KAREN ARTHUR'S first major feature film, "The Mafu Cage," is pretty to the eye, horrifying to the intellect.

"The Mafu Cage" is the story of two sisters--played by Lee Grant and Carol Kane--whose late father was an African primatologist. One sister, Ellen, is an astronomer; the other, Cissy, is a childlike, psychotic woman who stays in their home all day, brooding, dancing among the enormous potted ferns, painting her face in the manner of the African tribal people whom she visited with her beloved father. For companionship, Cissy is given several orangutans, one after another, all of whom she beats to death in their cage.

"I make very bizarre films," says Karen Arthur to an audience sitting quietly stunned and exhausted in their seats after a showing of "The Mafu Cage". She is lean, tan, with an electric smile and a face given to mugging. Her hair is a mass of long blondish curls. She sits during the question-and-answer period, twirling a flower in her fingertips, nodding in understanding to someone in the audience who says that she mirrors none of the intensity of her film.

"I'd very much like to make a film where afterwards the audience doesn't sit there like this," says Arthur, 40, tilting her head to an angle, looking stricken, "or get up like this." She stands up and takes two wooden steps. "That is, if they're not running out in droves because they're offended. It's bad enough to see people walking out of your movie. I was at a drive-in once, and I saw them DRIVE out."

"The Mafu Cage," a 1977 film, hasn't been seen much outside of art houses and the American Film Institute, where it was part of the Second Annual Washington Women's Film Festival last fall. However, the film has been running in Paris since May, and one distribution company, here, may re-release it this year.

Arthur's own attempts to distribute it, with the help of her investors, were disastrous. "We just didn't have enough knowledge," she says now. " 'China Syndrome' came out at the same time, and we just got bumped from the ads and you get bumped from television. It's very depressing when you don't have the money to fight the competition."

It is difficult for any newcomer to break into directing films or television, and for women it is especially difficult. In 1980, a committee of women members of the Directors Guild of America told producers at a meeting that of 7,332 feature films released by major distributors between 1950 and 1980, only 14 were directed by women. There are very few women directors in Hollywood, and only a handful of those have had relative success--Joan Micklin Silver ("Hester Street," "Between the Lines"), Elaine May ("The Heartbreak Kid"), Claudia Weill ("Girlfriends," "It's My Turn"). Their male colleagues usually do not welcome them, and any woman's directing failure only reinforces that reluctance.

Arthur, a former actress and dancer, had directed in the theater when she started making films nine years ago during a six-week "summer crash course" at UCLA. Her adviser was Penelope Spheeris, director of the well-received film about the Los Angeles punk rock scene, "The Decline of Western Civilization." Arthur's first film was "Hers"--18 minutes, black and white, 16 millimeters, about life and love and relationships.

Then followed "Legacy"--16 millimeters blown up to 35, "about the handing down of roles," she says.

One recent film project, "Lady Beware," about a window designer dealing with "psychological rape" ("It's a very kind of hopeful film"), has been shuttled from one limbo to another. "I've been working on it for three years and I've been with two different studios--Universal and Aspen funded by Guinness Stout ," says Arthur, "and you get right up to the wire and something happens."

So she has turned to television directing. Last season she did two episodes of "Hart to Hart" and will direct a third for the upcoming season.

She would, of course, rather make movies. "It's always discouraging when you're not making movies. I'm upset that 'Lady Beware' gets so close and doesn't get made. And they all take a long time."

Arthur is currently in Australia directing a six-hour mini-series, "Return to Eden," for Australian television. After the AFI showing and discussion of "The Mafu Cage," Arthur talked about her work at a quiet Watergate bar:

Q. How difficult is it to get an opportunity in television to direct?

A. It's probably harder than getting to make a feature. It's just a closed shop, mainly because very few women have ever done it. They don't have a track record to fall back on. And episodic is so expensive in the sense of the schedule. They're not scared that you won't know how to deal with the actors. They're frightened that you won't bring it in on time or on budget.

Q. What was your first television directing job?

A. When I did "Rich Man, Poor Man" years ago. I was the first woman to work in episodic. I got that because the man who was the executive producer on that was a friend . . . So I went to my friend and said, "Here are my movies." And he said, "You're very talented . . . I'll go to bat for you." His name is Michael Gleason. And the people at the studio said, "Don't hire her . . ." And he said, "You don't understand . . . She's a talented human being." He really stood up for me . . . He fought, and he got me to do the show, and I brought it in on time, on budget, and got my DGA Director's Guild card.

