On looking and looking away

Shauna Rempel
Toronto Star
Dec 13, 2007

Name: Janis Cole

Age: 53

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 killer."

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 accompanying paper:

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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