s context still favoured discretion. But things are very clear, and long before butch-femme became fashionable again, the subcultural universe is full of codes of sexual identities, tonsorial and other. Most compelling is the portrait of the devoted couple Janise and Debby, lipstick lesbians before their time, who will be separated for twenty years as soon as the latter’s imminent discharge comes up; they perform croquet and makeup for the camera but the intensity of their relationship cannot be so easily avoided. Unlike similar institutional documentaries, such as those of American Frederick Wiseman, P4W was not interested in the banal and benign prison officials, concentrating on the prisoners, their stories, their experiences, and their relationships among each other. When this low-budget independent work bowed at the 1981 Toronto Festival, its groundbreaking importance was immediately recognized by more than lesbian critic Barbara Halpern Martineau in The Body Politic(issue 78, 35):
It is the first time in Canada, to my knowledge, that the love of two women for each other is presented as entirely positive, a needed support, growthful, with no compulsion to discover why this came about or whether they couldn’t find greater satisfaction with men or any of the qualifiers normally attached to a lesbian relationship if it ever manages to find its way onscreen. It is undoubtedly not coincidental that this ‘first’ is in the context of a women’s prison, so that in fact there is an implicit qualifier—there are no men available to these women. If this makes it easier for the audience to accept the relationship as valid, well, it’s a first foot in the door...
One particularly heart-wrenching portrait in the film, of Marlene Moore, a self-abusing “slasher,” led to Cole’s prizewinning, more experimental followup profile Shaggie: Letters from Prison (Five Feminist Minutes, NFB, 1990), an elegy for a victim not only of society but also of her own hand (the basis also for the duo’s prizewinning later TV movie Dangerous Offender, CBC 1996).
After P4W came Hookers on Davie (1984, 86), an ahead-of-its-time exploration of the Vancouver world of street prostitution (female, male and transgendered). Winning the pair their second Genie, this “direct cinema” epic on the world of street prostitution in Vancouver maintained Dale and Cole’s exemplary solidarity with marginal and disenfranchised—and resistant—subjects. Confronting taboos of moralism and invisibility at the height of the sex wars, the filmmakers coincided their ethnography/manifesto with the Trudeau government’s investigation into prostitution and pornography through the “Fraser Commission.” After two months in Vancouver’s famous tenderloin area, Dale and Cole convinced their half dozen lively subjects to work while hooked up with radio microphones and the result is both tender and in your face, even coming perilously close, were it not for their customary intense complicity, to the risks of voyeurism. The Body Politic gave the film its fervent thumbs up—“the chance to compare our own sexual-minority-turned-subculture with another”—but had reservations about its ambiguity around “contradictions that could have been enlightening if they’d been explored...” Reviewer Chris Bearchell also suggested an interesting remedy in her review:
...political analysis can best be done from the inside, looking out. Next time, the prostitutes should step out of the roles of characters, subjects, victims, get their hands on the cameras and aim them not simply at each other, but at the world that shapes the lives of hookers on Davie Street.(The Body Politic No. 103 [May 1984], 31)
Over three decades later, prostitution has still not been decriminalized and bawdy house laws are still used against both their subculture and that of LGBTTQ people.
The duo’s next major project Calling the Shots (1988) treated women directors in the film industry but lacked the edge of their earlier work, perhaps because women filmmakers have their guard up in front of the camera, perhaps because the intensity of marginality was missing. The two women’s working and personal partnership dissolved in the late 1980s, and Dale attended the CFC, eventually trying her hand at a less-than-successful vampire film Blood and Donuts (1995). Although both artists worked in individual directions throughout the 1990s, occasional collaborations were possible. In her definitive article on the duo, Kay Armatage found Dangerous Offender typical of the two women’s oeuvre as a whole, despite its generic disparity, in its confrontation with class and its “commitment to realism coupled with empathy and an exacting refusal of liberal mythologizing.” (2002). Armatage, however, perhaps because of the filmmakers’ discretion, did not consider sexual orientation a relevant category for Canadian cinema’s most sustained and resilient oeuvre about lipstick lesbians, bulldykes, transpeople, and hustlers. Over the last decade, Dale worked largely on commercials and television series, while Cole taught writing at OCAD.