What do women want to watch? With Diane English’s recent unfunny and product placement-filled remake of The Women hitting theaters last week, Hollywood’s answer, predictably, is more of the same. Thankfully there are curators like Ariella Ben-Dov, whose Madcat Women’s International Film Festival has long provided a platform for fiercely independent and experimental women filmmakers, whose work often refuses to be defined by the label "women filmmaker." Ben-Dov’s curatorial practice has also made a point of expanding Madcat’s audience beyond already faithful cinephiles. On the eve of the 12th anniversary of Madcat, the only avant-garde women’s film festival in the United States, I spoke with Ben-Dov over the phone from New York, where she’s adjusting to her new position as director of the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival at the American Museum of Natural History, about expanding the San Francisco-weaned Madcat Festival, the power of watching a film in an audience and the uncanny return of Beverly Hills 90210. The Festival (more on the schedule at Madcat’s web site) gets underway Sept. 19 at Artists’ Television Access and continues with the lively El Rio barbecue-enhanced screenings the following week.
SF360: So, Madcat 12 is starting with a retrospective program. What made you decide to look back in the archives?
Ariella Ben-Dov: We thought it was a good idea to look back and pick some of the most exciting films we’ve shown over the years on the eve of changing how we do things at Madcat. We’re about to expand our touring program and tour with all of the programs. So next year we’ll be back up to the 13 programs we usually curate each year.
SF360: How is this set-up going to be different from past touring programs?
Ben-Dov: Well, this time we’re touring with all of the programs. Usually we tour two and then have the SF program. But we’re revamping the fall schedule so that we can tour all of the programs.
SF360: What prompted you to undertake this change? Is there more demand abroad for Madcart’s programming?
Ben-Dov: You know, we tour to many universities and then museums and art houses around the country. And there are very different audiences at each of those venues, and I hope that this will meet the need of audiences around the country so we can really share the breadth of work we show. We are an avant-garde festival but we are also known for how we curate those films together. And that kind of curating entices different audiences to come to the festival. So while some people may not know a lot about experimental film, hopefully the way that we program it allows lots of different folks to watch and enjoy our programs.
SF360: That approach definitely seems to be happening in the second program at El Rio, ‘Hear It to Believe It,’ where you’re pairing up different local musicians to accompany the films. So maybe someone would be familiar with Tartufi, but has never seen a Sherri Wills film.
Ben-Dov: Exactly. This was really apparent when we showed Maya Deren and older avant-garde filmmakers. And the audiences were so mixed. And I think it’s the same with the contemporary filmmakers. It’s always exciting to see what happens when you have that cross pollination especially this year at El Rio, under the stars.
SF360: You definitely lose that participatory element when you stay at home and watch something online. At the same time, I’m wondering if the increase in online DIY video production has caused you to rethink or alter how you go about putting together the festival.
Ben-Dov: Our mission is still the same. We still seek to bring the best experimental and independent women filmmakers to audiences near and far. And we also try to curate thematically to get different audiences to engage with the work. But you know, there is nothing like sitting in an audience with everyone watching the same thing. And no matter how much distribution happens online, that can never take the place of a community experience like going to the movies. It is a struggle promotionally, to get people to come out of their houses and see movies. But I think audiences get it—especially when you have live bands, and do the kind of multi-projected screenings that Madcat does it breaks out of this staid viewing experience that you maybe expect when you go see a Hollywood film.
SF360: Speaking of Hollywood, I noticed you are including Samara Halperin’s ‘Sorry, Brenda’ in the retrospective program. So I’m curious, have you watched the new 90210?
Ben-Dov: I have not [laughs], though I am a lover of the Hollywood schlock. My sights have been set on other trashy TV. I can’t imagine it would be good.
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