Lia van Leer, Israeli movie pioneer, dies at 90

If you want to honor her memory, it’s very simple: Go to the nearest cinematheque, buy a ticket, and enjoy a movie.

March 14, 2015 18:57
Lia van Leer

Lia van Leer. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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The queen of Israeli cinema, Lia van Leer, died on Friday at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. She was 90.

Van Leer was a true Zionist pioneer, only her unique way of pioneering was to bring high-quality movies to the country and to turn Israelis into high-quality moviemakers.

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Van Leer founded the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa cinematheques – theaters devoted to the best art films, classics and Israeli movies – modeled on the Cinémathèque Française; created the Israel Film Archive, the largest film archive in the Middle East, which is housed at the Jerusalem Cinematheque; and founded the Jerusalem Film Festival.

As impressive as this list of accomplishments may be, it doesn’t begin to do justice to the impact of van Leer’s life’s work, for which she was awarded the Israel Prize in 2004. Although there have been many important Israeli directors and producers, moviemaking here would never have developed into the world-class, high-quality industry it is today without her contribution.

Van Leer was a fixture at the Jerusalem Cinematheque until the day she died, usually dressed in her trademark lavender- colored outfits (she handed out bags of lavender as presents).

Noa Regev, the director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, said Lia was a trailblazer of the culture of cinema in Israel, and she continued to be involved until the very last day.

“She worked with love for cinema and love for her fellow human being, for the sake of cinema culture in Jerusalem, in Israel, and for the international community,” Regev said. “I will miss her dearly, as well as the immense amount of hope and inspiration that she gave me in my life. She will be missed by everyone as a woman of culture, who for decades was one of the leaders and directors of this movement in Israel.”

Van Leer was born Lia Greenberg in 1924 in the Bessarabia region of what was then Romania. She came to Palestine in 1940 to visit her sister in Tel Aviv, and was here when World War II broke out, learning that her parents had been killed, a tragedy she rarely discussed in later years.

She studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then met Wim van Leer, a Dutch industrialist, who, like her, was a great movie lover. They married in the early 1950s.

Van Leer, who for years fought against ultra-Orthodox factions that wanted the Jerusalem Cinematheque to close on Shabbat, recalled these episodes an interview in 2012. “The first time we had a problem with the haredim was when Wim and I were going to get married. We were near Mea She’arim and I was wearing a dress, you know,” she said, gesturing to indicate a lowcut sundress. “And they spit at me. And Wim said to them, ‘We even have separate hotel rooms, we are really behaving very well.’”

Other problems with the ultra-Orthodox followed when she opened the Jerusalem Cinematheque in the Gei Ben-Hinnom Valley area, known for human sacrifice in ancient times.

“When we built the [Jerusalem] Cinematheque, some of these [ultra-Orthodox] rabbis came and said we need to build a revolving door, to keep out the spirit of the dead.” She rolled her eyes – there is no revolving door at the cinematheque.

As recently as 2012, she responded with characteristic sangfroid when posters for the Jerusalem Film Festival that featured a woman riding a bike were defaced on the eve of the festival.

The van Leers settled in Haifa, but also traveled the world as Wim ran his business, although as Lia told it, with exaggerated modesty, “I just schlepped along.” Wherever they went they saw movies, and whenever they could, they acquired prints of those movies to bring back to Israel.

That personal collection was the basis for the Good Cinema Club, which eventually became the Haifa Cinematheque.

The movie-mad duo used to travel the country in crop-dusting planes (Wim was a pilot) to present quality cinema all over the country.

In the early ’70s, she founded the Haifa and Tel Aviv cinematheques, and then they moved to the capital, where she founded Jerusalem’s version.

They used their personal collection to start the Israel Film Archive at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The Israel Film Archive, which has more than 30,000 prints as well as more than 20,000 DVDs and videos and the negatives of virtually every movie made in Israel, is a member of the International Federation of Film Archives.

“In the ’70s, I went to Los Angeles. I went to the studios. In those days, you bought a film for distribution for seven years, then the films got destroyed. I convinced them to give us the old prints instead of destroying them,” she recalled in a 2004 interview.

