Jerusalem's Cinematic Savior, Ready for Her Close-up

Alesia Weston, fresh from the Sundance Film Festival, arrives at the troubled Jerusalem Cinematheque as its new executive director just in time for this year's film fest.

Ever since Lia Van Leer, the celebrated founder and director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque and its film festival, stepped down four years ago, the institution has been floundering. Her replacement as director, Ilan de Vries, failed to usher in the change and renewal that the institution, founded in 1981, desperately needed.

Deep rifts between De Vries and the members of the board, plus a labor dispute over workplace conditions, led the new captain to conclude he was commanding a sinking ship. He bailed out after less than two years. Since then the situation has only deteriorated. The cinematheque was operating without a permanent manager, internal rivalries plagued it and a burdensome budgetary crisis made things even worse.

The crisis came to a symbolic head during last year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival: At the last minute, festival management canceled the jury’s decision to give a prize to “A Beautiful Valley,” following a complaint that one of the judges − Michel Reilhac, an executive director of ARTE France Cinema − was involved in its production.

The decision had painful consequences, drawing angry reactions from all sides. Worst of all, Reilhac, directly responsible for investing millions of euros in Israeli film in recent years, declared that he was deeply insulted by the “provincial and unprofessional” behavior he had encountered and that he would never collaborate with the festival again.

But in recent weeks − and just in time for last night’s opening of the 29th annual festival − it seems that relief may have finally arrived.

In a surprising twist of fate, a woman who up until recently held a senior position at the Sundance Institute in Los Angeles − which was founded by Robert Redford, also in 1981 − agreed to become executive director of the festival and the cinematheque. Alesia Weston landed in Israel a few weeks ago to closely follow preparations for the festival, and is now trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Among other things, she’s also learning how to work alongside the veteran members of the team, still led by the 87-year-old Van Leer who is serving as president.

Two weeks ago, it seemed that Weston was already succeeding in creating a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere, as well as managing to inject some optimism in the employees of this rather battered institution. In her first interview with the Israeli press, she agreed to reveal the circumstances that led her to leave a coveted job with a well-regarded American organization in order to take on the challenges in Jerusalem.

Fluent Hebrew, no accent

My first encounter with her is surprising. It turns out that the former associate director of the Sundance Institute’s international feature film program not only speaks fluent Hebrew, but does so without the hint of an accent. She explains that she spent several idyllic years here, during two separate periods in her youth. Despite this, it was still a long process to convince her to come.

Weston recalls that the first time a representative from the cinematheque’s management committee approached her and offered her the job was a year and a half ago: The role didn’t appeal to her then.

“I didn’t understand what it involved,” Weston says. “I wasn’t interested in just programming [curating the movies, managing the program, etc]. I’ve always done things I was more interested in, like helping people make movies and working with them throughout the entire process, doing something that has an educational element and that promotes a dialogue. That’s why I liked what I was doing at Sundance.”

Up until a few weeks ago, she was still in her position with the institute’s international feature program. Her responsibilities included inviting filmmakers from around the world to participate in Sundance “labs” workshops held by the institute‏), and accompanying these artists in the filmmaking process.

Additionally, she established a framework based on the lab model to assist young artists in other countries, including Jordan, South Africa, Israel and others. In this capacity, she visited Israel many times, worked with local artists, and built close relationships with leaders of the film industry here.

Israeli artists invited by Weston over the years to participate in the Sundance labs include Dror Shaul with his film “Crazy Mud” ‏(which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance festival‏), Hany Abu-Assad with “Paradise Now” ‏(nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2006‏), Etgar Keret and Tatia Rosenthal with the 2008 animated film “$9.99,” Nir Bergman with “Intimate Grammar” ‏(2010‏), Eran Merav with “Zion and His Brother” ‏(2009‏), Hadar Friedlich with last year’s “A Beautiful Valley,” Hagar Ben Asher with “The Slut” ‏(2011‏) and Rama Burstein with “Filling the Void,” which is premiering at the current Jerusalem festival.

Weston was well aware of the cinematheque’s problems. She had heard the stories about the stormy and unsuccessful search for an executive director of the festival, including with Katriel Schory, the head of the Israel Film Fund who was offered the position, but turned it down. All of which made Weston reluctant to take the job.

But the management committee didn’t give up. They hoped that someone with Weston’s experience and international connections would return the Jerusalem institution to its glory days. They continued their efforts to persuade her.

“With time I understood that it’s a serious, important and special institution that has a great impact on the community and a lot of power − in the best sense of the word,” says Weston. “Because I had spent a lot of time in different countries over the last few years, listening and thinking about ways of establishing needed infrastructure, I understood that even if I wasn’t the perfect person for this job, I could at least help establish a certain infrastructure that would serve the place.”

At the same time, however, she thought the job should go to an Israeli, which was an argument that had already been voiced by several local filmmakers.

