Raised on opposite sides of the country—Janis Cole in Vancouver and Holly Dale in Toronto—the pair met while studying at Sheridan College in the 1970s and began a decades-long collaboration. Their body of work, especially their early documentary films, occupy an important place in both Canadian film and feminist filmmaking.
After two shorts, the duo found wider recognition with a film on what is still an under-discussed topic: incarcerated women. For four years, Cole and Dale fought to get permission to film in the infamous (and now closed) Kingston Penitentiary, known simply as Prison for Women. P4W: Prison for Women (1981) centres on five characters, and, still notably, eschews the sensationalized narratives that often surround incarcerated women.
Instead, the trust that Cole and Dale established with their subjects is evident in the openness of their interviews. The result is an emphasis on humanity and the rejection of any monolithic tropes around "life behind bars." The documentary went on to win a Genie Award and was broadcast nationally. Long before the 1994 riot at Kingston Penitentiary, which drew media attention to the systematic abuse inflicted on inmates, Cole and Dale’s documentary shed a critical light on an unjust institution.
Three years later, Cole and Dale once again turned to the margins of society in their film Hookers on Davie (1984). Initially funded by the National Film Board’s women’s unit, Studio D, Cole and Dale later disagreed with the moralistic tone the studio (and much of the feminist movement at the time) was taking around sex work and finished the film independently. After months of research and efforts to establish lines of trust and consent with the community, Cole and Dale began filming on Vancouver’s Davie Street.
As with P4W, the pair refused to stereotype a group that is often reductively flattened or outright ignored; they also chose to include both cis and trans voices. The interviews bring depth to the stories, while footage of women on the job embraces the ethos that sex work is work.
In 1988, decades before the #MeToo movement, Cole and Dale interrogated their own industry with Calling the Shots. Featuring interviews with prominent directors such as Penelope Spheeris, Sandy Wilson, Martha Coolidge, Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman, this oral history of women in film features both humour and harsh realities.
The duo's progressive politics combined with their compassionate approach remain a cornerstone of the documentary practice, and Cole and Dale still inspire filmmakers today to lead with patience and empathy.