Nowadays, when phone calls are diverted to an automated answering system, the woman's voice on the other end speaks in the detached manner and awkward cadence of computer-generated speech. It's a far cry from the flesh-and-blood, motherly-voiced women who, in an era not too long ago, welcomed our calls in what the telephone companies called the "voice with a smile."
To make a kind of video memorial to this army of women who provided those voices with smiles, Canadian documentary maker Caroline Martel dug up hours of footage from about 200 telephone-company corporate training videos to make her film The Phantom of the Operator, which screens today at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival.
"I wanted to show women's contribution to the workforce and their role at the base of the century of communication," Martel said in an interview in Taipei, where she is visiting while her film participates in the festival's competition section.
That role played by the operators, however, has been drastically undercut by the advent of automated systems. Their entire sub-culture is gradually vanishing, Martel said.
This fact prompted her to construct the film using archive footage and a narration that sounds as though it were broadcast from outer space, whispering a contemporary legend about the lives of these iconic 20th-century women to a soundtrack made using an odd, mid-20th century electronic music instrument called the "ondes Martenot."
The result looks and sounds like a dream, with loosely connected flashes that gradually reveal details about operators and the culture in which they worked.
Telephone companies initially employed men to be operators, Martel said, but, fearing that they would unionize, began hiring women to perform the job, correctly calculating that women's high turnover rate would stave of the formation of unions. The task for the companies, then, was to find a way to feminize and glamorize, what was, in fact, a highly stressful, underpaid and difficult job.
Phantom of the Operator
Directed by Caroline Martel
Running time: 65 minutes
Screening times and location:
tonight, 11:20pm, Showtime Cinema; Thursday, 2pm, Showtime Cinema
The company films that attempt to instill this propaganda are at times hilarious, with third-rate actresses speaking wide-eyed and unconvincingly of the satisfaction that being an operator brings to their lives. The jobs, as they describe them, offer stability, community and an opportunity for them to carry out their nurturing instincts by helping connect people and facilitate inter-personal communication.
In scores of interviews with former operators over a period of nine years, Martel said the women believed wholeheartedly that they fulfilled a unique, indeed, practically motherly role to customers, despite the glaring hardships of the job. She called the operators' attachment to their jobs a "perverse love affair."
The dark side of the job is brought out in many of the clips from the 1930s and 1940s that show the strict regimentation of the job. Operators are marched military-style to their posts at the switchboards, where behind them, matron-like floor managers pace back and forth monitoring speed and accuracy. Clearly, the companies felt no need in that era to mask their goal of achieving maximum employee efficiency. Later, when the frisson of feeling needed by the company had worn off, the companies adopted a new tack, focusing on "the voice with a smile" and sexing up the job.