Shaped by Female Hands 

The quirky MadCat fest showcases woman-made movies, while avoiding the "rah-rah prochoice" label.

It's the kind of task that would finally send Gene Shalit over the edge: This year Ariella Ben-Dov, curator of the MadCat International Women's Film Festival, watched and rewatched more than nine hundred avant-garde films.

For seven years, Ben-Dov has been producing, organizing, curating, and promoting MadCat, one of the Bay Area's quirkiest film festivals. She finally whittled down her stack of screening copies to 81 films from thirteen countries -- some short, some feature-length, representing every genre known to humankind and then some.

MadCat, which kicked off in San Francisco last month and comes to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley Thursday through Saturday, has built up a loyal following for its devotion to screening exciting work that rarely makes it out of academic circles. "MadCat is great because its focus is on experimental, edgy, challenging work, but across genres -- formal experimental narrative, documentary, and animation," says PFA curator Kathy Geritz. "Ariella looks for themes and ideas and concepts to organize the works around, and she doesn't treat film as having a shelf life, so she dips into the history of films made by women."

Ben-Dov remains her festival's sole paid staff member, marshalling a battalion of volunteers and interns. A New York City native, she came to the Bay Area in 1996 via Hampshire College, working for Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff (Deadly Deception, It's Elementary) and the House of Docs conference at Sundance. Soon after she arrived on the West Coast, though, she noted how local experimental film festivals showed a disproportionately large number of films by men. "I knew anecdotally that it wasn't because women weren't making worthy films and videos, so I had to create the venue for them to be shown," she recalls. Ben-Dov was 24 at the time.

With little more than chutzpah, and no practical experience -- "Grants didn't even come into the conversation, because we didn't have enough foresight to look for them" -- Ben-Dov and a coconspirator, who dropped out after the first year, worked out a deal with the Roxie Theater in San Francisco to show forty films over a long weekend.

After two years, she dispensed with the traditional structure of the film festival and spread the programs across the month of September, taking the show to venues such as Artists' Television Access and El Rio, a neighborhood bar with a huge patio and free barbecue. "Ariella and the festival are good at contextualizing different work for different venues," says Steve Jenkins, executive director of Cinemathèque, a San Francisco organization that specializes in experimental film and video.

For example, at the September 16 screening of "Student Nurses" -- a 1970 Z-movie with a lot of T & A, and a little radical leftist politics -- the benches were crowded with young women in knit caps, Bettie Page bangs, and skinny knit scarves, with a smattering of well-scruffed guys in cowboy shirts and even scruffier middle-aged film geeks, all sipping beers and cheering the student nurses on as they screwed, tripped, and served humanity. Screening at the PFA allows MadCat to show archival and 35-mm prints (see sidebar), and the Berkeley shows draw a slightly more subdued crowd, the bepierced mixing it up with the bespectacled.

Somewhere between a screening series and a film festival, MadCat has no opening-night galas and no VIP lines. The content of the programs may not resemble your idea of a women's film festival, either. "What could have been a soft and easy festival that could have fallen back into proto-feminist rhetoric has become something much quirkier and more developed than that," Jenkins says.

That, Ben-Dov notes, was deliberate. "I feel like there are no limits on what women's stories can be about," she says. "That's a thing that I have to make clear to my audiences -- I have to prove that MadCat is broader than 'rah, rah, prochoice.' Of course the tried-and-true issues of reproduction and job equality are important topics, but they're not the only things of interest to women -- or to audiences."

The goal of the festival isn't just to promote women filmmakers but also to expand the audience for experimental, sometimes difficult films. "In the United States, we're taught that moviegoing is supposed to be a passive experience, that you let the images wash over you," Ben-Dov says. "With MadCat, we're trying to remind viewers that they can be active participants and work in making connections between films."

Ben-Dov's juxtapositions of linear and abstract, humorous and alarming, tedious and snappy films often send viewers vacillating between frustration and delight. "I'm trying my darndest to get audiences to feel empowered, not alienated," she says. "Not every film on the program is an experimental film. With my curating, I try to give audiences a theme, so if one film is more difficult than another, than they can grasp onto the theme and that will help them get through it. Instead of leaning back, they're going to be on the edge of their seats grappling with the films."

Campy And Unsettling

Here are the four MadCat International Women's Film Festival programs being screened at the Pacific Film Archive:

Traditions and Trajectories

October 4, 7:00 p.m.

Where we've been and where we're going is the theme of this mix. In Cum Pane, Anna Linder films her grandparents baking bread, kneading and rolling the narrative as they work the dough. The Queen of England's profile shifts, morphs, and flies in Sonia Bridges' stop-motion Post Mark Lick, made with postcard stamps. And in the centerpiece, Dim Sum (A Little Bit of Heart), Jane Wong films three Chinese-born women, workers in a Liverpool dim sum shop, as they talk about "satisfaction" and the life marriage and immigration have given them.

Educated Ladies

October 4, 8:30 p.m.

None of these educational films from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s have ever screened outside the schoolroom. Learn theatrical wigmaking, springboard diving, and cotton-picking! Let faceless drawings and monotone narration teach you how your body changes during puberty! See how frolicking with your husband can lead to birth defects! Campy and unsettling.

Cut, Snip, Ooze

October 5, 7:00 p.m.

This program of animated shorts is all about crime and medical mysteries. Historia del Desierto is a fictional documentary about a Mexican serial killer who evades the police for forty years. Sarah Jane Lapp hand-drew 1,500 cels for the visually stunning Chronicles of an Asthmatic Stripper, whose title says it all. Nancy Andrew's 38-minute Monkeys and Lumps mixes puppets, performance art, stop-action animation, and found footage to chronicle an illustrator who keeps encountering bizarre creatures.

Clear Visions, Silent Filmmakers II

Oct. 5, 5:30 p.m.

Films by three actor-directors -- Nell Shipman, Lois Weber, and Cleo Madison -- from the industry's first few decades. Nell Shipman's White Water, about a writer and two orphans in a logging camp, was considered lost for almost seventy years, and has only been shown once (in Italy) since its 2001 discovery and restoration. These films have been scored by the band Epic [Abridged], who will perform at this one-time-only screening.


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