The Godmother

The Jerusalem Cinematheque is her life's work, and its annual festival is the most important product of that enterprise. Will anyone be able to replace Lia van Leer?

Mothers are familiar with such moments. A child thinks he's no longer a child, but his mother thinks he can't manage without her. In private life, the mother gives in, in public life they make her into a "president."

In this case, the "mother" of the Jerusalem Cinematheque is Lia van Leer, and she has now become its president. She founded the Cinematheque, established a film archive, initiated an annual international film festival - and has always wanted to protect those creations the way a hen protects her baby chicks. The problem is that the baby chick is already 36 years old and wants to walk on its own.

Three years ago, van Leer, who was then 83, reacted angrily to rumors about her retirement. "I'm not retiring," she said at the time, "I'll work as long as I'm on my feet, as long as I know who I am. Nobody hired me and nobody can tell me to go home." The following year, she retired from her position as director - and took on the title of president.

The Jerusalem Cinematheque is Lia van Leer's life's work, and the Jerusalem Film Festival is the most important product of that enterprise. This week the festival took place for the 27th time, and the president was worriedly examining what was happening with her life's work. Workers' disputes and a relatively fast turnover of directors at the Cinematheque characterized her last years as active director. Money, money, money, that's what we're lacking, she says today. New blood in the administration is what we're lacking, say others.

She rejects arguments that the foundations that finance the Cinematheque and its projects want to oust her; she warmly suggests that I ignore what they write in the newspapers. Look, she has a signed contract with the Van Leer Foundation, which says she can head the place as long as she likes. She has good relations with another source of funding, Mayor Nir Barkat. The previous mayor, Uri Lupolianski, she adds, called her by the more Jewish-sounding "Leah" and asked her for cassettes of Charlie Chaplin films.

Madame Van Leer, in a long white dress that matches her hair, scoots around the corridors of the Cinematheque with a walker. She peeks in at screenings at the festival and checks on "who our audience is." A large part of her audience comes from Tel Aviv. The heat in that city is humid and profound; it gets absorbed into your clothes and penetrates your insides. The Jerusalem heat is dry and superficial - it hits you on the head and blinds you.

On Tuesday afternoon, the exterior of the Cinematheque complex was scorchingly hot. Inside it was cool and pleasant, and hundreds of visitors were walking around. By the evening it was especially crowded. That's how it's been for many years: The festival is always a big success, a demonstration - or, if you will, the death gasps - of secular culture in a city that is becoming ultra-Orthodox.

Secular Jerusalemites indeed owe a big debt to van Leer. She was the one who opened the gates of the Cinematheque on Saturdays 23 years ago, rejecting an offer from the Shas party for monetary compensation in return for keeping them closed. The city, she notes, has changed, there have been better days. She pleads with the mayor to create jobs in Jerusalem and with the secular community not to flee. All her friends, she adds, have left for Tel Aviv, to be near their children and grandchildren. Staying in Jerusalem, she notes, is a political statement.

Cinema is not only escapism. (In the coming week van Leer says she'll head down to Tel Aviv to see "Avatar." Yes, with those glasses ). Cinema is also a political tool, and she has definitely exploited it. In her Cinematheque they screened "Jenin, Jenin" and "Kalandia: A Checkpoint Story." In addition to a festival of Jewish films, the center has also organized one of gay films.

Lia Van Leer loves festivals. She is among a select group of film lovers who call themselves the "festival mafia," who travel the world from one such event to the next. They have dubbed her their "godmother."

"I'm a little tired already," admits the godmother. "In the morning it's still all right, but by one in the morning ..."

She is looking for a new Cinematheque director who "will be passionate about cinema." No, she doesn't think it will be hard for him to work alongside her. She won't interfere, she'll only supervise from the sidelines, occasionally contributing of her rich experience.

What still disturbs her? A good question, and what upsets her is also somehow connected to her cultural enterprise. She leans toward me over her crowded desk and asks: Where's the left? Where are the leftists? Where have they disappeared to?