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Festival Focus: MadCat Women's International Film Festival

By Margarita Landazuri

From Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre's Maquilapolis. Courtesy of MadCat Women's International Film Festival

Opening night of the MadCat Women's International Film Festival traditionally takes place at El Rio, a funky bohemian bar in San Francisco's Mission district. There's a modest sliding-scale entrance fee, $2.50 margaritas at the bar, and free barbecue in the jam-packed patio area, where a screen is set up to show the films. On this balmy, early fall evening, MadCat is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Founder and curator Ariella Ben-Dov opens the festivities, recalling that she began the festival in 1996 with the intention of "changing what a woman's film festival means." Meanwhile, a festival supporter passes around plastic cups of champagne for a surprise toast to Ben-Dov and the festival.

The down-home style is just one of the elements that make MadCat unique. There's that name, for example. "Women are constantly being called some form of the cat, in a derogatory way," says Ben-Dov. "We decided to take that back, and flip it on its head, and put it back in your face."

From the beginning, Ben-Dov had definite ideas about what she wanted the festival to be. When she moved to San Francisco, she had sought out avant-garde films by women at local festivals and theaters. "And I realized that there was always a disproportionate number of men being programmed at those venues," she notes. "Or if there was an experimental program in a larger festival, it was ghettoized into the one experimental program, or the one women's program."

The guidelines for MadCat's open call for submissions are intentionally broad: "provocative and visionary films and videos directed or co-directed by women." That doesn't mean that the films must deal only with so-called women's issues, says Ben-Dov. "Our stories are not just about a mirror in front of our face. It's about the world we live in and how we participate in that world, and how we respond, react and create new communities. We're an avant-garde festival; that's our main thrust, that MadCat shows films that challenge the use of sound and image and explore notions of visual storytelling."

Another characteristic of a MadCat program is a theme that unifies all the films in that program. On opening night, the theme of "Dwellers" was broad enough to encompass animation, visual essays, witty e-mails to Bill Gates and Greta Snider's series of Viewmaster documentaries--complete with 3-D glasses and live narration. Ben-Dov says the concept of themes came from a desire to make experimental films more accessible to mainstream audiences by presenting them in a context. "So what I hope is that when audience members are there, and a more abstract film comes on, they'll be able to reference the film before and try and apply that to what this filmmaker might be trying to say." Other themes this year included programs of stop-motion animation, newly created silent films with live musical accompaniment and additional Viewmaster and 3-D programs.

Documentaries are an important component of the festival, but even the more conventional ones have some element of experimentation. This year, perhaps the most traditional documentary was Maquilapolis (2006), directed by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre. The film examines the lives of Mexican women who work as cheap labor in Tijuana's maquiladoras, assembly plants for multi-national corporations like Sony and Sanyo. The women became community activists, sued one company for labor violations and pressured the government to clean up a toxic waste dump. The filmmakers gave their subjects cameras to make video diaries of their lives, and those videos are an essential element in the film. There is also a striking sequence, used several times, of a group of women standing in row in a barren area, and miming the repetitive motions of the assembly line work they perform. "It becomes this beautifully choreographed dance," Ben-Dov notes. "And it's them reclaiming what they do, because the whole film is about them taking control of their lives. That's a perfect example of a little experimental element than can just change the whole feel of an entire story."

The three documentaries in the program called "Surveillance Times" all use complex sound layering in their examinations of the pervasiveness of surveillance technology in modern society. Interestingly, all three films--Esther Johnson's Tune In (2006), about amateur ham radio operators; Eva Weber's The Intimacy of Strangers (2005), a series of overheard cell phone conversations that the filmmaker weaves into a love story of sorts; and Rebecca Baron's How Little We Know of Our Neighbors (2005), a fascinating history of surveillance photography in Britain with special focus on a curious project called the Mass Observation Movement--were made in England. A statistic from the latter may explain why: there are more surveillance cameras in England than in anywhere else--one camera for every 14 people.

Another program of documentaries, "Rural Women: Finding Independence," was also global, and featured two vastly different solutions to women's autonomy. Nahid Rezaei's Water and Atefeh (2001) is a direct cinema study of a woman in Iran "navigating through a world of men and trying to keep her fields alive, trying to keep her livelihood alive by bringing water to her fields in this arid nation," says Ben-Dov. Astrid Bussink's The Angelmakers (2005) recalls the story of women in a Hungarian village in 1929 who resorted to drastic means to rid themselves of overbearing husbands. In that same village today, their more liberated descendants express a grudging admiration, and the entire village is defined by that long-ago event.

Over the last ten years, MadCat has expanded beyond the Bay Area. Ben-Dov has taken programs around the country, to places like New Mexico, Mississippi and Minnesota. She's been gratified by how well they've been received, and what she's found in places like Shreveport, Louisiana. "There was this vibrant community of artists," she recalls. "Whether they were filmmakers or not, they were eager to see art from around the world. It's inspiring for me to see how people create communities of artists in these smaller towns." She's grateful for the opportunity to take her ideas on thematic programming of avant-garde women's films to festivals and seminars like the Flaherty Film Seminar, where she was a guest programmer last summer. "There were filmmakers that I've shown at MadCat over the years that I've been able to bring to Flaherty," she explains. "It really is about who is in your well of knowledge. So I got to bring all these ladies I respected that I'd been following for the past 10 years--which was really quite a thrill for me.

"I think Mad Cat, for better and worse, is a truly independent film festival," Ben-Dov continues. "It's not about big corporations, it's really about the community we serve, and the other local arts organizations with whom we collaborate."


Margarita Landazuri is a San Francisco-based writer and producer.