Restored classic Hollywood films light up Israel's ReFILM festival

While once, prints of movies would deteriorate to the point where the movies could not be shown, now technological advances make it possible for films to get a new life – through painstaking work.

 ‘THE PLOT Against Harry’ (photo credit: The Film Desk)
‘THE PLOT Against Harry’
(photo credit: The Film Desk)

Whatever kind of movie you like, you can find a classic in that genre at the ReFILM: Restoration Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which runs June 1-12.

While once, prints of movies would deteriorate to the point where the movies could not be shown, now technological advances make it possible for films to get a new life – through painstaking work. The Israel Film Archive at the cinematheque is a leader in this field, and the fruits of its labor can be seen on the archive’s website at, which makes Israeli features, documentaries and archival material available for free or for low fees. The staff of the archive and the cinematheque also search the globe for the best and most interesting restored classics from all eras for the ReFILM festival.

Each year, the organizers focus on a cinematic discovery, a director whose work features forgotten gems. This year it is Michael Roemer. Born in 1928 in Berlin, he arrived in Britain as part of the Kindertransport in 1939. Following the war, he moved to the US and attended Harvard. Discovering cinema as a student, he was fascinated by classic movies by Japanese and European directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Robert Bresson. After writing film criticism, he began making his own movies. His first feature, Nothing but A Man (1964), looks at discrimination against black Americans in the South as it tells the story of a workman (Ivan Dixon) and his schoolteacher wife (Abbey Lincoln). It is considered a landmark work in its realistic depiction of African-American life during that era and features some early Motown classics, including “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas, on the soundtrack.

His next film, The Plot Against Harry, tells the story of a Jewish gambler following his release from prison. Roemer shot the film in the late ’60s but was disappointed with the final product and shelved it for 20 years. Eventually, he agreed to release it in the late ’80s, and it received great acclaim. His third film, Vengeance Is Mine (1984), is about a young woman (Brooke Adams) searching for closure on a trip back to Rhode Island where she grew up in an unhappy family, who strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Trish Van Devere). Roemer, now 95, has lived to see the rediscovery of his work.

What other movies will be shown at the ReFILM festival?

The festival features two classics of the old Hollywood screwball-comedy genre. In Bringing Up Baby (1939), Howard Hawks directed Cary Grant as a nerdy paleontologist trying to coax a donation for his museum out of a headstrong heiress, played by Katharine Hepburn, who toted Baby, her pet leopard, wherever she went. In the 1936 My Man Godfrey, by Gregory La Cava, Carole Lombard also plays a ditzy heiress, who thinks it would be fun to hire a homeless man (William Powell) as a butler, only to discover he is also an eccentric millionaire. Considered to be one of the high-water marks of the screwball genre, it features cutting social commentary and a witty script, as well as a parade of some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, including Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Alan Mowbray and the ensemble’s standout, Mischa Auer, as an artist whose greatest work is his gorilla imitation.

 ‘THELMA AND LOUISE’  (credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer)
‘THELMA AND LOUISE’ (credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer)

A more recent Hollywood film, the ultimate female bonding road movie, Thelma and Louise (1991), directed by Ridley Scott and starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, celebrates the beauty of sisterhood, as it presages the #MeToo era.

Francis Ford Coppola’s eerily prescient 1974 film The Conversation stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who fears the couple he is spying on is targeted for murder. The film has a great supporting cast that includes Cindy Williams, Allen Garfield, John Cazale, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall and Teri Garr.

OTHER FILMS in the festival come from almost every region of the world. Jean-Luc Godard made a foray into science fiction with the 1965 Alphaville, a look at an empty, dystopian futuristic society, starring Anna Karina. Two of Italy’s greatest screen actors, Alberto Sordi and Lea Massari, star in Dino Risi’s witty look at the transitions in Italian life following the end of World War II, in the 1961 film A Difficult Life. The Executioner is a 1963 Spanish comedy about an undertaker who falls in love with an executioner’s daughter.

Ebrahim Golestan’s 1966 Brick and Mirror is considered one of the highlights of Iranian cinema before the Islamic Revolution and tells the story of a woman who leaves a baby in a taxi and the driver who must find the child a home.

Vlad Petri’s Between Revolutions looks at two friends caught up in parallel revolutions, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the fight against the Ceausescu regime in Romania.

Kozaburo Yoshimura’s 1956 Undercurrent examines tension between modernity and tradition in this story of a young woman who creates handmade kimonos and resists her father’s pressure to marry.