Ariella Ben-Dov on View-Mastery and "Women's Work"

Susan Gerhard September 11, 2006

We live in an age of gadgets. But the hand-held item that’s captured the imagination of ten-year-old MadCat Women’s International Film Festival in this sixth year of the 21st century does not beep, vibrate, or text. It can, however, transport you back in time at least 50 years. That the View-Master is the thematic through-line in this year’s collection of women’s work from avant-gardes local and global speaks, maybe, to the comedy inherent in the ever-shrinking movie screen. Even with these personalized theaters the size of our eyeballs, there are moments when we still want to watch movies in a crowd. And there are at least two opportunities in this year’s festival: Greta Snider’s View-Master documentaries of local heroes with live narration on opening night at the El Rio (Sept. 12) and Vladimir’s hand-crafted “Vladmaster” disks (Wed/20, same location).

This year’s antidote to tech-induced alienation and mass market media is, apparently, performances like these. When I spoke with her last week, MadCat’s founder, Ariella Ben-Dov, was excited about the varieties of showmanship the women of MadCat are bringing audiences in the month of September — live musical accompaniments to silent films, the requested/expected participation of crowds in a variety of 3D and View-Master shows, even a documentary film (“Maquilopolis,” Thurs/21, Grand Lake, Sun/24, YBCA) in which the subjects themselves help create the art. Ten years after inventing the festival, Ben-Dov offered SF360 a little background on where these experiments are taking us.

SF360: When did you start the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival and why?

Ariella Ben-Dov: MadCat started in 1996. When I moved to San Francisco from New York City, I immediately sought out any independent screenings that I could. That included festivals, venues like ATA, and SF Cinematheque. I was struck again and again by the consistently disproportionate number of men to women being curated. At that point, I knew anecdotally that women were making important work that needed a home. And now, after 10 years of curating, I have the hard proof, that yes, indeed, here are all the films that should be getting exposure. That was one of the reasons. Another is that I’m interested in bringing avant-garde film to general audiences. As a curator, I’m interested in enticing audience members to watch this work. General audience members don’t generally go to see avant-garde work; it’s my task not only to frame it to get them in the door, but once they get in the door, figure out how to keep them there. My answer to that has been to curate MadCat thematically. Even if a film is quite avant-garde, and difficult for an audience member, it will be anchored to this theme. I think that the live music shows are a really good example of bringing wholly different audiences to one place. You have the avant-garde film buffs who love Germaine Dulac or Maya Deren, and then you have these fans of the bands, who are there because they love the bands. Often after those shows, I have people come up to me and say, “Who is this Maya Deren lady?” This is what I want. People should be seeing Maya Deren, or Germaine Dulac, or Greta Snider, or Kerry Laitala, who [the latter two] are local. They should be seeing them, and it should be pleasurable,

SF360: When did you become interested in avant-garde film?

Ben-Dov: I went to Hampshire College; it was all about the history of the avant-garde. My mom always said, ‘I’d leave you in front of ‘Sesame Street,’ and I’d come back and you were watching a Bette Davis film. I knew something was different about this kid.’ It was definitely what I was being exposed to from the get-go as far as my education. We weren’t watching the masters of narrative at Hampshire. Our professors — Joan Braderman, Abraham Ravett, Sherry Milner — were constantly asking us to look at form, and to analyze how a story can be told.

SF360: Are there any trends in filmmaking you’re troubled by?

Ben-Dov: Mediocrity rules in the United States. How little can we ask of our audiences? How low can we set the bar? Coming from me, who definitely has a place in my heart for Hollywood schlock, I do think that audiences are often underestimated. While at Madcat you might not just sit back and let the story wash over you — you’re definitely going to be working — but it’s hopefully going to be a pleasurable engagement with the material. Which is perhaps very anti-what we’ve been taught as movie-goers in the U.S., and exciting for audiences.

