A true cinephile

Part of the Jerusalem Film Festival, the documentary film ‘Lia’ chronicles the life of Cinematheque founder Lia van Leer.

Lia van Leer (photo credit: Phillip Touitou)
Lia van Leer
(photo credit: Phillip Touitou)
A great film festival is made up of many special moments, and one of the most moving of these at the 28th Jerusalem Film Festival, which runs until July 16, was the screening last Saturday of Lia, a documentary about the festival and the Cinematheque’s founder, Lia van Leer.
The auditorium was packed with a who’s who of Israeli cultural life, many of whom are friends of Van Leer’s, and others who are simply devoted and engaged members of the Cinematheque audience. The film, directed by Taly Goldberg, celebrates Van Leer’s life, both putting it in the context of the Israeli story and showing how unique she is.
The renaissance in Israeli movies now – the fact that Israeli films win prizes at festivals around the world, are shown commercially abroad and attract enthusiastic audiences here – owes more to Van Leer’s work than to that of any other individual. The film shows the humble beginnings of the Cinematheque culture, when she and her late husband, Wim van Leer (an inventor, businessman and philanthropist who founded the Van Leer Institute), began collecting films and showing them at a film club in their Haifa home. These films, many of them classics of the era, simply were not available anywhere else in Israel – and Van Leer recalls how she kept the films under a bed in the guest room. Through word of mouth, the club grew, and many of Israel’s future producers and film historians, became part of it. They also started cinema clubs all over Israel, and even took Wim’s private plane to show films on isolated kibbutzim.
Inspired by the model of archivist Henri Langlois’s Cinematheque Francaise in Paris (which was the informal film school for the French Nouvelle Vague directors, including Truffaut and Godard), she began to collect films from abroad in a more focused manner. She also acquired virtually every Israeli film she could. “We have all of them ever made,” she boasts in the film, “Except maybe three or four.”
Her collection grew into the Israel Film Archive at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which includes more than 30,000 screening prints (including the great classics of movie history), 20,000 videos and thousands of negatives of Israeli films.
Her guest room was soon too small to hold all the films, and she wanted them to reach a wide audience. So she established the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 1981, with the help of then mayor Teddy Kollek (and after the Tel Aviv Municipality refused her request to donate a building). Support came from many sources, including George Ostrovosky (whose initial offer of $1 million Van Leer refused, fearing he would take control of her project). In 1984, she established the Jerusalem Film Festival, and the rest truly is history.
This history is documented gracefully here, as well as Van Leer’s charm, intelligence and vision. It also delves into her background, a painful subject she doesn’t like to discuss.
Born in Romania, she was visiting her sister here in the late 1930s when she realized that her entire family had been murdered. Her memories of her youth in Europe and her life with her husband, who was also an integral part of the founding of the Cinematheque, are documented with charming photos and home movies.
After the screening, the crowd spilled out into the Cinematheque garden for a reception.
I watched Van Leer and recalled the many times that directors have mentioned her in interviews with me as someone who helped them at critical moments in their careers. Avi Nesher, for example, has talked about how he had been living and working in the US for years when she convinced him to come back to Israel to serve on the jury at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Before he knew it, and with her strong encouragement, he found himself back here, making the film Turn Left at the End of the World.
As I sat in the Cinematheque garden interviewing Italian director Gianni Di Gregorio, whose film The Salt of Life is at the festival and will open throughout Israel next week, I looked around at the crowds and thought, “If not for her, none of this would be here.”
She passed by us, and Di Gregorio jumped up to shake her hand. Giving me a kiss, she said softly, “It’s a nice festival this year, isn’t it?” Yes, Lia, it is.