“I may be a bit Israeli, but I’m mainly English-American,” she explains. “It seemed to me that it was more fitting to give this role to an Israeli. I like the Israelis that I work with very much. I know that this is their home and their national treasure. I didn’t want to be arrogant, to assume that I know better. I believed that there are a few people here who would be great at this job.”

But after deliberating for a year and a half, Weston decided to take on the challenge. “I started to think of it as an interesting experiment. I felt that I was ready for a change, I understood that I wanted to face new challenges, to develop new skills, and little by little it seemed to me to be more feasible. I knew that there wasn’t another role in Los Angeles I was interested in, and I also knew that I didn’t want to stay there forever. Israel always felt to me to like an unanswered question, and both times I left, I felt as if a limb had been torn off. For me Israel is a little bit like a lover you can’t quite bring yourself to leave.”

The only Jew

At the beginning of our interview, Weston explains that she prefers to answer questions in English, but throughout our conversation she slips over and over from English to Hebrew and back again.

Her life has taken a rich but winding road. Weston, the youngest of three children, was born in 1970 in Windsor, England to parents that were both involved in law and business. When she was three her parents divorced and she subsequently moved to Switzerland, where she was educated at an international school. For her this was a defining period.

“When you grow up surrounded by different languages and different cultures, it becomes hard-wired into your system. You become curious, you learn to love the differences and understand how much everyone still has in common despite them,” she notes.

But the fact that Weston was the only Jew in the whole school left its mark. “The Jewish element wasn’t easy. When a good friend’s parents found out I was Jewish and had visited Israel, for example, her big brothers told her to stop playing with me.”

When Alesia was eight, her mother said the family could move either to the United States or Israel, and told her she could decide.

“I chose Israel,” she recalls today. “I had already been to Israel when I was three, but didn’t really remember it. When we arrived here, in Jerusalem, I immediately fell in love with the place. It was wonderful. I couldn’t believe that such a place existed. At age eight this feeling wasn’t due to ideology or politics − there was something powerful in the knowledge that everyone around was Jewish, or that at least I wasn’t the only Jew there. What, everyone celebrates Rosh Hashanah? Wonderful!” she laughs.

She lived here for six years, during which time she learned Hebrew. Eyes shining brightly, she recalls foods such askibbe ‏(an Arab dish made of ground beef‏), talks about the friendships she maintains to this day, and admits that although many of her friends left Jerusalem a long time ago, she still loves the city dearly.

When she was 15, after studies at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance ‏(where she took a matriculation exam in folk dancing‏), Weston moved by herself to the United States to live near her siblings. At Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., she studied languages and linguistics. Thereafter she went to France, where she found herself working in the kitchen of a three-star Michelin restaurant.

“It was a trade − I taught the chef English, and in return had the opportunity to learn about food. But I was the only woman in a kitchen full of men, most of whom had left school at 14 to become chefs, and my first month there was very difficult. I would get home and find duck heads in my bag. I’d call my brother in tears, but I refused to break down. And truthfully, after a month, things changed. They started being nice to me. And although at the end of the day I didn’t learn to cook, it was a fascinating anthropological experience.”

At the end of the French chapter in her life, and a brief spell back in Washington, Weston decided to continue her studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in order to test out the idea of settling in Israel.

But the sweet memories she returned with encountered a bitter reality: It was 1995, the year Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. The atmosphere was tough, and she found herself missing her family. Weston left after a year, this time for England, where she found inspiration on the small screen.

At the time, in addition to closely following independent and international film, “every week I used to watch a TV series called ‘Picket Fences,’ and was amazed by how much it made me think about different things; about the world,” Weston recalls. “I suddenly realized that this was an incredibly powerful tool. I understood that it was entertainment, but also much more than that, because it draws you in, but at the same time makes you examine things, think about human nature and consider all that is strange and unusual. So I started to think that maybe I should venture into the film business.”

Moving to Los Angeles, she found work as as a production assistant in independent film, and in 2001 became the assistant to the chairman of Imagine Entertainment, the production company founded by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer. From there she moved briefly to Kevin Spacey’s production company, but left when, she says, she realized she wasn’t interested in spending her days alongside competitive, aggressive people who treated cinema purely as a business enterprise.

“I thought maybe the world of movies wasn’t for me,” she says. “I dreamt of a job where I could use all the languages I knew, travel to all kinds of places, incorporate educational elements and work on films that resonated for me. Many of the people I told this to smiled and said ‘best of luck,’ but there was one person who promised to help. And he really did: After three days he wrote to let me know that a new international position had opened up at the Sundance Institute.”

And so, starting in 2003, Weston began to work at the Los Angeles office of the Sundance Institute, which indeed gave her an opportunity to meet people from all over, work on a variety of film projects and support the development of promising young artists.

