Documentary filmmaking has long been celebrated as a distinctly Canadian art form, yet the works of radical women documentarians like Holly Dale and Janis Cole remain overlooked. Their feature documentaries P4W: Prison for Women (1981) and Hookers on Davie (1984) were both landmark films: P4W was one of the earliest on-screen representations of incarcerated Canadian women and featured a groundbreaking positive representation of a queer relationship,[i] while Hookers on Davie offered a rare empathetic and nonjudgmental portrayal of women, including trans women, working as sex workers in Vancouver’s West End.
Both from working-class backgrounds, Cole and Dale began their joint filmmaking career after they met in Toronto’s downtown scene and decided to take film classes at the local Sheridan College. A professor gave the young women access to 16mm film equipment and told them to film what they knew. For their first two films, they turned to their friends and neighbours: Cream Soda (1975) was a short documentary focused on sex work within a massage parlour where Holly worked, and Minimum Charge No Cover (1976) looked to their friends on Yonge Street, including queer folks, trans people, drag queens and sex workers.
When asked how their own queerness informed their approach, Dale stated she and Cole were influenced by “not only our sexuality but also because we were street kids. As we moved through these communities, we saw how they overlapped.”[ii] The two filmmakers reached outside their neighbourhood in a third short, Thin Line (1977), a rare look into a Penetanguishene maximum security hospital, which led them to take an interest in Kingston’s Prison for Women (P4W), Canada’s only federal women’s prison at the time.
P4W’s most revolutionary quality is its ability to deliver a biting critique of the Canadian prison system while sharing a rare intimacy with incarcerated women, the product of trusting relationships that Cole and Dale built with their subjects and maintained years after the film’s release.
After five years of asking for permission to film in P4W, Dale and Cole were finally allowed in with a small crew in 1980. They credit an administrative changeover for their eventual entry: when an assistant warden inquired about how much access they were supposed to have, they informed him: “we have total freedom.”[iii] P4W, the pair’s first feature-length film, was shot on 16mm for $30,000, drawing from the tradition of direct cinema [iv] in its interviews with women who had been sent to the institution from all across Canada to serve prison sentences ranging from two years to life. While conventional on-screen explorations of the prison system rely heavily on images of cell bars, bright orange jumpsuits and hardened inmates, Dale and Cole set out to depict the complex joys, fears and lives of incarcerated women.
P4W opens with two young women with bell-bottom jeans and feathered hair laughing affectionately in front of a bathroom mirror as they take turns doing each other’s makeup, carefully applying eye shadow and lipstick before their daily walk around the prison yard. The camera travels down a prison range that at first glance looks like a dormitory: music blares, a TV screen flashes in the corner and clothes and furniture crowd the floor. Seated in their cells, the women talk freely about the sentences they’re serving, surrounded by posters and stuffed animals that suggest a far more benign space than a prison. There is an evident level of comfort and trust between the subjects of the film and its directors, who met several times with all 100 women incarcerated in P4W before narrowing their focus down to the six core stories of Bev, Janise, Debbie, Maggie, Susie and Shaggie. Many of the women had been incarcerated for crimes relating to abusive boyfriends and husbands; sex work and drug use are also discussed. “I’ve spent nine years in this system for personal dope,” declares Bev, while Shaggie explains that she has been in prison since the age of 14, after running away from a girls’ school and being deemed “incorrigible.”
The second act of the film explores the multi-dimensional relationships between the women—as friends, as mothers and, most notably, as lovers. One lesbian critic commented that it was “the first time in Canada, to my knowledge, that the love of two women for each other is presented as entirely positive,” albeit with an “implicit qualifier—there are no men available to these women.”[v] Janise and Debbie, the pair shown earlier taking pleasure in the small freedom of putting on makeup, have formed a romantic relationship at P4W that becomes an emotional centrepiece for the film. Faced with Debbie’s imminent release, Janise, who is serving a 25 year sentence for being party to a robbery and murder committed by her husband, shares her fears of being left behind. Cole and Dale’s sensitive portrayal of the young couple engenders sympathy for their ill-fated love story; the relationship is presented without a hint of exoticism or objectification, a testament to the importance of queer filmmaking.
