P4W: Prison for Women

Issues & Themes: 

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: P 4 W: 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 a sense of ethical commitment 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 the American Frederick Wiseman, P 4 W was not interested in the banal and benign prison officials, concentrating on the prisoners, their stories, their experiences, and their relationships between each other. When this low-budget independent work bowed at the 1981 Toronto Festival, its groundbreaking importance was immediately recognized by more than one lesbian critic:

"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." (Martineau, TBP, November, 1981)

One particularly heart-wrenching portrait in the film, of Marlene Moore, a self-abusing “slasher,” led to Cole’s prizewinning, more experimental follow-up 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).