Lia Van Leer, Grand Dame of Israeli Cinema, Dies at 90

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Lia Van Leer in 2010.Credit: Emil Salman

Lia Van Leer, a pioneer in Israel's film industry, died at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on Friday at the age of 90.

Van Leer, a recipient of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, founded the cinematheques in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. She had managed the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Jerusalem International Film Festival for decades, and was among the foremost contributors to the advancement of film and film education in Israel.

Van Leer was born in Bessarabia, Romania in 1924 (or 1920, according to some accounts). She came to Mandatory Palestine in 1940 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, and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She then met Wim Van Leer, a pilot, a lover of cinema and the son of a Dutch industrialist and philanthropist.

After getting married in the early '50s, the couple moved to Haifa. They began acquiring movies on 16 mm film from abroad and screening them for friends in their home. When they saw that demand for quality cinema was on the rise, they founded a film club in Haifa, which was joined by more than 200 members and held screenings every two seeks. A year later, Lia Van Leer founded two similar clubs in Tel Aviv in Jerusalem.

In 1960, Van Leer founded the Israel Film Archive. In 1973, she founded the Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques. The following year the Van Leers relocated to Jerusalem, where she managed the theater, turning it into one of the city's most prominent cultural institutions.

In 1983 Van Leer served as a judge in the Cannes Film Festival, and consequently decided to establish an Israeli version. The inaugural Jerusalem International Film Festival was held the following year.

Van Leer's struggle to allow the cinematheque to operate on Friday nights and Saturdays spearheaded the secular battle against religious coercion in the capital.

"I didn't ask permission from anyone. We simply started to screen them," she told Haaretz in 2008, referring to the first time the cinematheque began operating on Saturdays in 1987. "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."

Van Leer also resisted political pressure not to screen controversial films.

"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," she said in the same interview.

"'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."

In 1998, Van Leer won a lifetime achievement award from the Israel Film Academy, and in 2004 she received the Israel Prize for her life's work. She received a similar honor at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011.

Some seven years ago Van Leer stepped down from managing the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the film festival, but stayed on as the institution's president.