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Digital (Re)Visions: May Watkis and the Women Film Pioneers Project

This article is part of a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Over the next few months, contributors to the forum will introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more. In attending to specific visual artifacts from these collections, they will also reflect on issues of methodology raised by developing and using digital archives, including in times of crisis and remote working. Here, Kate Saccone, the manager and editor of the Women Film Pioneers Project, discusses feminist film history as an ongoing process of recovery and revision that is well served by dynamic and adaptable digital environments.

Alix Beeston

In hindsight, it’s no surprise that May Watkis is not fully visible in her portrait, which accompanied a 1921 Maclean’s Magazine profile on her (fig. 1). Her wide hat brim encases her head in shadows, and her fur coat and scarf seem to envelope her body. She is shielded from me as much as I feel shielded from her.

May Watkis in Maclean’s Magazine
Fig. 1. May Watkis in Maclean’s Magazine, 1 May, 1921, 64.

Watkis is just one of almost 300 women featured in Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), a digital resource dedicated to advancing research on women’s behind-the-scenes involvement in silent film industries and cinema cultures worldwide. Her significance, as suggested by the caption to the image above, was her status of “directress,” or administrative head, of a provincial government film agency in Canada. (It’s worth noting that the caption misprints the organization’s name—it’s the British Columbia Patriotic and Educational Picture Service [BCPEPS]—one of many inconsistencies riddling coverage of Watkis.) The portrait’s decorative border, with its unspooling reel of film casually draped around the bottom of a flagpole, visualizes the organization’s nationalistic aims to produce or procure, distribute, and exhibit domestic content, while also presenting Watkis as a dignified participant in those endeavors.

This portrait was featured prominently in Watkis’s WFPP career profile essay, which was written by Mark Terry and published online in 2016. As with the other profiles that comprise the always-expanding database and online publication, the image accompanied the essay text, and was one element among many others—in this case, biographical and bibliographic information, hyperlinks to archival holdings, and other images. Readers could find Watkis on the main Pioneers page, but they could also stumble upon her profile through a variety of hyperlinked pathways, such as a longer overview essay looking at the Canadian silent film industry or other women’s profiles that were related by occupation or geography. From Watkis’s article, readers could continue to peruse other profiles or essays, browse the Resources, or read the guidelines for contributors.

But Watkis’s story, once published, was not over. Almost two years later, in 2018, Dennis J. Duffy and Chantaal Ryane, two archivists working in British Columbia, alerted WFPP and Terry to the existence of digitized government records concerning Watkis, including appointment letters, payroll information, and more. These materials challenged her presumed status of director of BCPEPS, transforming our understanding of her career and legacy in fascinating ways. I wasn’t surprised or frustrated that these materials needed to be integrated into a revised profile; the act of excavating women’s film history, especially with the increase in digitized materials, is an ongoing process of interrogation, transformation, and imagination. As Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight write in their introduction to Doing Women’s Film History, there is no “The End” to stamp down because “we know that future revelations of as-yet-undiscovered ‘tellings’ will introduce new perspectives to unsettle our existing histories.”[1]

And digital humanities projects like WFPP anticipate and embrace these future discoveries, these unsettled histories. Existing as a digital resource means not only having a wider reach than a print book, with content more easily shareable and, to some degree, more accessible, but it also means welcoming the continuous and the adaptable, as well as the added attention and labor this flexibility requires. “DH [digital humanities] endeavors are iterative,” film scholar Charles Tepperman reminds us: “They can, indeed, should change over time as new materials are added, new technologies and techniques are developed, and approaches are refined and revised.”[2]

Screenshot of May Watkis’s revised profile page on the Women Film Pioneers Project.
Fig. 2. Screenshot of May Watkis’s revised profile page on the Women Film Pioneers Project.

Watkis’s portrait remains in the updated profile, which was published in 2020 (fig. 2). Terry’s significantly reworked text critically engages with the new evidence, linking to the relevant materials and reproducing some in the form of digital images. In this way, the profile works to encourage further research and collaborative investigation. The shared mutability of feminist film historiography and digital humanities is captured in a note at the top of the page, which indicates that the previous version can be accessed at the hyperlinked DOI provided. Elasticity and adaptability require transparent documentation; the inclusion of stable versioned records, in turn, signals the evolving nature of this scholarship.

