The element of surprise

Avant-garde filmmaker Vivian Ostrovsky tells stories in 'a less-expected way.'

Vivian Ostrovsky 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Vivian Ostrovsky 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Vivian Ostrovsky realizes that you probably don't know much about avant-garde films, but she's working to change that. This filmmaker, whose works have been purchased by and are part of the permanent collections of such prestigious institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, is realistic about the fact that less conventional films rarely attract a wide audience. But she is still committed to making them and promoting the films of other avant-garde filmmakers. For years, she has been a curator at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which shows the works of independent and avant-garde filmmakers, as well as more mainstream films. The Paris-based Ostrovsky, who was born in New York but raised in Brazil, has been involved with the Jerusalem Cinematheque since it was established, which is not surprising since her father, George (Rehor) Ostrovsky, was one of its founders (along with Lia van Leer). In Jerusalem to attend the annual evening in memory of her father, who died in 1980, at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, Ostrovsky sat down for an interview about her career and how she inspired her father to help create the Cinematheque. Discussing the silent German expressionist masterpiece The Golem, which was to be screened at her father's memorial the next night, she said, "They're having some problems synchronizing the sound to the print." It would be a print, though, and not a digital copy, said Ostrovsky, because "the experience of seeing something projected digitally or seeing a 35 mm. projected with light going through the film and having it on screen is totally different. The image quality is very different and the experience is very different... "I would like to make a point about film presentation. Since this is a cinematheque, that is what my father set out to build and establish, it should be film projected [at his tribute]. Although I know that in the future film will have a minor role. It's on the way out." Ostrovsky, an unusual combination of a gadget enthusiast who wants to experiment with every kind of media (she has recently made several short films using her cellphone) and traditional film lover, actually still shoots in Super 8. "It's very expensive and there are very few places left that process it. Video is so flat and pasteurized. Super 8 is certainly not high-def. It's soft and fuzzy and it's nice. I like it." Growing up in Brazil, she became interested in photography through watching her mother work as a still photographer. Ostrovsky loved taking snapshots and home movies, but saw herself as "just playing around." When it was time to study, she went to Paris and took psychology, but found herself "so bored that I just started going to the movies. There are lots of little movie theaters near the Sorbonne." Naturally, she also attended the Cinematheque Française, which was still being run by its legendary founder, Henri Langlois. She looked into film courses at the university, "but they were all film theory," which didn't move her. On the other hand, she found herself caught up in the excitement of the student revolution in May 1968 and was drawn to the emerging feminist movement. Still, her interest in that movement found its expression through film. "I started distributing films by and about women, bringing them to women's film festivals all over Europe in an old Renault station wagon jalopy. There were also sidebars for women's film in many regular film festivals then, and I think there was a need for that," she says. But eventually she began making her own films. "I met a lot of filmmakers and a friend said to me, 'You shoot so much film, why don't you edit it?' So I learned how to put two pieces of film together," she recalls. With a group of friends, she made the film, 10 Top Stylists, about the Parisian fashion industry in the late 1970s. "There were surprisingly few films about fashion in those days," says Ostrovsky, who usually dresses in a striking blend of casual chic. They managed to convince Karl Lagerfeld to be interviewed, and then other designers, such as Issey Miyake, followed suit. Still, the movie was not a straightforward documentary. From the beginning of her career, Ostrovsky found herself drawn to experimental film. "Experimental isn't such a good name," she says for her brand of filmmaking, which combines archival footage with "a more elliptical narrative. It's a less expected way of telling a story. I found in it an element of surprise which I didn't see in the commercial mainstream." As she began her career, she sought out the works of the most celebrated avant-garde directors, such as Man Ray, Maya Deren, Marcel Duchamps and Luis Bunuel. Around this time, her father was thinking of making a contribution to Israel. Ostrovsky and her sister, who both loved film, urged him to start a cinematheque here. He wasn't familiar with the concept of a cinematheque, so she educated him, bringing him to the Cinematheque Française, the British Film Institute and other institutions. In the early '70s, Ostrovsky approached the Israeli delegation at the Cannes Film Festival and heard about Lia van Leer, who, with her late husband, Wim, had a club for quality movies in Haifa. George and Vivian approached the van Leers, offering them $1 million to open a cinematheque in Israel, but Lia turned them down, saying she was sure the gift would come with too many strings attached. "My father took it as a good omen," says Ostrovsky. "He liked obstacles." The four film lovers had struck up an enduring friendship and stayed in touch. Eventually, the van Leers moved to Jerusalem and Lia told the Ostrovskys, "Maybe we could do something together." Ostrovsky recalls that then-mayor Teddy Kollek had a different idea of the right way to help his city. "He wanted my father to fund a boys' orchestra. Then he said, we'll compromise, we'll have half a cinematheque and half a boys' orchestra," she says. But in the end, the boys got their orchestra somewhere else, and Jerusalem's international film center, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, opened its doors in 1981. Sadly, George Ostrovsky died the year before it opened. Now, with four auditoriums and an archive of more than 50,000 films, video cassettes and negatives, it is an integral part of the Jerusalem cultural scene. After the cinematheque opened, the Jerusalem Film Festival got under way in 1984. In the '80s, Ostrovsky became involved with programming a section of non-mainstream films, now called the Carte Blanche section. "At first, we would have about three people at the screenings," she recalls. "Now, they fill up." In recent years, they have included films by artists from abroad, as well as such local filmmakers as Yael Bartana and Sigalit Landau. Her own films have been screened there, too. One of her recent works, Ice/Sea, was shown at the 2005 Jerusalem Film Festival. A collage made in a playful spirit, it combines footage Ostrovsky assembled of Rio's Copacabana Beach with other shots she took of ice, snow and penguins in Patagonia, along with archival treats such as shots of Esther Williams. Ostrovsky is currently working on an installation that will incorporate beach movies she has taken all over the world. Asked what advice she would give to young filmmakers hoping to make a career outside the mainstream, at first she says they should see all the classic avant-garde films, but then checks herself: "Who's to say what is good?" After a moment, she says, "If someone has motivation and feels strongly about expressing themselves in film, they'll make their way."