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Local film buffs have a bunch of horror stories about copies of classic films that reached Israel and experienced a miserable fate. They tell, for example, of a faded copy of 'Blade Runner,' director Ridley Scott's acclaimed film, which someone took the trouble of making out of reels taken from old copies, one the original version and one the director's cut, thereby creating a cruel mishmash of two essentially different creations; they tell of how a recent screening of 'Wings of Desire' in Jerusalem's Binyenei Ha'uma went on for three hours, because the projector repeatedly burned sections of Wim Wenders' film; and they tell how a copy of Hitchcock's 'Psycho' was left without the famous shower scene, because someone apparently wanted it for himself.

One might have expected that especially now, when more and more cinematheques are being built in Israel and with the existing ones expanding, that the options for seeing film classics on the big screen would increase. But it turns out that the reality is not meeting the expectations.

The state of local and foreign film classics is particularly miserable. The cinematheques already functioning here and those to open soon will not be able to fufill adequately what is seen as the basic function of these institutions. The number of classic films able to be shown on big screens is few and their condition is sometimes sub-par.

The reason, what else could it be, is financial. Film preservation efforts are complex and expensive and government support is limited. Municipalities and private donors are eager to invest in cinematheques, especially in an election year, but not in dark and unglamorous archives. A look into the Israeli Film Archives at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the main institution here responsible for preserving copies of film classics from Israel and abroad, clarifies how serious the situation is.

When the archive director, Meir Russo, is presented with a random and basic list of exemplary films (Godard's 'Breathless,' Truffaut's '400 Blows,' Welles' 'Citizen Kane,' Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal,' Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' and Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard'), he acknowledges much to his dismay that the archive does not have a decent copy of a even one of these films. The archive prefers to use the existing budget to preserve Israeli films.

Paradoxically, this situation is not affecting the wave of new cinematheques. When the Film Law went into effect in 2001, there were only three such institutions − in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Since then, three more (in Sderot, Rosh Pina and Nazareth) have joined them and in the summer cinematheques are scheduled to open in Herzliya and Holon. The Hadera municipality is also now in the midst of preparing a hall to serve as a cinematheque and hopes to open it this year, while the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cinematheques have long been working on opening a new wing and additional screening rooms.

Fine film clubs, but not cinematheques

The establishment of new municipal film institutions is welcome, especially when theaters are abandoning city centers in favor of mega shopping malls on city outskirts. Nevertheless, it seems that not everyone is pleased by the changing reality. The veteran cinematheques, for example, are incensed by the new ones.

"There are currently three institutions today in Israel that can call themselves 'cinematheque' − in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa," says the director of the one in Tel Aviv, Ilan Garbuz.

"The classic definition of cinematheque is 'cinema bibliotheque,' i.e., a library of films that screens its wares for audiences, and therefore all the other entities that are being established here will never be cinematheques. They can call themselves a 'fine film club,' but they will not be able to be a cinematheque because they won?t have the necessary resources for that."

Garbuz makes it clear that the three large cinematheques support the Jerusalem archive and therefore are partners in it. Beyond that, there is no justification, in his opinion, for building two new cinematheques, in Herzliya and Holon, because ?there is no reason to build, 10 minutes away from Tel Aviv, institutions competing with us over the same skimpy pie. After all, none of the cinematheques is today overwhelmed by an abundance of viewers knocking down the doors.? His Jerusalem colleague, Ilan de Vries, agrees: "If a certain body wants to merit the title 'cinematheque,' it has to be a full and active contributor to the archival component. It's a very little deal to show films or work with a given embassy and bring in programs from abroad. It's welcome, but it's not a cinematheque. All of us are barely getting by, so adding more and more cinematheques is a little exaggerated."

Garbuz and de Vries' definitions are not acceptable to the director of the cinematheque that is to open this summer in the Mediatheque building in Holon, Mor Eldar. He notes that the Film Council, which each year extends financial support to the cinematheques, does not demand that they have an archive.

"Our goal is to increase the cinematic supply even in places that are not downtown Tel Aviv," he says.

Veteran cinematheque directors worry that the increased number of cinematheques will affect them, just as the increased number of film festivals has affected the main, long-standing festivals: The Film Council allocates a fixed sum annually to support each of these two areas and the more the number of cinematheques or festivals increases, the smaller the budget allocated to each. In recent years, for example, the council allocated MIS 1.45 million to support six cinematheques. If, in another two years, three more cinematheques join this list (a cinematheque is eligible for support from the council only after two years of operation), the sums allocated to the six already existing will be reduced.

"I believe there's room for everyone and at least for now we?re not eating into anyone else's budget allocation, because only the municipality is funding us," notes the director of the Herzliya Cinematheque, Noa Ron. She says the Herzliya municipality allocated some NIS 3 million for the construction of the cinematheque and is designating some NIS 1.5 million for the first year of operations.

In Holon, however, they decline to specify the precise amount of the investment. The Mediatheque manager, Alon Safan, says that to save on costs, it was decided the cinematheque would operate out of an existing building and be assisted by the Mediatheque staff, and that the budget supplement he received from the municipality to build and operate the cinematheque amounts to several hundred thousand shekels.

Thanks to the Polish Embassy

The shortage of decent copies of classic films is a problem that exists all over the world. Given this reality, the cinematheques have to find other solutions, and occasionally have to redefine the cinematheque's role. In addition to educational activity, meetings with artists and school study days, most cinematheques screen retrospectives from abroad, with the assistance of other countries' embassies and diplomatic representations.

Recently, for example, Israel received all of Federico Fellini's films (which drew a large crowd) as well as films by Krzysztof Kieslowski and films made in East Germany.

The Holon Cinematheque does not want to stop screening classics, and Eldar makes it clear that in addition to using copies borrowed from the archive in Jerusalem, it will occasionally compromise on the visual quality of the film and screen classics using digital beta copies. De Vries, on the other hand, is put off by the idea: "The easiest thing today is to screen from DVD or video but, as far as I'm concerned, that's like going to the museum and seeing a reproduction, the artistic experience is different and our goal is to give the audience a complete cinematic experience."

Those who nevertheless insist on viewing old films will apparently have to go to a DVD library or to one of the movie channels on television. And perhaps the home film systems that are improving at a breathtaking pace are not such a bad alternative to the cinematic experience of another time. After all, no one can scoff at the added value of hearing explanations from the director while watching a film, seeing scenes that were cut and learning about how the film was made.

But those who insist on having the traditional viewing experience, with a movie screened from a film on a large screen in a film theater, will have to be patient and wait sfor the day when the relevant retrospective comes to the local municipal cinematheque.