Contested Visions

Compatibility in structure and function is one thing, however. The nature of the changes in content was far thornier. In fact, even after the publication of the amended profile, I found myself revisiting these various archival documents, drawn in by their absences, contradictions, and silences. I’ve become obsessed with the discrepancy between two artifacts in particular.

Order in Council appointing May Watkis to clerk at BCPEPS, July 1920.
Fig. 3. Order in Council appointing May Watkis to clerk at BCPEPS, July 1920. Courtesy of BC Laws (reproduced under the Queen’s Printer License—British Columbia).

First, there is a 1920 Order in Council showing that Watkis was never the director of BCPEPS, but rather a clerk in the director’s office for a short time, at a salary of $125 per month (fig. 3). The actual director, according to another digitized Order in Council that Duffy and Ryane originally shared, was Richard Albert Baker. As the revised profile eventually outlined, Watkis-as-director became a historical fact through unconscious and conscious repetition, including in the digital pages of WFPP, of contemporary newspaper articles and interviews that described her as head of the organization—all seemingly fueled by the excitement of recovering a woman in a position of power.

Copy of 1921 Census
Fig. 4. Copy of 1921 Census, Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Look closely at the 1921 census record, however, and it becomes apparent that that’s not the full story (figs. 4–5). In inky black scrawl, the census enumerator, whose name I can’t read, has transcribed the statuses of the residents of District number 22, Sub-District number 43 in Vancouver. Watkis, with a recorded age of 38, appears on page 5—although a strike through a previously written “4” perhaps shows that this enumerator was not impervious to error. In column 31, which asks for her place of employment, Watkis has given “the Picture Service,” and in column 29, which indicates “chief occupation,” she has stated “Director.”

Enlargement from 1921 Census, Line no. 16, Columns 29–31.
Fig. 5. Enlargement from 1921 Census, Line no. 16, Columns 29–31.

Was this an outright lie? Was it a transcription error? Was Watkis even the person giving the answers? Faced with this contradictory evidence, I want to scream these questions at Watkis, but she—locked in her portrait, shadowed by her hat—refuses to look at me.

So, I gaze at her more vigorously, recalling Tom Gunning’s writings on the literary and cinematic sleuth’s labor in the detective genre of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Gunning argued, “the drama of the detective story lies not simply in seeing, but in seeing through, passing from the evident to the latent.”[3] Like the detective’s clues, these unresolvable fragments of Watkis’s life are at once visible yet partial, informative yet evasive. They too stage modernity’s “ambiguities of vision,” to borrow Gunning’s phrasing (“Lynx-Eyed Detectives,” 77)—or, as Alix Beeston put it in the introductory post to this forum, the “optical mistakes and puzzles, aberrations and illusions” that multiply in modernism. As a film scholar who sometimes feels like a detective of archival materials and modernity’s visual cultures, I sift through these clues and try to interpret their meanings. Investigation, Gunning argues, is presented in the detective genre “not simply as a visual process, but as a dialectic between vision and meaning, a process of reading as much as looking” (“Lynx-Eyed Detectives,” 75).

I see Watkis performing clerical labor for BCPEPS—the filing, the typing, the paperwork, the record keeping. This is, of course, the service and secretarial work that has historically been coded feminine, like the typing women Amy E. Elkins and Glenn Adamson discuss. Yet Erin Hill has shown how vital female clerical labor was to a larger bureaucratic organization such as a Hollywood studio, and perhaps we can understand Watkis’s work in the Canadian government in this manner. I wouldn’t be surprised if she handled most of the administrative work or if her job involved additional emotional labor that might not have been visible then—or, in turn, made legible in the archival materials—but that was necessary for the efficient operations of BCPEPS. Given that Watkis reportedly worked in the Vancouver office while Baker operated out of the one in Victoria, it’s not difficult to envision Watkis doing more than her title of clerk suggests—perhaps even running the office in an unofficial capacity.[4] Did she tell the census enumerator that her job was director in a small but subversive act of reclamation? To quote Amelie Hastie, is this census capturing a trace of the “making of history by the subject herself?”[5]

But what do I really know based on what I see? The danger in this line of investigation is that I’m taking the census as Watkis’s word and granting her a level of agency, and authority, that she might not have exercised. This record isn’t a written recollection, and even if it were, I couldn’t take it as gospel.[6] So, I’m left with a multitude of clues that don’t amount to a definitive picture of Watkis’s work. The threads of her career remain a constellation of archival objects and visual artifacts that won’t cohere into a singular narrative. Finding, seeing, looking, reading: none of these quite become knowing.

