Remember Their Names

By Mike Landry

A different medium perhaps, but for renowned Canadian documentary filmmaker Janis Cole art installation is now just another part of her ongoing practice. And so it is that her first solo exhibition draws upon the same themes that have made her a success over her 35-year career.

Remember Their Names features photographic, audio and video-based artifacts to document Canada’s largest serial killing and crime-scene investigation that ended in the conviction of Robert Pickton. Using missing persons’ posters, a broadcast interview and recorded 1-800 tipline calls, Cole aims to highlight the sixty-five women who disappeared from the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside from 1978-2001.

“This isn’t just a piece of art that I’ll be unveiling,” says Cole. “It is the better part of the last two years and a large part of the last decade.”

Cole first became interested in the topic in the late 90s after reading a newspaper story about a number of missing drug-addicted prostitutes from Vancouver’s downtown east-side. There was no mention of a potential serial killer—something that struck Cole as odd.

“I looked at the pictures of about ten thumbnail faces starting at me and I thought something’s wrong with this story. It was like, ‘wake up! something’s happening to these women,’ and I’ve talked about this story ever since with people.”

She even went as far as buying the film rights to a book written by one missing woman’s sister. The film didn’t work out, but she never lost interest. When she entered the cross disciplinary MFA program at Ryerson University, she took the project with her to finish.

Dealing with the subject with installation proved more successful for Cole. It freed her from focusing on a single-channel linear outcome. The non-linear piece takes sections of the story and highlights them for closer study while still being very narrative.

“It’s been a difficult project to make, and a few of my student friends in the program have said to me a number of times, ‘I don’t know how you do this work.’ It is difficult work to do.”

Of course, Cole has a background addressing people in society’s margins. With documentaries like P4W Prison for Women andHookers on Davie she’s addressed addiction, prostitution and prison.

“People on the margins are voiceless, nameless, faceless, and I feel if we are going to as a society embrace all members of society we have to meet all members of society. My film work has always been a challenge to break down stereotypes and introduce the voice of those on the margins.”

Cole credits her exhausting research for allowing her to deal with such difficult subjects. For Remember Their Names, she spent a number of weeks in the downtown Eastside meeting women who work there. She’s met with families and friends of missing women, and followed the story as the bits unraveled.

“With this topic I’m dealing with some of perhaps the most marginalized members of society that were dismissed in gravely erroneous way that allowed so many lives to vanish and so many it turned out to be murdered.”

Cole is happy with the finished project and is looking forward to working with installation again, but hasn’t said goodbye to filmmaking either. Art installation just provided Cole with the experiential and emotional force to tell these stories.

“People didn’t know how to digest the story. They knew the most sensational aspects of it, but they didn’t know the heart of it. They didn’t know the women. And I’ve spent my time getting into that aspect of the story. Not the headlines but the deeper considerations so that people can actually get something from the story, an experience, and I that’s what installation does so well.”

Remember Their Names will be on display from Sat July 4 - Sat August 8 at Trinity Square Video in Toro
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Updated: August 21, 2016