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The Phantom of the Operator
A film by Caroline Martel
Canada, 2004, 66 minutes, Color/BW, DVD, French, Subtitled
Order No. W05869
This wry and delightful found-footage film reveals a little-known chapter in labor history: the story of female telephone operators’ central place in the development of global communications. With an eye for the quirky and humorous, Caroline Martel assembles a dazzling array of clips – more than one hundred remarkable, rarely seen industrial, advertising and scientific management films produced in North America between 1903 and 1989 by Bell and Western Electric – and transforms them into a dreamlike montage documentary.

As the first agents of globalization, this invisible army of women offered a way for companies to feminize and glamorize what was a highly stressful, underpaid and difficult job. Not merely "Voices with a Smile," telephone operators were shooting stars in a universe of infinite progress, test pilots for new management systems, and the face of shrewd public relations campaigns. As the work of operators has been eclipsed by the advent of automated systems, this artful piece of labor history also offers an insightful comment on women’s work, industrialization and communications technology. Refreshing and hilarious, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERATOR provides a wry yet ethereal portrait of human society in the technocratic age.


  • Vancouver International Film Fest
  • Chicago International Film Festival
  • New York Museum of Modern Art, Canadian Front
  • Finger Lakes Envonmental Film Festival, Ithaca College
  • International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)
  • Toronto International Film Festival
  • Taiwan International Documentary Festival
  • Ladyfest, Chicago, IL

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    “An enormously imaginative documentary…an hour of non-stop visual and intellectual stimulation.”

    “**** Spellbinding.”
    Vancouver Sun

    “A remarkable achievement”
    Vancouver International Film Festival

    “Marte’s remarkable work ultimately questions the diminishing role of human beings in a techno-driven world; it is must-viewing for anyone with an interest in communications, media studies, sociology, and the future.”
    Deirdre Boyle
    Graduate Media Studies Program, New School University

    “Martel’s excavation of Bell Laboratory training film footage highlights the proper performance of femininity as perennially pleasant, ever accommodating, sanguinely servile and, above all, invisible…reminds us that we can never fully exorcise the ghosts in the machine.”
    Alexandra Stotts
    Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Oregon

    “…funny [and] thought-provoking homage. Recommended.”
    Video Librarian

    "…shows us much about the development of big industry and women’s place in it. The segments on training and supervision are particularly enlightening… The presentation is highly imaginative. Recommended."
    Educational Media Reviews Online

    “Haunting and beautiful… draws on neglected archival footage to conjure ghosts of operators past. It brilliantly intermixes conventional documentary with montage techniques to both enchant and unsettle a viewer. Beautifully shot and edited, with a mesmerizing soundtrack, the film is poetic, celebratory, and troubling, as it unearths a material and imaginary prelude to our virtual present.”
    Thomas Shevory
    Professor of Politics, Ithaca College

    “[This] illuminating brilliant work is that rare and shimmering example, that instantly classic film which manages to be both a history of the medium and a vibrant consideration of the role of women in telecommunications... It is a re-imagined switchboard interchange of rigor, creativity and metasocial meaning.”
    Peter Wintonick
    International Editor, POV Magazine

    “Poetic, evocative, and witty...Beautifully written, edited, and conceived gem that brilliantly uses ephemeral films to illuminate large issues like the history of the 20th century, and the way that technology infects and affects so many aspects of our personal and social lives."
    David Schwartz
    Chief Curator, Museum of The Moving Image (NYC)

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    The Phantom of the Operator is included in the following Special Collections.
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