Israel Film Archive is going digital and releasing its collection online

These delicate films must be run through many machines that process and repair them in various ways, before they can be digitized.

MEIR RUSSO, manager of the Israel Film Archive.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
MEIR RUSSO, manager of the Israel Film Archive.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“To restore films is to touch history,” said Meir Russo, the manager of the Israel Film Archive (IFA), which is located in, and is part of, the . “And digitizing our collection and making these films widely available have always been our dreams and our goals.”
After years of intensive work on digitizing its collection of Israeli , the archive is posting many of its gems online and plans to make more available, with the goal of eventually digitizing everything in its vast collection, more than 5,000 hours of film.
The IFA features a copy of virtually every film ever shot in Israel, including feature films, documentaries, newsreels and home movies, with clips that go back to the 19th century, among them an 1896 film produced by the Lumière brothers shot in Palestine which is believed to be the earliest film made here still in existence. These films and clips provide a fascinating and unique glimpse into Israeli history; but in the past, only scholars doing research at the IFA had access to them.
The coronavirus outbreak underscores the importance of digitization, and the Jerusalem Cinematheque has made a number of classic clips from the IFA available on the cinematheque website recently.
These include a clip about a 1949 tuberculosis outbreak in Israel, a snowy day in Jerusalem in 1950, a 1935 dog show in Tel Aviv, a 1955 fashion show in Haifa, a private visit with Albert Einstein, comedian/actor/director Uri Zohar (now Rabbi Zohar) reciting poetry in a dress, and much more.
Russo presides over a small but dedicated team housed in a rabbit warren of small offices on the ground floor of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. This is where the thousands of films in the archive are housed at precisely the right temperature to prevent deterioration, and where the incredibly painstaking work of digitizing films, many of which are falling apart and have become damaged or faded, is carried out.
“The equipment has to be constantly replaced or upgraded,” said Russo, on a tour of the archive that took place just before the virus flared up. These delicate films must be run through many machines that process and repair them in various ways, before they can be digitized.
Exaggerating only slightly, Russo said that since the archive’s recent acquisition of technically advanced equipment, “We went from the 19th century to the 21st century with no stop in the 20th.”
The day I visited, the staff showed me clips they had been working on restoring recently that included a home movie of a visit to the Hanita settlement in 1936 and the star-studded premiere of the classic Ephraim Kishon film The Policeman, with Shaike Ophir, from the early 1970s.
THE IFA may be the least visible part of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, but it is the underpinning on which the rest of the enterprise rests. Before Lia van Leer, who died five years ago, created the cinematheques and film festivals in Haifa and Jerusalem, she began collecting both Israeli and international films, which she would screen in a film club. The legend goes that in the early days, she kept the collection under her bed. But it grew into Israel’s national film collection, and the IFA is now a member of the International Federation of Film Archives.
In addition to all Israeli films, the IFA contains prints of tens of thousands of foreign films. Van Leer acquired these by charming the heads of film studios from around the world and persuading them to leave one copy of every foreign film released in Israel with the IFA. So when the Jerusalem Cinematheque features retrospectives of the classics, such as films by Alfred Hitchcock or Francois Truffaut, for example, most of the films shown come from the archive.
In addition to restoring the historical documentaries in the archive, the IFA, with the support of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is run by Dr. Noa Regev, has been digitally restoring classic Israeli movies. Among those that have been successfully digitized and have gone on to be shown in theaters and film festivals all over the world are Rafi Bukai’s 1986 film, Avanti Popolo, about two Egyptian soldiers who get stuck on the Israeli side in the Six Day War, which required a particularly extensive restoration process; Avi Nesher’s 1984 film Rage and Glory, a dramatic story about the Stern Group; and Assi Dayan’s 1992 film, Life According to Agfa, about the patrons of a Tel Aviv bar.
The IFA’s restoration project is supported by the Jaglom Family Foundation, the Beracha Foundation, the Kennedy Leigh Trust, the Mifal Hapayis national lottery, the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Heritage Department of the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, the Culture Ministry and the Tziyunei Derech Project.
Anyone who has home movies shot in Israel is invited to contact the IFA, if one would like to donate them to the archive.
For more information about donating material to the IFA, contact