The MadCat Women's International Film Festival has been artfully redefining the meaning of women's filmmaking for nine years. See my previous post for an overview of this year's festival. I caught up with Ariella Ben-Dov the Curator and Executive Director of MadCat to talk about the history, purpose and philosophy of the festival.
Q: What inspired you to start the MadCat Women's International Film Festival?
BEN-DOV: I had recently moved to San Francisco, and after attending numerous film festivals and local screenings, I was struck by the marginalization of avant-garde and experimental work. Subsequently, I noticed that a disproportionate number of men were being programmed at these venues. I knew this exclusion wasn't for lack interesting work being made by women filmmakers. Now after nine years of MadCat, I have the proof.
I just dove in and decided to start a venue for women artists. Additionally, it was my goal to bring avant-garde and experimental work to mainstream audiences and make the work somewhat accessible by curating every program thematically.
Q: How did you develop an interest in avant-garde film?
BEN-DOV: I attended Hampshire College, which placed a lot of emphasis on experimental and avant-garde cinema. I learned a lot about the history of avant-garde cinema and the history of women filmmakers. I was riveted by the work I saw. We watched every film twice and were encouraged to keep a diary about the films. This process helped me learn to understand and talk about experimental work. That was the basis of my cinema knowledge; it was the vocabulary I learned. For me it was normal to start a festival that promotes avant-garde work.
Q: Can you talk a little about the mission of the festival?
BEN-DOV: I think sometimes people assume because MadCat is a women's film festival that it fits into a very neat category: educational films about women's issues. We are looking for work that challenges the use of sound and image and explores notions of visual storytelling. I am looking for ways to redefine women's issues. Our stories are vast and far reaching, and they don't need to be confined to the stereotype of what women's issues are. There are so many ways to tell a story. It can be a visceral experience, not just a narrative experience.
Q: How do you program the films?
BEN-DOV: The process begins with getting submissions from the open call, then researching historical films, talking to other programmers, attending film festivals, looking at festival catalogs and seeking out films to invite. It's not that we only show films from 1910 or 2005. I don't think films should have a shelf life of one to two years for festivals, especially short films.
Once the films arrive, the sifting process begins. We have a ten person screening committee that looks at the work and I look at almost everything, but with 1,500 films one person cannot look at everything.
Programming is an organic process and it's really exciting for me to see what filmmakers are making and what they decide to submit. The themes for the most part come out of the submissions we receive, so it's watching and re-watching the films and figuring out what themes are rising to the surface. Programs evolve as you see more work, and it's a wonderfully tedious process. The hard part is having to say no to things that you love because they don't fit into the program. You can't just slap something at the end of the program because you love it. It won't do the film justice and it won't help the program.
Creating themes within the programs is about making unexpected connections. Unpacking Histories is a program built around the theme of portraits of people in their environment. In one film, a prostitute tells the audience about the look and feel of the room where she spends much of her life. Moving Movie is about a filmmaker moving to the South. She uses the sound she captures on the road to accompany images, which she develops by hand using chemicals that have been sitting in her car during the journey to her new home. Originally, I wouldn't have thought of putting these films together, but hopefully it will make sense to the audience. They'll be read in new ways by juxtaposing them next to each other.
Q: You have devoted a lot of energy in the past couple of years to screening silent films by early women filmmakers. Can you talk about your interest in bringing this work to an audience?
There is a long tradition of women filmmakers that has been overshadowed by a long history of male filmmakers. Women were an integral part of early cinema and that history is often forgotten. Before filmmaking became a booming industry with huge financial stakes, women played a huge role as producers, writers, editors and directors. Not a lot of people are aware of the history of early women filmmakers, so it seems appropriate for silent films to be a reoccurring theme at MadCat.
The exhilarating part of programming silent film screenings is collaborating with musicians invited to accompany the films. These are not the traditional piano or string instruments you expect at silent film screenings, they are melodic rock bands interpreting the films in a new and unorthodox way.
It can be unnerving for traditional silent film lovers, but an exciting mix of people come to the screenings. There are people who want to learn more about women's early cinema or they recognize the filmmaker, but have never been able to see a 16mm print. Then there are people who are coming to see the band. Those people are really interesting, because they come out to see a band they like, but get the added bonus of seeing a film by Alice Guy Blache, Maya Deren, Lois Webber or Nell Shipman.
I have had so many people approach me after screenings and inquire about women filmmakers they had previously never heard of and often they want to learn more. It's amazing to bring films to audiences who might not have access to this kind of work.
There are eleven programs at four venues screening September 13 through October 13. Check out a full screening schedule (at madcatfilmfestival.org).