The Limits of the Magnifying Glass

The modernist detective uses a magnifying glass, which can enhance and enlarge the visible beyond the capacity of the human eye. So much of the guiding framework behind projects like WFPP, and feminist film history more broadly, is concerned with gazing at and studying extant visual clues—the films we can see and experience today and the women who directed, wrote, and edited them. We hold our magnifying glasses up to the screens because we need to establish these films and their makers as part of the “unfinished business of world feminism”[7]

Yet this focus on modernity’s visual artifacts and their creators might actually obscure someone like Watkis, whose labor as a civil servant is administrative and, consequently, more intangible, more difficult to see. Indeed, before her appointment at BCPEPS, Watkis had worked in the local censor’s office as a projectionist—as per an Order in Council from May 1914—and then as a theater inspector (fig. 6). Unlike a filmmaker such as Lois Weber with identifiable film credits, Watkis’s work is harder to quantify and historicize. The magnifying glass only takes us so far.

First page of the Order in Council appointing May Watkis to the position of projectionist (operator) in the office of the Censor of Moving Pictures
Fig. 6. First page of the Order in Council appointing May Watkis to the position of projectionist (operator) in the office of the Censor of Moving Pictures, in Vancouver, May 1914. Courtesy of BC Laws (reproduced under the Queen’s Printer License—British Columbia).

Is that why the “director” title stuck? It’s a somewhat easier (and more glamorous) job to make sense of than a clerk, a projectionist, or a theater inspector. And yet it’s these last two jobs, Watkis’s stints as projectionist and inspector, which pull me back to her again and again. I want to attend to them, to activate their significance, and the expanded sense of historiographic visuality they demand. While Watkis-as-clerk illuminates the epistemic limits of seeing, her specifically visual labor as a projectionist and inspector suggests there is still power in the knowledge that seeing occurred.

A projectionist’s job involves looking—especially one in a provincial censor’s office, where films were screened to be regulated, monitored, and approved. Similarly, when in 1917 Watkis, still in the censor’s office, became an inspector of theaters under the Amusements Tax Act, she was assigned “to watch the working of the act and be on a sharp lookout for possible infractions.”[8] Her attentive gaze was directed toward the flourishing consumer and entertainment cultures of modernity and responded to the explosion of images in the twentieth century. Watkis, therefore, was not a maker but an observer of modernism’s visual cultures; but her work of observation may have subtended, and to some degree could have structured, those cultures.

How should we account for this sort of visual labor in future revisions to Watkis’s WFPP profile? It’s a question I ask myself while continuing to examine her career, keeping in mind all the womxn projectionists, media archivists, theater managers, curators, administrators, and others working in the film and media industries today, whose intangible labor and diverted or inscrutable gazes may similarly evade our sight—now and in the future. Fully absorbed in the editorial and technological work that comprises a digital film project like WFPP, I look at Watkis’s portrait and, sometimes, I see myself.



Note regarding figs. 3 and 6: These materials contain information that has been derived from information originally made available by the Province of British Columbia online and this information is being used in accordance with the Queen’s Printer License—British Columbia available here. They have not, however, been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of, the Province of British Columbia and these materials are not an official version.

[1] Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight, “Introduction,” in Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, ed. Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 3.

[2] Charles Tepperman, “The Amateur Movie Database: Archives, Publics, Digital Platforms,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 17.2 (2017): 106–10, 109.

[3] Tom Gunning, “Lynx-Eyed Detectives and Shadow Bandits: Visuality and Eclipse in French Detective Stories and Films before WWI,” Yale French Studies 108 (2005): 74–88, 74.

[4] See Juliet Thelma Pollard, “Government Bureaucracy in Action: A History of Cinema in Canada 1896-1941” (M.A. Thesis, The University of British Columbia, 1979), 43.

[5] Amelie Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosities: Women, Recollection, and Film History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.

[6] Although a different situation, this calls to mind another secretary—Alice Guy Blaché—and the controversy surrounding the date of her first film and her later questionable, and questioned, memoirs. See Jane M. Gaines, “More Fictions: Did Alice Guy Blaché Make La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)?” in Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 51–70.

[7] Monica Dall’Asta and Jane M. Gaines, “Prologue,” in Gledhill and Knight, Doing Women’s Film History, 13–28, 22.

[8] “New Tax Inspector,” Vancouver Daily World, 27 September 1917, 10.