New Jerusalem Cinematheque CEO Is Ready for Her Close-up

In just seven months on the job, Noa Regev, aged just 32, can boast a balanced budget; her first screen test, the Jerusalem Film Festival, starts Thursday.

Emil Salman

Three weeks before the start of the Jerusalem Film Festival, on July 10, the new director of the festival and its host institution, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, appeared surprisingly calm. Noa Regev, who is all of 32, took the reins of this venerable institution just seven months ago. She plunged deep into its conflict-plagued workings with the romantic dream of saving it from total collapse, determined to do so despite her lack of administrative experience with an organization of this size. Nor was she deterred by the awareness that several more-experienced administrators had tried and failed at the task.

Interviewed two weeks ago during a quick trip to Tel Aviv, Regev impresses as having nerves of steel. She speaks rapidly, articulately and intelligently, and betrays no adverse signs of stress. All eyes will be on her at the festival. Local industry figures will be studying her conduct, assessing the festival she has put together and whether she is up to reversing the fortunes of the cinematheque after several difficult years. When asked how she feels about the fast-approaching opening, Regev replies without hesitation: “I’m focused on tasks. That’s all. Right now there’s no room for anything else. Of course we’re excited and happy. We believe the festival will be very successful.”

Born in Tel Aviv in 1982, Regev fell in love with film at 15. For the next three years, until the start of her army service, she ushered at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Apart from the chance to see lots of movies, the job also led her to value the culture of film and the institutions that cultivate it.

After the army, Regev studied film at Tel Aviv University and worked in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque’s education department, on children’s film festivals. She recently earned her doctorate in film studies, from TAU: Her thesis was on children’s films.

Regev also taught film at Tel Aviv University, Sapir Academic College and the Open University of Israel. She ran two academic conference for the film department and in 2010 was appointed director of the International Student Film Festival. “From that point on, I knew I wanted to be involved in cultural activity. Not just to write and think about cinema, but to promote this culture in Israel.”

Facing criticism

It wasn’t long before Regev’s plans became reality. In May 2012, she was appointed director of the Holon Cinematheque. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, things weren’t going so well. After Lia Van Leer retired from running the cinematheque and the festival, the director’s office acquired a revolving door, the budget deficit continued to grow and labor disputes broke out. These issues contributed to a deterioration in the status of the Jerusalem Film Festival, which for decades had been considered Israel’s signature film event.

The surge of hope that followed the 2012 hiring of Regev’s immediate predecessor, Alesia Weston, was short-lived. Weston came to the Jerusalem Cinematheque from the Sundance Film Institute, filled with motivation. She resigned less than a year later, after discovering that the institution’s budget deficit had reached 11 million shekels ($3.2 million) and its less-than-transparent board of directors was locked in endless power struggles. These power struggles were also evident in Regev’s appointment. Figures within the cinematheque and beyond criticized the decision, mainly over her lack of experience in managing a large organization.

Asked about the transition from the Holon Cinematheque to its much larger and more complex Jerusalem counterpart, Regev displays her characteristic directness: “It’s a challenge, but when you’re focused on the work and not on thoughts about or the talk around, it just works. That might sound like something that I say just to sound good, but it’s true. The board is very dedicated to making this work. I feel that I have support, and I work from morning til night, together with a dedicated team.”

Still, weren’t you a bit scared when you were offered the job?

“Yes, but maybe that’s what attracted me too. It’s an opportunity I just couldn’t refuse, because of who I am. I chose to do this even though it’s a big leap in terms of the size of the place, its complexity and its circumstances. I also came to the Holon Cinematheque without having managed a cultural institution before, and when I came to the student film festival, I had no previous experience running a festival. And what I learned is that if you stay focused on what needs to be done, it works. That’s all there is to it.”

Regev says that now, after the implementation of a financial recovery plan, one of the administration’s main goals is to keep things in the right proportion for a public institution. “Which means reducing operating expenses and wage disparities. One of the main goals is to locate new revenue sources,” not with the aim of turning the cinematheque into a commercial business but rather to focus on the core values and activities. And also to work on fund-raising, with the aid of the foundations that support the cinematheque. Another goal is to develop new audiences.”

Regev says the recovery plan closed more than half of the institution’s budget deficit. The supporting organizations – the Van Leer Group Foundation and the Jerusalem Foundation – extended a long-term loan, in recognition of the importance of the cinematheque. “So now we’re working without an operating deficit. We’re balanced,” she says. “I think that because the cinematheque is a larger-than-life place, this sometimes carried over to its financial management,” she says. The annual budget, which includes the operation of the Israel Film Archive, two annual festivals and current operations, is 17 million shekels.

One of Regev’s first decisions had to do with the Israel Film Archive, which preserves the entire history of Israeli cinema. “This archive has 30,000 films that need to be physically preserved. When I started on the job, my first impulse was to set about saving all these movies. But what this archive really needs – and what’s going to happen there – is a comprehensive digitization and digital preservation process.”

Saving the international film festival

But now Regev and her staff (led by deputy director Nir Becher and program director Elad Samorzik) are up to their necks in preparations for the festival. Along with the budget issues and the difficulty of convincing important guests from abroad to come, despite the political and security tensions, the heart of the festival – the Israeli competitions – also took a hit in recent years. Among the reasons were an increasing number of local filmmakers premiering their films at major foreign festivals, the growing importance of the Haifa International Film Festival and repeated complaints about the treatment of guests. As a result, more and more filmmakers were choosing to stay away. A judging scandal at the festival three years ago, when prizes that had been awarded were revoked due to a conflict of interest involving one of the judges (Michel Reilhac, who was executive director of Arte France Cinema), seriously tarnished the festival’s image.

Regev is working to change the situation. “It’s clear to us that the focus of the festival has to be Israeli cinema. That’s our ticket, and we’ve put a lot of resources and effort into ensuring that the Israeli film competitions will be really excellent. We’re making certain that the Israeli premieres are properly celebrated and given due respect. We’ve assembled a very fine panel of judges for these competitions, and we’ve invited international distributors who will be present at the screenings.”

In addition to strengthening the Israeli competitions, Regev wants to preserve the festival’s international character. This year, the international program includes more than 200 films. And she is introducing a competition for children’s films from around the world, with a jury of local teenagers. 

Emil Salman
Eyal Warshavsky