On looking and looking away
Dec 13, 2007
Name: Janis Cole
Program: Master of fine arts in documentary media
at Ryerson University
Project: Visibility and Invisibility in the Margins of Disappearance
Background: Janis Cole has been making films for 30 years and her work focuses
on marginalized and overlooked members of society, such as inmates in the (now
closed) Prison for Women in Kingston.
The inspiration: The dozens of sex-trade workers who have gone missing from
Vancouver's Downtown Eastside got Cole thinking about issues of invisibility in
society. B.C. pig farmer Robert Pickton was this week sentenced to 25 years
without parole for the murders of six of those women. "What interests me is the
65 women going missing in Vancouver before police called it a missing persons
case," says Cole. There are still 39 women missing from Vancouver, according to
a task force set up to look into the disappearances. Meanwhile, as the trial was
going on, Cole says Pickton, not the missing women, became the focus of the
story. "In situations such as these, the strongest person we visualize is the
The subjects: For Cole's film-based project, she is focusing on those who are
homeless, as well as prostitutes, and the crossover that occurs when sex-trade
workers live on the streets. To do this she has spent time with Toronto's
homeless – one recent Saturday morning was spent with three elderly men who live
on a sidewalk heating grate. "I'm trying to get the heart of this to see why
people make the choices they make," says Cole. She also wants to find out "why
we can't see the missing when they're gone."
One argument is that sex-trade workers and the homeless are often transient and
therefore difficult to track. Cole thinks there is more to it that just that.
The themes: Cole is exploring three themes in both her film project and an
1. The power structure in society;
2. The media's portrayal of the homeless and those working in the sex trade;
3. The way society responds – either with or without compassion to the
marginalized in society.
"It's not a film about prostitution, and it's not a film about homelessness,"
she stresses. "It's a film that deals with looking and looking away."
To address those themes and find some concrete solutions to the problem, Cole's
supervisors, Blake Fitzpatrick and Edward Slopek, are providing background data
on theories of invisibility and power structures in society, respectively.
The future: Cole hopes the finished film-based project, which may incorporate
photography and new media, will be shown to the public through film festivals,
galleries or other venues, while the paper will be presented to conferences and
add to the growing research on society's marginalized people.
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