What, exactly, is a "chick flick?" To critics and studio execs, it's a movie that appeals to women, with the separate but equal assumption that it's completely without interest for men. It's the nastiest of putdowns, in other words, despite critic B. Ruby Rich's clever, calculated appropriation of the phrase as the title of her terrific 1998 collection of essays about films made by women. That major chunk of cinema also gets little respect in our culture, a chronic malady that Ariella Ben-Dov has challenged for 11 years. The founder and force behind the MadCat Women's International Film Festival, Ben-Dov is a first-rate curator with an eye for the risky, the delicious, the defiantly rambunctious, and the quietly profound. You know the old saying, favored by Gloria Steinem, that the personal is political? It's anything but an abstraction to Ben-Dov. MadCat's 2007 fest, presented as always in the Mission District, serves up one provocation after another spread across 11 programs with enticing names like "At the Margins" and "So Loud It's Silent." From Tamil suicide bombers in Sri Lanka (My Daughter the Terrorist) to revelations from inside Damascus and the Department of Homeland Security (in the program "Between States"), the festival delivers urgent, up-to-the-minute tidings from the outside world. There's also plenty of lusciously crafted art, notably a rich selection of 16 mm shorts by Helen Hill, who was murdered earlier this year in New Orleans. For devotees of new fiction, "Close to Home" premieres seven shorts set in cars, bars, bathrooms, and the middle of nowhere. In sum, the fest's aggressive assortment of experimental films, radical documentaries, and barbed narrative shorts conspire and combine to redefine what used to be called, once upon a time, a "woman's picture." But while Madcat's mission is to serve female filmmakers and filmgoers, there's no need to tune out, guys. There's plenty here for you, too. Tonight's program, "Frame by Frame," starts at 8:30 at El Rio, 3158 Mission (at César Chávez), S.F. Admission is $7-20.
Sept. 11-26, 8:30 p.m., 2007