Lia Van Leer
Lia Van Leer, founder of the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 1981 Photo by Emil Salman
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Emil Salman
Filmgoers at the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in Sultan’s Pool last week. Photo by Emil Salman

The Jerusalem International Film Festival is on, and the typical chaos reigns at the cafe-restaurant of the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Half a dozen Russian immigrants filtering out of Screening Room One - where they were watching "Let my People Go," a French farce about a young gay man who breaks up with his Finnish boyfriend and goes home to Paris to spend Passover with his family - try to squeeze in to have some lemonade. Trying to pay for their coffee and squeeze out are some hipster musicians from Tel Aviv, making a rare appearance in the capital to watch "The Seven Tapes," a documentary about the late, legendary Israeli poet Yona Wallach, playing in Screening Room Four.

And a group of Holocaust survivors, accompanied by their children, are negotiating a table big enough for them all to sit at to eat Caesar salads before the premiere, in Screening Room Two, of the documentary "Numbered," which tells the story of the numbers tattooed on their arms long ago, in Auschwitz.

Lia Van Leer, the 87-year-old "grand dame" of cinema in this country, who founded the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 1973 and went on to establish this, Israel's first international and much-loved film festival, is sitting calmly in the middle of it all, wrapped in her trademark pink shawl, a chic purple bag on her lap, having a bowl of overpriced gazpacho and overseeing the scene, as one guest after another pulls up a chair to chat.

Lia arrived in Palestine from Romania in 1940 and soon afterward fell in love with the charismatic pilot and industrialist Wim van Leer, scion to a well-known Dutch philanthropic family. The two of them together fell in love with the movies, regularly inviting friends over for Friday evenings at their Haifa home to watch films screened using their 16 mm projector.

By 1956 those evenings had turned into the first film club in the country, which eventually developed into the Haifa Cinematheque. During this time, the van Leers were growing their personal film collection, traveling the country by jeep to show old favorites at kibbutzim and moshavim. In 1973 the show arrived in Jerusalem, where the van Leers settled, and Lia set about creating a cinematheque here. First located in Beit Agron in the center of the city, the institution moved later to its permanent home, perched above the valley of Hinnom and overlooking the walls of the Old City. The cinematheque is also home to their collection, which has since become the Israel Film Archive.

The first movie house in town to show films on Friday nights and Saturdays, the cinematheque, besides being a cultural institution, also became something of a symbol of secular Jerusalem, and as such a major flashpoint of tensions, in the late 1980s and 1990s, between the city's secular and Orthodox communities. The battles outside in those early days, between youngsters who had skipped Friday-night dinner at their grandparents' to spend an evening with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman on one side and ultra-Orthodox protesters with rocks in their hands on the other, were frequently more action-packed than the films showing inside.

The first festival, in 1984, opened with Ettore Scola's "Le Bal," an Italian-Franco-Algerian film without dialogue, and with a sprinkling of big-name stars in attendance. "I had beginner's luck," says Lia, who brought over "the first lady of the silent film, Lillian Gish," that year, along with French actress Jeanne Moreau and Hollywood heartthrob Warren Beatty.

The festival has been held every July since, screening a growing number - close to 200 this year - of international feature, documentary and animated films. Some deal specifically with issues of Jewish identity and history, others with questions of freedom and human rights, and of course there are always Israeli films.

On Thursday, under the leadership of the cinematheque's brand-new director, Sundance Institute alum Alesia Weston, the 29th festival opened with an open-air screening in Sultan's Pool of Woody Allen's "To Rome with Love." The festival continues through July 14.