Cinematheques' Queen Mother

Twenty-four years have passed since Lia Van Leer gave the signal to open the first film festival in Jerusalem. That was on May 17, 1984. After she had travelled around the world for months, raising funds, collecting films, inviting guests and building a program for the screenings, the founder of the local cinematheque saw hundreds of excited spectators streaming into the building's main hall to see the opening film of the festive event, "Le Bal," directed by Ettore Scola.

A year earlier, Van Leer had been a judge at the Cannes film festival and came back feeling envious. "If Cannes can, why can't we?" she asked herself. Today she admits that at that time she did not have a clue what a festival was and how to organize one, but everything went like clockwork a year later in Jerusalem.

The impressive lists of stars she put together at that first festival included Jeanne Moreau, Lillian Gish, Warren Beatty and John Schlesinger. This gave rise to amazement that such personages were prepared to come to the far-off Middle East and also a wish to believe that the festival constituted an important step toward accepting Israel as a fully-fledged member of the international film scene. Today, however, in the midst of the 25th Jerusalem festival, the woman who initiated and founded the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Israel Film Archive and the country's first international film festival, is being forced to step back and watch someone else take charge. For years the most influential personality in the local film scene, she vacated her seat this year to a new CEO, Ilan de Vries. Van Leer will remain involved in the running of the center - she is currently president of the Cinematheque - but is handing over the keys to the kingdom.

"There is a great deal of work here, and our staff is too small, and everyone has to do too many things," 84-year-old Van Leer said last week in her office. "I have always worked from morning to night but now it is no longer possible. I understood that I can no longer do everything. Now my back hurts, or something else hurts, here or there, and I have to go a little slower. Every morning when I get up, I hear about another friend who has died. Director Anthony Minghella, who visited here, a wonderful person, died suddenly at the age of 54. It's sad. I want to go on working, but I must cut back a bit."

Converting a deserted ruin

Van Leer was born in 1924 in Bessarabia and came to Mandate Palestine in 1939 to visit her sister, who was living in Tel Aviv. World War II broke out, and the news reached her of her parents' death. She decided to stay. At the beginning of the 1950s, she married Wim Van Leer, and the two moved to Haifa. Both of them loved the cinema and felt they were lacking a suitable place to go with friends and see quality films. Instead of complaining about it, they took action, founding the "good film club" in 1955. "We started to screen films twice a month; we had 200 subscribers and we brought the films from abroad," Van Leer recalls. "Every year we would go for a month to London, Paris and New York, and there we met a great many people who loved cinema and gave us films."

The couple also founded cinema clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and then, "after a few years, Wim said to me: 'It was great. Now you continue.'"

In 1960, when it became clear that she had collected a sizable collection of films, she set up the Israel Film Archive, and in 1973, she founded the cinematheque in Haifa and the Jerusalem Film Center. One day, after receiving a million dollar contribution toward setting up a cinematheque from George Ostrovsky, and after she had decided to move to Jerusalem, she spotted a deserted ruin overlooking the Ben Hinnom Valley. The scenery captured her heart. Van Leer asked then mayor Teddy Kollek if she could set up the cinematheque there; he agreed and sent her to potential donors for the remaining funds required. She got the money, and in 1981, the building in which the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the film archives are housed, was inaugurated.

Van Leer, admitting she can't work as she once did, says she will still be wandering the cinematheque's corridors. "I don't want to stop working. I love cinema and that is what gives me the motivation to go on. You know, the lust for cinema and all that," she smiles.

Asked about the division of powers between her and the new CEO, she says it is important to her to continue to be involved in choosing the films that are screened. "I have a great deal of experience so I can always give advice on how to work and what to do. The word 'president' is a little silly indeed, but Ilan worked with me for two years when the cinematheque first opened and he is doing a wonderful job here now. He has very good relations with the staff."

When the search began for a new CEO, you were very angry about the reports that you were going to retire. Did you feel they were trying to get rid of you?

Van Leer: "The cinematheque cannot exist today merely from the sale of tickets. A large part of its budget comes from two bodies - the Van Leer Fund and the Ostrovsky Fund without which we would not be able to continue working here. People from both these funds told me, 'As long as you want to go on working here, you can, and if you need help, that will also be excellent.' And I'm very happy about that."

Of all the things you have done over the years, is there anything you regret? Anything you would have done differently?

"I don't regret a thing. I certainly must have made mistakes, but I don't regret anything."

What are you most proud of?

"I am proud of the fact that I have so many friends in the world who were always happy to come here to the festivals, and also of the fact that they always showed Palestinian films here, even when many others didn't want to do so. 'Jenin, Jenin,' for example. True, I got angry e-mails with threats after the screening but I always believed that we must screen things from the other side, too, to understand what they are saying, what they think, because after all in this country we did not always do the nicest things in the world.

"I remember once, a day after one of the most difficult suicide bombings in Jerusalem, we gave a prize to a Palestinian film. I believe that we must try to understand how they feel. Friends often say to me: 'Why don't you come live in New York or London?' But I don't want to. I love living in this city, and I feel that over the years I made my small contribution to life here."

Showing films on Shabbat

In addition to establishing the cinematheque and the festival, one of Van Leer's most important contributions to Jerusalem was the decision to revolt against the habits that had been forced on the city's secular residents. Noting that young people would flee to Tel Aviv on weekends, because everything in Jerusalem was shut, she decided in 1987 that the cinematheque would screen films on Shabbat. "I didn't ask permission from anyone. We simply started to screen them," she says. "In the beginning, we didn't take money. We would put a box out in the entrance hall and anyone who wanted to could make a donation. But, of course, it did not take long for the religious people to arrive and to start shouting about how we had opened a cinema in the Holy City on Friday evenings. I answered that if there had been films when the Talmud was written, I am sure they would have permitted that they be screened on Shabbat, because this is merely another way of telling a story. After we stood firm about continuing to screen films on Shabbat, another cinema joined in, and then one coffee shop and then a discotheque and all of a sudden the young people in the city had somewhere to go."

But Van Leer, who four years ago received the Israel Prize for her life's work, says the thing she is most proud of is her contribution to Israeli cinema. She succeeded in 1989 in persuading an American philanthropist, Jack Wolgin, to set up a competition in his name with prizes for the best Israeli films. It has become the country's most prestigious feature film competition with the biggest prizes. (This year's prize stood at NIS 140,000.)

In recent years the Wolgin Prize has lost some of its glory. Some producers have not participated. This year, for example, only four films are participating. "Not everything depends on us," says Van Leer. "There were a number of films that were due to participate but the producers didn't finish working on them, and there were some who preferred considerations of distribution such as those who showed their films at international festivals and want them to be screened in local cinemas immediately, so they can take advantage of the momentum. In addition, many people are afraid to come to the festival because they don't want to get bad reviews. But I think that is absurd; after all, the reviews will be shown anyhow, even if that only happens when the film hits to the cinemas."

There is no doubt Van Leer has made a significant contribution to the blossoming of Israeli cinema in the rest of the world for the past few years. Her recognition of the importance of cinematic education and the need for making quality films accessible to a broad audience, together with her ability to funnel this recognition into the establishment of vibrant cultural institutions, contributed to the growth of a new generation of movie people. It seems as if the queen mother of the Ben Hinnom Valley can now lean back comfortably in her office and watch the thousands of people who flock to the film festival while letting others with the same lust for cinema run round and turn over tables to set up the next cinematic enterprise in Israel.