Q. How did you get the opportunity to direct a "Hart to Hart" episode?

A. "Hart to Hart" happened to be looking for a woman to join their family of directors. That was really because of R.J. and Stefanie Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, the stars of the series . She said she really hoped I did well, brought it in on time and on budget and had it look good. I could do well and show that women could do well and move this huge male machinery. Blair Gilbert the production manager came by every night and said, 'How ya' doing?'

Q. How was your television experience on "Hart to Hart"?

A. I think there's maybe 10 minutes that I'm real proud of as far as acting and the rest is compromise. But 10 minutes is better than no minutes.

Q. What were your bad experiences in television?

A. I did a 360-degree shot on "Charleston" a television movie-of-the-week . It took four hours to shoot. It got me fired. It came from the network executives at NBC . They see rushes every day before the producers do. They told the producer to fire me. She refused. She said, "If you fire her, the crew and cast will walk out." I was only one week into a four-week shoot. I stayed on.

Q. What happened in the final editing of "Charleston"?

A. We were told, "Remove every scene in which a black man touches a white woman or a black man--because black men don't like it. Every time Minerva cries, cut that out, because white women don't like it." I left a very good film on the cutting room floor.

Q. Are there so-called "women's films"?

A. Yes, there used to be. There was that whole "if-anything-cried-and-it-was-personal," it was a woman's film. I think maybe we're moving away from that--as women move away from stereotypic roles, as men move away from stereotypic roles.

Q. Are male directors different from female directors?

A. Oh, I think so. Men seem to be more plot-oriented, certainly more action-oriented. Women seem to be more introspective, more person-relating-to-person, person-relating-to-environment, less action-oriented. Now, a lot of that may be the fact that as women we haven't had the opportunity to do a lot of action . . . So we just don't think in those terms.

Q. What do you think of the trend in films away from plot and dialogue, toward action and scene?

A. It's a time in life when people have been turned inward for a very long time . . . People are saying, "Enough. It's all been so heavy. I'm tired of the weight of the world . . . I want to laugh and giggle and I don't want to be responsible and I want to see 17 cars crash."

Q. Who are your favorite directors?

A. Lots of Europeans. I'm very fond of Giannuzzi. I like Fassbinder, Herzog, obviously Bergman and Fellini, and Ken Russell in his early days I thought was magnificent. American filmmakers--Coppola, I love Alan Pakula, Ashby, Arthur Penn. Women filmmakers--Lina Wertmuller, I think has the largest command of style and of technical understanding of what the camera can do of any woman in the world that I've ever seen.

Q. How would you describe yourself as a director?

A. I would say my strongest proclivity is in dealing with actors. The performances in all of the films I've made are quite special, not just due to me--certainly no--but due to really good actors. But one has to recognize a good actor and one has to give an actor an environment in which to work . . . That's my strong suit. After that is style. I do see things visually a certain way. I don't know as much technically . . . I know much more about editing than I do about walking on a set and telling whether it's lit properly.

Q. How did you raise the $350,000 it took to do 'The Mafu Cage'?

A. Lawyers are good--lawyers quite often know where the money is buried. And for many, many years, I've just kept track of anybody I knew who had money.

Q. How do you direct actors?

A. I'd never say to an actor, 'DON'T do it that way.' I'd never give an actor a line-reading . . .

Directing is understanding what's needed in the role. If the actor is off on a tack that isn't working for the role, it's being able to help them get back on the road. It's being able to assess each emotional moment. It's being able to say, 'I love this moment, but what if this moment were something else,' or 'Do this more internally.' Sometimes actors seem to want to externalize everything . . . It often happens in moments of extreme emotional violence or tears.

Q. What kind of films do you want to make now?

A. I'm interested in reaching a broader market . . . That means I want to make films that are more commercial. I'm still interested in films about people--and things to which some kind of issue is connected. I have a film that deals with nuclear power and spiritual power. I have a film that deals with karmic love and other-world experiences . . . and I'm working on a piece about prenuptial agreements.