“The first studio I went to was Paramount, and they agreed. I never smoked pot. I didn’t need to. I walked out of that meeting at Paramount with such a high. I got high getting films for the archive.”

The Jerusalem Film Festival, which she founded in 1984, was modeled on the huge European festivals such as Cannes and Venice, showing 200 movies from 50 countries in 10 days. Israel has changed so much in the last three decades that it is difficult to convey how quixotic an ambition mounting this festival must have seemed when she started it – yet it has become a world-class festival, just as she hoped it would.

Not only does the festival bring the best of world contemporary cinema to the country, but she designed it to encourage and inspire Israeli directors to do their best work.

The main prizes of the festival were given to local films, which helped the filmmakers when they released the movies abroad.

Never shy about her leftist leanings, van Leer made certain to show politically controversial movies at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The Jerusalem Film Festival gives the In the Spirit of Freedom Award (in memory of Wim) for the best film about human rights.

The list of guests at the Jerusalem Film Festival and at the Jerusalem Cinematheque over the years reads like a Who’s Who of both Hollywood and world filmmaking: Jeanne Moreau, Lillian Gish, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Anthony Minghella, Emir Kusturica, David Mamet, Chen Kaige, John Malkovich, the Dardenne brothers, Stephen Frears, Marcello Mastroianni, Cristian Mungiu, Chantal Akerman, the Taviani brothers, Fanny Ardant, Roman Polanski, Jane Fonda, Ang Lee, Bob Hoskins, Terrence Malick, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Zanussi, Chan-wook Park and many others.

The opening at the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater regularly draws a crowd of 6,000, and thousands more attend the festival each year. While the opening ceremony tends to run rather long, van Leer, who usually spoke last, made lovely but short speeches, usually along the lines of, “Thank you for coming, enjoy the movie, we have a lot of wonderful movies this year.”

Although she stepped down from her full-time duties at the cinematheque and the festival a few years ago, she continued to be president of the cinematheque and was as involved as much as her health permitted.

Last year, for the first time, the opening-night screening was postponed, then moved indoors because of Operation Protective Edge, and van Leer struggled valiantly to keep an air of normalcy at the festival.

Van Leer was recognized in the international movie scene, and served as president of the Berlin International Film Festival jury in 1995, as well as on the Festival de Cannes jury.

She received an honor from the French government, the Ordre National du Mérite, presented by president François Mitterand.

Inspired by the success of the cinematheques in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, Israeli movie lovers have founded cinematheques in Sderot, Holon, Herzliya and Rosh Pina.

Van Leer fostered personal relationships with Israeli filmmakers, many of whom grew up going to the cinematheques.

They became close to her as she encouraged them in their work and gave their movies festive premieres.

Avi Nesher, the director of The Troupe (The Band), Wonders and many other films, remembered that it was van Leer who got him to come back to Israel to serve on the Jerusalem Film Festival jury after more than a decade of working in Hollywood.

Once he was on the jury, she kept after him to start making films in Israel again.

He gave in – the result was the 2004 movie, Turn Left at the End of the World – and ended up moving back to Tel Aviv.

Van Leer was a demanding boss, but she was also generous and charming. When I first began covering the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 2000, she welcomed me warmly. Every year, I would meet with her to get her personal movie recommendations before writing about that year’s festival.

She was passionate and articulate about the movies she loved, and her taste ran from American film noir to the French New Wave to the newest in Asian cinema.

I remember seeing her at the press screenings before the festival last year. The last few years had not been easy for her, or for the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The cinematheque opened two additional screening rooms in 2007 – for a total of four – but like most arts organizations, it was hit hard by the international economic downturn.

She looked tired that day, but it was important to her to be there, and she was never happier than when she was at the cinematheque, surrounded by fellow movie lovers and filmmakers. There was a buffet spread, and I asked if I could get her anything.

“Sure,” she said, in her fluent but melodiously accented English. “Could you get me a million dollars?”

“I think they’ve already run out of it,” I said. She leaned over and kissed me. That was Lia.

Like all movie lovers in Israel, I owe her a debt I can never repay. If you want to honor her memory, it’s very simple: Go to the nearest cinematheque, buy a ticket, and enjoy a movie.

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