Audiences are hungry to be challenged, and to not be handed a beginning, middle, and end on a platter. A lot of people go to the movies to see themselves, but a lot of other people want to be transported into another world, which, I think is the wonder of cinema.

SF360: What are you particularly excited about in this year’s MadCat?

Ben-Dov: Something that’s exciting about this year is the performative nature of a lot of the screenings. We have three live music events. We have two 3D films, two View-Master screenings — even the “straight documentary” has performative elements within it. It’s actually exciting to me that it mirrors this idea of asking your audience to participate in a very active way. Literally, people are going to be putting on glasses for the 3D films, or hold View-Masters at live music events. There’s also going to be a three-projector performance. Sally Golding is coming all the way from Australia — she’s going to do this three- projector performance, where it’s improvised and ephemeral, with a live soundtrack.

SF360: Are you seeing more interest in ‘craft’?

Ben-Dov: Maybe it goes back to this idea of Madcat. What people think of when they think of ‘women’s issues.’ Work and reproductive rights are the stereotypes. The stories women are telling are so vast — and are not confined to those two issues. And I think definitely women are revealing the craft behind [movies]. It’s almost like revealing the magic trick — you get to see in some of these films how they do what they do, where we get to try and understand how they do what they do. It’s this sort of come hither, try and figure this out. I think as audience members, that is so exciting, being given these hints of how the magic happens, then enjoying the lush beauty. 3D, three-projector performance. You’ll see Sally up there going her manipulating three projectors. She’s not just going to turn them on, she’s going to use prisms, and project through things. You’re going to see part of what she does. But it’s still this wonderful magic show.

SF360: Where did you find Golding?

Ben-Dov: She was a general-call-for-submissions entrant. She sent stuff in, basically. I said, hmmm, we can’t bring you from Australia; I tried the Australian consulate. On this last-minute lark, she approached her university and they said, ‘Yes,’ we’ll underwrite your show. So she and the guy who does her sound are here for the whole festival. Open calls for submission are hit or miss sometimes, but when they hit, they’re incredible.

SF360: Do you find anything particular to Bay Area work?Regional: bay

Ben-Dov: Some of my favorite 16mm filmmakers live here — this is such a rich, supportive community for avant-garde work; the proof is in the movies. Kerry Laitala’s work is spectacular. Talk about somebody who knows her craft, and knows the technology, and is so willing to experiment and push herself. Greta Snider, of course, who started this View-Master series. Her series is a documentary portrait series, so she has her subjects write a little narrative about themselves. On opening night, she’s going to read those live: live narration to View-Master. They’re almost an homage to local artist heroes. Then we have this “Local Ladies: A MadCAt Retrospective,” a program of 16mm films from the past 10 years. It wasn’t a prerequisite that it would be 16mm when I first started thinking about it, but I started realizing that those films were resonating. I love 16! It’s slowly dying. This is proof that it’s alive and well in the Bay Area. We include two films from this year. It goes from the first festival to the 10th festival. Almost all the filmmakers are going to be there.

SF360: Where do you see MadCat in five or 10 years?

Ben-Dov: It’s been a hard year. We lost a grant from the SF Arts Commission. When things like that happen, it feels so bleak. And then we do outreach to our audience, and everybody rallies. And it’s a reminder that we do have a big community of individuals and arts organizations that support us. It turned out to be a good thing. It revitalized our audience and let them know they’re essential to MadCat’s existence.

When Ladyfest started — [we got to see] there’s more than one women’s film festival in the Bay Area. I feel like there are more and more venues for women artists, which is really exciting. The birth of microcinemas all over the country has created this alternative to independent film festivals, and also created all these curators. People who — whether it’s regional or national or international — are curating. These very grassroots organizations are built by small communities of artists. They’re being born out of the communities that make the work, which is exciting to me. Which speaks to the survival of the true independent film world. I think no matter what happens with an individual festival, there is this new life breathed into the independent film community.

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