The directors close P4W with a clear-eyed indictment of the prison’s conditions. Women share scars from repetitive self-harm and detail the negligence of the matrons (female prison officers), which has led to at least three suicides. One woman states: “rehabilitation—they don’t understand what that word means.” Another anticipates a prison riot if conditions don’t improve (her prediction eventually came true in a high-profile incident in 1994, when a riot erupted following several suicides of mostly Indigenous women). In the final scene, Bev tells the camera to close P4W’s doors and “sandblast this motherfucker inside and out,” a heartbreaking statement from within an institution that would remain open for another 20 years.
P4W’s most revolutionary quality is its ability to deliver a biting critique of the Canadian prison system while sharing a rare intimacy with incarcerated women, the product of trusting relationships that Cole and Dale built with their subjects and maintained years after the film’s release.[vi] Unlike the institutional portraits created by Frederick Wiseman, whose 1967 film Titicut Follies [vii] is considered a forerunner of the prison documentary genre, P4W does not interview administration or staff. Nor does it broach the prison’s brutal history of conducting LSD experiments and shock treatments on women in earlier decades, and of unceremoniously burying unclaimed bodies on the property or ‘donating’ them to the Queen’s School of Medicine.[viii] Instead, Cole and Dale focus entirely on the voices of the women inside, who urgently and powerfully ask for the betterment of the conditions within the prison.
Because the documentary did well by Canadian standards—it went on to play international festivals, won a Genie Award and was broadcast on the CBC—one can safely assume it contributed to the public’s perception of P4W as a failing institution (the prison eventually closed in 2000, several years after a public inquiry into the events surrounding the 1994 riot). Ultimately, Cole and Dale created a document of lasting significance to film history and prison justice.[ix]
Hookers on Davie stands up, almost 35 years later, as a compassionate and intimate perspective on sex work.
Their second feature, Hookers on Davie, was developed with research funding from the NFB’s women-centred Studio D. Dale and Cole were initially drawn to filming young cis women, self-identified drag queens and trans women, all of whom were vocal about sex work being a legitimate type of labour. The NFB was looking for a different type of feminism, however, and told them to focus on more sympathetic stories, like those of housewives and others of the so-called “deserving poor” forced into the sex trade.[x] Uninterested in tropes that deprived subjects of their agency, Cole and Dale parted ways with the studio around the same time that it released Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story (1981), a reflection of the popular feminism of the era. The highly moralistic documentary takes a stance against pornography and sex work, and features ongoing conversations between Klein and a young stripper who, by the conclusion of the film, offers up a shame-filled declaration of repentance for her profession. Today, Not a Love Story and Klein’s patronizing presence in the film feel painfully dated, whereas Hookers on Davie stands up, almost 35 years later, as a compassionate and intimate perspective on sex work.
The film opens with a jazzy montage as sex workers casually hang around Davie Street in daylight—an almost unrecognizable area in what is now a highly gentrified and unaffordable neighbourhood in Vancouver. The filmmakers introduce their subjects: Tiggy, Ricky, Joey, Michelle, Tiffany and Bev, most of whom started doing sex work in their teens and are now in their early twenties. Dale and Cole spent two months following their subjects around Vancouver’s West End before convincing them to wear hidden microphones to capture their transactions. As in P4W, a palpable mutual trust underlies the directors’ vérité style: the sex workers allow them into their homes and reveal personal details about their childhoods and their inductions into the trade, while matter-of-factly listing violent incidents they have survived on the job.
