Drama on and off the screen

Local residents are trying to outbid real-estate developers in order to save the Smadar Cinema.

smadar jerusalem cinema 248 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
smadar jerusalem cinema 248
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The courtyard of the International Culture and Community Center on Rehov Emek Refaim is used to hosting all sorts of cultural events, but this week it hosted hundreds of local residents who had gathered to try to save one of the city's cultural icons, the Smadar Cinema, which is threatened by real-estate developers. As the only single-screen theater left in Jerusalem, the Smadar has a devoted following. However, after a legal dispute between its owners - sisters Sara Harish and Nava Chichek - the 81-year-old German Colony icon is being sold to the highest bidder. Many contractors, real estate companies and even the theater's legal receivers - attorneys Yoram Aviram and Reuven Yehoshua - have put in offers to buy the cinema and develop its land value. Even the sudden death last week of Nava Chichek, who was for years the spirit behind Smadar, hasn't put an end to the process, as the receivers say they are still obliged to sell to the highest bidder. In the meantime, the Smadar will continue to screen movies, as in any event it is not scheduled to be evacuated until 2011. But local residents are not resting and have launched an ambitious plan to outbid the real-estate developers and claim the theater as their own. "We are not fighting against something," says city councillor Ofer Berkovitch of the Hitorerut party, "we are struggling to save something important to us all: the Smadar Cinema, our cinema, and in fact, our neighborhood." The story of the Smadar Cinema is a real local saga that contains all the elements of a good drama - a dominant and eccentric founder, two heiresses at war with each other, and large sums of money. According to architectural historian David Kroyanker, the structure was built in 1918 by German architect Gottlieb Boyerke, a member of the Templer community, and was popular with the British forces of the Mandate. In 1935 Boyerke named the cinema "Kino Orient" and decided to lease it to a local Jew, Eytan Belkind, to avoid public ownership in light of racist laws issued in Nazi Germany that forbade doing any business with Jews. Boyerke hoped that by doing so his fellow Templers, many of whom were Nazi sympathizers, wouldn't realize he was still the owner. But it didn't help him. After he had received a few threatening letters (reminding him, among other things, that he had a wife and a family), Boyerke took back full control and changed the cinema's name to "Regency." In 1947, after the war was over, a group of demobilized British soldiers took over the cinema. One of them, by the name of Arieh Chichek, sold his house and all his property in order to buy out his partners and became the cinema's sole owner. For years, Chichek was a one-man show, doing all the tasks, with the help of his wife and, later on, of his daughter, Nava. The place was dusty and old-fashioned but was hugely popular with local residents, who adored the block-buster films he screened. And most of the youth from the neighborhoods around came because he offered two movies for the price of one in the afternoons. The name "Smadar" was given after Chichek asked the public for suggestions. A young girl from the neighborhood proposed the name "Smadar." When Chichek was told that it was the name of a beautiful flower, he immediately changed the name of his cinema. Since then, the Smadar has turned into a theater with a reputation for screening quality films and going against the Hollywood trend. While the Smadar is the only building in the neighborhood constructed with silicate stones - nobody knows how Boyerke managed to obtain a permit to construct a building without using Jerusalem stone - its location, in the heart of the fashionable German Colony and the owners' decision to retain its old-world style have helped make the Smadar into a local cultural icon. That and, of course, the choice of the movies, the bar and restaurant in the lobby and that fact that the cinema is open on Shabbat. "Over the years," says Myriam, who has been living across from the cinema on Rehov Emek Refaim for 40 years, "this place has become part of our life. It's much more than a cinema; it's a place where we meet our neighbors and friends. And people share these feelings not only in our neighborhood - there are plenty who come from other neighborhoods especially for the Smadar. I can't imagine it not being here anymore." Within days of the news of the cinema's impending closure, local residents began to fight back. Hundreds of activists, mostly students and youth from Hitorerut began organizing rallies and mobilizing support via the Internet. At the same time, inspired by the buy-out by fans of the Hapoel Katamon soccer team, another group of residents began looking into the feasibility of creating a group to purchase the building and operate the cinema under shared ownership. The two groups joined forces this week at Sunday's gathering. Berkovitch was the first to speak. "We need to save the Smadar; we will not give up," he said to raucous applause. Berkovitch added that the struggle had to be simultaneously on two tracks: one on the practical channel - such as the attempt to create a purchasing group; and another one, "no less important and crucial" vis-a-vis the municipality in order to obtain the status of a historic building for Smadar, a decision that would likely make the plot less attractive for developers. But, while the preservation committee at city hall is headed by deputy mayor Naomi Tsur, who was present at the rally, and although she has since recommended to the municipal planning and construction committee, headed by another deputy mayor Kobi Cahlon, that the building be listed for preservation, there are doubts as to that track's chances of success. "Don't put too much hope in the preservation issue," Kroyanker told the audience at the ICCC. "The chances that professionals