‘Listen and learn’

Are you afraid of working at an institution that has suffered so many problems in recent years?

“Of course. That’s part of the reason for my hesitation. I know that it’s not going to be easy, but I believe that the difficulties are part of what makes every experience worthwhile. Sundance wasn’t easy for me either; it was hard work, but the real test is what I’m able to achieve even if everything doesn’t go smoothly.”

How long have you come here for?

“Until it ends. The contract is for an initial two years, but it was clear to me that if I came, I would need to commit for some time. Over the last few days I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking about my experiences in the French restaurant. It was very difficult, but I stayed the course. And I’m happy to say in the few days I’ve been here, I haven’t yet come across a duck’s head in my bag.”

She smiles. “The people here have been very welcoming. I know that there are those who are suspicious of me, I’m sure that things won’t be perfect, but that’s okay.”

Do you already have ideas for programs you want to implement?

“Yes, but it’s still too early to discuss them. First I need to listen and learn quite a bit, because you can’t just walk in, introduce your ideas and impose them. Part of what I loved about Sundance was that we didn’t just take a particular model and apply it wherever we went. That would be arrogant and is cultural imperialism. First, I want to listen. In addition, you also need enough money to carry out everything you want to do. There’s also the challenge of stretching the budget so it enables people to work without feeling exploited and miserable.”

Do you intend to work within the framework of the existing budget or to seek out new sources of funding?

“It’s impossible to work with the existing budget. I think that this place deserves a much larger budget, and there are very convincing arguments for this. I believe that people can get very excited by the idea of investing in this place and taking part in what’s happening here. It just needs to be made interesting to them.”

Were you involved in the planning of the current festival?

“Yes, a little. I was involved in the discussions about the selection of films, and it makes me happy that films I worked on in the past will be shown here. At the same time, up until a month ago, I was still working at Sundance, and then went to Cannes. So it’s not the ideal transition. The people here, at the cinematheque, have worked very hard on this festival − with problematic management, or lately without any management at all − and have done an amazing job. So in this sense the festival is all theirs, for better or for worse, and they should be congratulated.

Weston says that one of the things she loved about her work at Sundance “was that we didn’t talk to the press much, we didn’t tend to talk much about what we were doing, and we always took the time to consider the choices we made. I prefer working this way, taking more time to find the right balance rather than acting hastily out of a need to make a mark. I believe that first and foremost I need to sit and take it all in.”

The way you see things now, what are the biggest challenges?

“I think that the financial situation is very challenging, as is the infrastructure of this place. I think the festival is wonderful, but it must return to what it was in the past. This is partly a budgetary matter and partly an organizational matter. Aside from this, I think that many things can be done with this place. Above all, it’s obviously about cinema, but there is a definite possibility to work with other art forms as well, those related to cinema in different ways, such as dance, theater and television. We need to find the balance between things. Not in a superficial way, but with careful thought. Part of the beauty of this place is that because it’s so small, everything is possible.”

In the past the festival attracted and hosted artists from all over the world. Over the last years this has faded away, partly because of a decline in the festival’s standing. Is this going to change?

“Yes, definitely. I’m not saying this in an arrogant way; I believe that it’ll be different because people really want to come here. When I recently had the opportunity to ask people like Walter Salles and the Dardenne brothers [Jean-Pierre and Luc] if they’d come to Jerusalem, I realized that Jerusalem interests them almost more than Sundance. So I’m not really worried about that. I’m worried about other things. For example, I worry that we’ll be able to host them properly when they do get here. This was a problematic area in previous years. I know this because I was one of the guests,” she laughs. “I’m very fussy about this, and am very unforgiving when it comes to unsatisfactory hospitality.”

In recent years cinematheques have been torn between the need to preserve and educate about classic film, and the desire to show more contemporary commercial films to attract bigger audiences. Where do you stand on this matter?

“I strongly believe in the history of cinema. I believe that it’s special and important, because without knowing where we’ve come from, we can’t know where we’re headed. I believe that we shouldn’t just look at what other cinematheques in the world are doing and learn from them, but actually think about what we can do that no one else is doing. I don’t want this place to be an elitist ivory tower that only shows art-house movies, because I believe that cinema should be all the things we discussed earlier − it should be educational, it should connect people and inspire dialogue. I also love cinema that is magical and fun, and I think that ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ for example [the 2010 animated film by Dreamworks], is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.

“I don’t think the cinematheque should show everything. I want us to be connected to what’s happening in the outside world, but not to be a place that is only governed by financial considerations. I don’t want us to show films like ‘Saw IV,’ for example. At the same time, I definitely don’t want my personal taste to dictate what we show; I think that films should be selected by several people. But it’s obvious that we’re not the only ones who decide − the audience also plays a part. They have the right to choose, by virtue of the fact that at the end of the day they are the ones buying the tickets and coming to see the films.”