Once again, the directors’ empathy with their subjects drives the film, yet here their status as outsider-filmmakers feels more pronounced. The camera’s viewpoint is often from a distance: Cole and Dale hid in a van nearby with their 16mm camera in order to film interactions with “johns,” which can feel unintentionally voyeuristic. The women in Hookers on Davie also seem more vulnerable than the subjects of P4W, perhaps due to the risk they are taking by being covertly filmed. Michelle, a young trans woman who is the charismatic centre of the film, confesses to the camera that she fears she is near a nervous breakdown, and at one point she is shown intoxicated and fighting other women at a bar. Dale and Cole interview her mother, who struggles between feeling real concern for Michelle and failing to recognize her child’s gender identity and profession.
Michelle is one of the strongest voices in the film, speaking openly about the complex reality of needing to make money but wanting to get off the street and become an artist. Other trans women express sympathy for the increasing pressure weighing on their friend, and their message to Michelle is, in Tiffany’s words: “we understand, and we’re there [for you].” Speaking candidly, they describe their experiences of transitioning and the difficulties of finding legitimate paid work—rarely-seen stories at the time.
Dale and Cole reassert the collective power of women’s solidarity by paying tribute to the ways in which the workers protect each other. The women exchange information about “bad dates” and johns’ license plates and check in and defend each other; in doing so, they are able to control their labour without the interference of pimps. Bev explains, “whenever pimps come around and start harassing us, the girls always stand up for each other. As long as they tell the pimp to bugger off or ignore them, Davie Street will stay a pimp-free street.” They’ve also formed an organization called the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (ASP), and hold regular meetings at a local bar. In one scene the group meets with a local government representative to share the frank reality of their trade: one woman explains how a criminal record prevents her from getting other work, asking, “What sanctuary do I have?” Hookers closes with the women attending a street protest organized by ASP, demanding decriminalization (“Alternatives not laws!”) and sex workers’ rights in a resonant rallying cry. The film is a celebration of their resistance and remains an important document of the forgotten history of Vancouver’s West End as home to sex workers and queer people.
Dale and Cole reassert the collective power of women’s solidarity by paying tribute to the ways in which the workers protect each other.
Despite the radical achievements of both films, it would be remiss to ignore the overwhelming whiteness of these feminist works. Cole and Dale emphasize outsider voices and marginalized communities in their films, yet the silence of women of colour is noticeable. Given the disproportionate rates of incarceration of racialized women—for example, Indigenous people make up 4% of Canada’s population but Indigenous women constitute 36% of women in the federal prison population [xi]—it is unfortunate that P4W foregrounds white perspectives and experiences, while Black and Indigenous women appear only briefly in the background of the prison’s range and cafeteria. In Hookers, the subjects again all appear to be white—were women of colour wary of participating in the documentaries? Neither film addresses this issue, leaving the viewer to question whether the documentarians made efforts to meaningfully involve racialized women. The films are extraordinary records in their own right, yet one wonders what the women just out of frame would have said, and whether they would have shared the same sense of sisterhood highlighted in both works.
Although it’s impossible to measure the societal impact of Cole and Dale’s films, they should be recognized for their breakthrough cinematic representations of women consistently failed by the justice system.
Three decades later, the issues discussed in P4W and Hookers on Davie have only become more troubling in Canadian society: incarceration of women is on the rise (primarily among BIWoC) and the intolerable conditions of federal carceral institutions regularly make headlines.[xii] Sex work is still illegal in Canada, made more complicated by legislation introduced by the federal Conservative government in 2014.[xiii] Although it’s impossible to measure the societal impact of Cole and Dale’s films, they should be recognized for their breakthrough cinematic representations of women consistently failed by the justice system. The next generation of documentary filmmakers can learn from the directors’ respectful empathy and messages of resistance in order to carry on the necessary work that they began.
Sara Wylie is currently working on a short documentary film with the women of the P4W Memorial Collective, who are planning to establish a memorial garden to the women who died inside the prison on the recently-sold P4W property. Learn more about their work here and sign their solidarity letter here.