Tel Aviv's Cinema Paradiso: Alon Garbuz Turned Movies Into Cinema for Israelis

For over 40 years, outgoing Tel Aviv Cinemateque director has refused to yield to politicians’ whims.

These days, with Culture Minister Miri Regev demanding that a major film festival cancel the screening of a movie she never even saw and mayors ban the showing of movies in their jurisdiction, it’s impossible not to yearn for a figure who will stand strong in the face of pressure and not yield to the whims of politicians, enabling true freedom of expression, regardless of political views or affiliation to one camp or another. However, precisely when needed, with a knife pointed at the jugular of free expression in Israeli films, the person who took, more than most people, such a strong stand against any kind of censorship is retiring.

Alon Garbuz, who has been directing the Tel Aviv cinematheque for 40 years, is to retire at the end of this month, leaving behind an institution which, under his leadership, was transformed from a small, itinerant cinematheque to the largest thriving cinematic institution in Israel. Garbuz was born in 1948, in the Borochov neighborhood of Givatayim, the youngest of three brothers. The eldest, Aharon Harel (who would become a department head and the head of workers’ councils at the Histadrut labor federation, and later a Labor Party MK), was older than Alon by 17 years. The second brother, Yair (the renowned author and painter), was three years older.

Since childhood he loved going to the movies and managed to see many. In the early 1970s he moved to Tel Aviv and started studying Hebrew literature, philosophy and psychology at Tel Aviv University, working as a bank clerk to make ends meet (when asked if he graduated he replies with a surprised “no way”).

In 1973 he read in the papers that the Tel Aviv municipality intended to open a municipal cinematheque. He arranged a meeting with Akiva Berkin, who became its director. Garbuz told him that he would take any job there, including becoming an usher. However, instead, Berkin told him that he was appointing Garbuz as his deputy. They hired an usher, and the three-man team opened the first such establishment in Israel, in a building belonging to municipal employees, at 4, Pumbedita Street. The opening ceremony took place on May 12, 1973 with a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus.” The auditorium was packed, filled with cigarette smoke.

The administration of the new cinematheque was far from professional. Improvisation was the name of the game. “I was the one who registered subscriptions. I took a simple notebook and drew a table, writing down the names,” recalls Garbuz. “We didn’t know where to deposit the money, everything was so new and we were happy to have the first 10 subscribers.”

A month after it opened the cinemateque was already a bustling place, with auditoriums full to capacity. In addition to screenings of new quality films from around the world, as well as old classics and the best of Israeli filmmaking, special events were also held there, such as a meeting of a group of Tel Aviv filmmakers called “The Third Eye,” led by Jacques Katmor. Their most famous movie was called “A Woman’s case.” The group was renowned for its fondness for drugs and their permissive attitudes to sex.

Following this meeting and the location’s becoming a magnet for the city’s youth, neighbors started complaining to City Hall about the noise and “young people doing drugs and making out in our backyards,” relates Garbuz with a smile. The contender for the mayor’s office at the time, Shlomo Lahat, promised that if he was elected he would move the cinematheque to a new location. And indeed, shortly after Lahat became mayor the cinematheque moved to the Tel Aviv Museum.

That period, which came shortly after the Yom Kippur War, was one of the toughest in the institution’s history, according to Garbuz. Despite investments in content and new programming, very few people came. In 1975 Berkin announced that he was resigning, and Garbuz took over. One of his first moves was to look for a new location, and he found space in the building hosting Israel’s national lottery (Mif’al Hapayis). This provided many comic moments, such as when screenings had to be temporarily stopped while the lotto draw was taking place.

Despite its somewhat questionable location, the cinematheque started attracting crowds again. Garbuz worked with programming directors such as Avinoam Harpak, who would later become director of programming at the Jerusalem cinematheque, and Meir Schnitzer, a future film critic. He initiated special programs such as retrospectives of Pasolini, Fellini, Cassavetes and Jeanne Moreau, as well as screening “new wave” German films and holding a festival of horror movies in 3D.

At the same time he started screening commercial movies that were intended to make up for losses incurred by the more highbrow ones. He also approved the issuing of a movie periodical, still published today, named “Cinematheque.” He adopted a position whereby the cinematheque should support the film industry in which it is embedded. To this date he insists on encouraging local filmmaking, screening Israeli movies even if their commercial prospects are dim.

Garbuz was a much-loved manager. People in the film industry and cinematheque staff heap warm words on him. “His management style lacks any formalities or power displays that are common with so many directors,” says film director Eitan Green. “He has a warm heart regarding anything connected to Israeli filmmaking and its producers. He was always willing to help with advice and guidance, doing so with devotion and persistence.”

One of Garbuz’s major visions that came to fruition was finding a permanent location for the cinematheque. The present premises were inaugurated in 1989, on Sprinzak Street. The opening ceremony was festive, attended by actors Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, who sprinkled some Hollywood stardust on the occasion. Today, the spacious building with its five well-equipped auditoriums hosts 600,000 spectators each year, with 20 screenings a day. It hosts seven or eight festivals a year, including the Gay Film Festival, a festival for film students and an animated movie festival. It also offers lectures and workshops.

