It's silver-screen season

The Jerusalem Film Festival is revamped, with a fresh director, new theaters, 200 films and 100 guests.

Jerusalem film 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem film 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was about 25 years ago today that Lia van Leer, founder of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, inaugurated the first Jerusalem Film Festival. This year's event, which starts on July 10 with a screening of the new Pixar film, WALL•E, at the Sultan's Pool Amphitheater in Jerusalem, marks the first year that van Leer, now in her 80s, has scaled back her role. She retains the title of founding director, and on a recent visit to the Cinematheque was at work as usual, but the general director duties are now being fulfilled by Ilan de Vries. De Vries, who produced the hit movie Late-Summer Blues, was also a programming executive at Tel-Ad and recently worked as the head of the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Cultural Center. In addition, he worked with van Leer at the Cinematheque as her deputy director in the Eighties. Over coffee at the Cinematheque last week, the two finished each other's sentences as they discussed this year's festival, which features 200 films from 45 countries and will host 100 guests, including such high-profile names as actor/director John Malkovich and British director Michael Winterbottom. This year, it runs until July 19 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque; moviegoers will be pleased to learn that they will have even more opportunities than usual to see those 200 movies, because the theater has completed its renovations and has added two new auditoriums, a project of the Jerusalem Foundation, with donations from Bernard and Audre Rapoport and Rien van Ghent. Guiding journalists proudly through the new wing at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, de Vries shows off Cinematheque 3, which seats 260, and Cinematheque 4, which seats 70 and shows video, exclusively. There is also a new balcony open to the public, with a breathtaking view of the Old City Walls. Due mainly to the weak dollar, however, de Vries has not been able to complete work on the Videoteque, which will be a center for all video works archived by the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the main archive of which already contains about 50,000 works on film and video (and which began years ago with the personal collection of van Leer and her late husband, Wim). The archive also contains the Center for the Preservation of Israeli Film, and de Vries and van Leer plan to continue expanding it. The shortfall for the Videoteque, says de Vries, is about $4 million, and he hopes to find donors as soon as possible. (Nearly all non-profit organizations in Israel have suffered due to the weak dollar, since most of their contributors make donations in dollars which don't go nearly as far as they used to.) AS VAN Leer and de Vries discuss how the festival has changed in the past quarter century, it becomes clear how much of a difference the festival has made to the local movie industry. "In the beginning, Lia's philosophy was you have to focus on Israeli cinema, and having the awards will push it up," says de Vries, speaking of the Wolgin Awards, which are given to Israeli features, documentaries and short films and carry cash prizes of over NIS 250,000 altogether, donated by Jack Wolgin. "But years ago, sometimes there were only three or four movies and, you know, at times they were pretty bad. But I remember Lia always used to argue with the juries, because sometimes they didn't want to give a prize at all." Van Leer agrees. "I'd say, 'You have to give the award to somebody.'" This year, only four movies are competing in the feature film category, but that's due to the extreme vitality of the local industry, according to de Vries. "It's all changed for the good," he says. "Israeli filmmakers decide when to open their films based on foreign and local distribution deals, foreign festivals and all different factors. It's not the shtetl anymore." The winner of last year's Wolgin Award, Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, went on to win prizes all over the world and to draw rave reviews in the US and Europe. In recognition of the general renaissance in Israeli film, including those productions made for television, the Anat Pirchi Awards have been expanded to include television series, as well as television movies, with prizes totalling NIS 70,000. "This may be the most competitive category at the festival this year," says de Vries, as series including Arab Labor, Lost and Found and The Ran Quadruplets square off. One category in the festival that is very close to van Leer and de Vries's hearts is the In the Spirit of Freedom Award, given in memory of Wim van Leer. It's clear from the name what this award is meant to honor, and this year 15 features and documentaries from countries including Lebanon, South Africa, Argentina, China, Turkey, the US and Algeria will compete for prizes totalling NIS 93,000, donated by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, as well as Vivan Ostrovosky and van Leer herself. As they flip through the 300-page catalog trying to pinpoint what will be most exciting for film lovers in what is unquestionably the highlight of Jerusalem's cultural calendar, de Vries says, "The best line I can give is that this festival is a unique meeting place for people from all over the world that encourages creativity and dialogue." "And peace and tolerance," van Leer adds.