in this field will agree to classify such an impersonal building [as a historic building] are very slim. The cultural needs issue sounds far stronger to me." While Kroyanker was relatively sober in his support for action to save what he didn't hesitate to qualify as a "piece of the local recent history" of the city, other speakers were much less reserved. "Without the Smadar we cannot live here," shouted Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalu of Meretz. "We will win this battle, he said. "I have no doubt at all." Allalu, who described himself as a faithful Smadar goer, said he was using all his means and capacities as deputy mayor to try to gain recognition of the architectural importance of the building. But he admitted that despite his conviction, the struggle would be "very hard and very long." Aside from what action needs to be taken, the major message of the gathering was that the closure of the cinema would be a direct affront to the secular residents of the city. Culture critic Prof. Ariel Hirshfeld described the Smadar as "a secular place in its essence, even if there are also religious people who attend." This was met with weak protestations from a few religious people at the meeting, but the majority applauded fiercely. And when he added that everything connected to the Smadar was relevant to the threatened secular way of life still existing in the city and therefore had to preserved as a top priority, the applause became a real roar of approval. "This cinema belongs to the people. We can prove that we love it genuinely. After all, it is an ugly building, there's no question about it, but we still feel very attached, and it belongs to the people of Jerusalem, to the secular people, even if we are aware that religious people also attend and enjoy it." Renen Schorr, the director of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, said that the threat of closure was a watershed for the city's secular residents. "Is there any place going to be left for us here? Do we still have a place in this city?" he asked. Roselyn Gelcer, a resident of the German Colony and a veteran in organizing local neighborhood residents to fight for and against various issues, rejected claims that the results of the last elections had empowered local residents to take up the fight. Gelcer said instead that the battle to save the Smadar was simply a reflection of the strong socioeconomic standing of the German Colony's residents. "I believe it is first of all the capacity of the residents in a specific neighborhood to get organized. Here, in the German Colony, you have some of the stronger residents - people who know their rights and can afford to take the time to fight for their rights. Of course, the existence of a party like Hitorerut and the result of the last elections are critical, but it didn't start then or with them; it started here, when residents of this neighborhood felt they could bring a change because they have the civil strength to do it. This is not the situation everywhere else," she said. As expected, the short speech presented by Raly Kariv, the representative of the purchasing group, was the most eagerly awaited. Kariv, an architect, explained that the goal was to raise a sum that would enable the group to participate in the tender. "The support we have received from you is incredible and it strengthens us," she said. She also asked the participants at the meeting to sign the petition and invite their friends and relatives, "even if they are not residents of Jerusalem" to sign as well. "So far," she added, "we have gathered 4,600 signatures, and the number is increasing by the hour." By press time, that figure had approached the 6,000 mark. THE IDEA behind the purchasing group is rather simple, though not easy to achieve. Residents and sympathizers are invited to buy shares in order to attain the sum of money necessary to buy the plot and the building. "What is important to say is that, judging by the enthusiastic reaction, perhaps it's about time we stopped telling ourselves that Jerusalem is a poor city, that residents of the capital are poor. Apparently, not all of us are poor," concluded Kariv. Indeed, participation in the purchasing group is not cheap; donations of NIS 3,000 to NIS 5,000 are being requested. The market value of the complex is estimated at some $3 million to $4m. "Obviously, if we obtain the support of the municipal planning committee to restrict the Smadar to a cultural building, that will lower the price," Kariv said. "Otherwise, if the tender allows demolition of the whole building in order to enable construction of luxury apartments, the whole thing could reach much higher sums of money, and we hope not to get there." Meanwhile, Kariv gave a few additional details, not all of them encouraging. First, it appears that the plot to be offered on a tender is not totally overlapping the cinema building. "We found out that the plot includes only a part of the cinema complex and, for example, the bathrooms and the projection room are not included." Following these findings, Kariv and the purchasing group appealed to the court to put a halt to the tender. The court ruled that the tender would be extended by a week and that during that time it would rule on whether to cancel or change the terms of the tender. Kariv pointed out that not all those who sign plan to buy a share, but she says that the large support is having an effect. For instance, she and her partners have received quite a few calls from attorneys in Jerusalem who offered their professional help in the event that the issue regarding the new delimitation of the plot turns to be more complicated than expected. "This is only one example of how the whole thing is gaining wider support as days go by, and this is very encouraging." Kariv added that the fact that the struggle is both on the political-public aspect, led by Hitorerut and with the full support of Deputy Mayor Allalu and Naomi Tsur, adds to its chances. "But in any case, there needs to be a struggle led on both tracks: public and business - the one we are trying to achieve."