Nevertheless, over the years it has repeatedly been claimed that the cinematheque is not fulfilling its mission, since it screens too few classic films and special events, preferring more commercial movies. Garbuz partly agrees. “In the past these claims were justified, but I don’t think this is true for the last two years. We’ve been screening many more classic films and holding special events. Happily, the transition to digital movies has enabled us to screen classics using high-quality copies.”

He didn’t blink

Despite his pleasant image that emerges from people’s depictions of him, Garbuz knew how to contend with pressure. He leaves behind a legacy of uncompromising struggle against film censorship. “Alon founded and formed the cinematheque from scratch, bringing it to its present status,” says actress Gila Almagor, the current chairwoman of the cinematheque’s board. “A love of movies, knowledge and respect for the art of cinema – that’s what a cinematheque needs in its director, and that’s what Alon possesses. He’s a wise and modest man, first of all a human being, a mensch. He wouldn’t hurt a soul. And he’s courageous, unyielding, with a clear social and political worldview. For these reasons he’s turned the cinematheque into a home for Israel’s film industry, making room even for movies that were battered by critics.”

Some examples of the many struggles he waged over the years are the 2002 movie “Jenin, Jenin” by Mohammed Bakri, a film that was banned by the Israel Film Council; Miki Rosenthal and Ilan Aboudi’s movie “The shakshuka system” that was opposed by the powerful Ofer family, which threatened to sue anyone who screened it; the festival of “Nakba” films dealing with the 1948 uprooting of Palestinians organized by the NGO Zochrot, an event that led former Culture Minister Limor Livnat to threaten cutting the cinematheque’s funding unless it cancelled screenings; films including violent or explicit sex scenes such as Pasolini’s “Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom” or the American movie “Shortbus.” Garbuz screened all of these without batting an eyelid.

For Garbuz, there are no red lines in the film world. For him, there is no movie unworthy of screening only because of underlying political views. In his view, his judgement is the same as that of any other spectator. “Let the audience judge,” he says simply. “One could demand red lines in horror movies, as well as in films like ‘Salo,’ and maybe there should also be red lines for boredom. Therefore, no red lines should be drawn, you simply can’t do that. Of all the movies shown at the cinematheque over the years I don’t think there was even one that made me rethink whether we should have shown it. There were movies that infuriated or angered me, but that didn’t justify disqualifying their screening.”

Controversial films

Garbuz has received personal threats over his insistence on screening controversial films. “Someone wrote once that I should be strung up in the city square. On the Internet people are even more violent, since they are mostly anonymous, writing without any accountability. In my view they aren’t any worse than the culture minister, since she is the one doing the inciting, provoking such things. One should say culture ministers in the plural, not only the present one. An example is the new criteria she wants to establish.”

He is referring to criteria that would prevent funding from art that denies that Israel is a democratic and Jewish state, from works that incite to racism, violence and terror or support an armed struggle or acts of terror against Israel. These criteria would include any work that mark Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, or presents defacement or mocking of the flag. “It’s terrible. The country is becoming increasingly fascist and suddenly there is shameless interference in things that used to be sacred, the holy of holies.”

What will change if these new criteria are ratified – what will the local movie scene look like, will the banning of screenings become common?

“I read this morning that a movie [“Shivering in Gaza”] that we showed without any problems was banned in Yeruham. Here too the same activists tried unsuccessfully to stop the screening of a movie produced by [the human rights group] B’Tselem. I hope they fail in future attempts as well. I hope this spirit of free expression and democracy continues to thrive. I believe that anyone involved in filmmaking, including the unions, must show more courage and fight this trend. They have to put up a fight and not build a shell around themselves – they must maintain their independence and freedom to create, otherwise we’ll lose everything that was created here. However, as you know, in totalitarian countries such as Hungary, underground movies that were banned were good and interesting – they were screened in Europe after being smuggled there. However, I wouldn’t wish that scenario on ourselves.”

After these criteria are approved will the cinematheque be still be able to hold the Nakba festival?

“We already have a contract for holding the next one, with a target date of December – this festival will take place. One should understand that a film festival dealing with the Nakba doesn’t necessarily celebrate it. It only marks the event. Besides, if the minister really understood what the Nakba was she wouldn’t make such a fuss about it. We constantly say that one nation thrived while the other suffered a calamity. That’s a fact. A culture minister must first of all understand what culture is, and only then formulate criteria. The truth is I prefer that she doesn’t learn this and just goes away.”

Finally, what do you think of the speech your brother Yair gave 10 days before the elections, that controversial one in which he derided the kissers of amulets?

“It’s a pity that people don’t understand what was said. I think it was very clear. Unfortunately, people on the right such as Dery and Bibi exploited this, wisely, within the framework of their campaign of incitement. However, the reaction of the left was worse, in my view, in the way they dissociated from it in their panic, concern and misunderstanding. Every reasonable person knows that what was said is true – just observe all the apologies made in the papers and by private people. This is not a sectarian issue at all, so Yair cannot be accused of racism.”