First Lady of Film

Nearly 82 years old, van Leer has dedicated almost her entire life to the promotion of the art of cinema in Jerusalem.

lea van leer 88 (photo credit: )
lea van leer 88
(photo credit: )
Earlier this week, just days before the Jerusalem Film Festival was set to open, Lia van Leer, Israel's first lady of cinema, was still busy trying to find solutions to minor organizational problems related to one event or another. Sitting in her office in the Cinematheque building, the same woman who has dedicated almost her entire life to the promotion of the art of cinema in Jerusalem, has earned an international reputation as a film critic and promoter and is a judge at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, sees nothing unusual or out of character in making a cup of coffee for her staff or this journalist. Nearly 82 years old, van Leer has neither time for putting on airs nor patience for formalities and protocols. When she takes something on, she is completely engaged. Almost unbidden, she answers a question before she is asked and goes directly to the point. "Cinema," she declares, "is an art. For a long time people were inclined to consider it entertainment. Of course, it's entertainment, too, but it is an art and a very important art. She continues, "This city, which I deeply love, is a sad city. I believe the Cinematheque, with all its activities, brings it a little piece of joy". In 2004, van Leer was awarded the Israel Prize for her contribution to Israeli culture and cinema. Yet Israel is her adopted country. Her mother tongue was Russian and her second language Romanian, because she was born in a land that passed from ruler to ruler. Her family moved from place to place, and so she also learned German and Yiddish; later she added French and English. Theirs was a cultured home, filled with books and music, and she learned to play the piano and dance ballet. She dreamed of being a ballerina, not of film. In 1939, she came to Palestine to visit a sister who had come to live here. Due to World War II, she was unable to leave. In 1943, the German army arrived in Romania and, according to eyewitness accounts, her parents, along with the entire Jewish community of Bessarabia, were shot into the graves that they themselves were forced to dig. But van Leer doesn't want to speak of these times. She enrolled in the Hebrew University, where she studied social sciences. In 1952, she met her husband, Wim van Leer, a swashbuckling pilot who had fought in the Spanish War and, during the Holocaust, had smuggled 24 young men out of Holland to safety in Britain. During Israel's War of Independence, he volunteered as a pilot in the fledgling Israel Air Force. The attractive and popular young couple settled in Haifa. Today, we would call them "cinema freaks" with a passion for films. In 1955, they created the first "Good Film Club." She claims the idea was her husband's. "From the very beginning, our club was very popular and we had about 200 members who came to watch quality movies with us," she recalls. They watched 14 films a year, which the van Leers collected from sources around the world. They ran the club together with friends, strictly on a voluntary basis. A year later, a friend opened a second, similar club in Tel Aviv. Of course, there were cinemas in Israel at the time, but the Film Club avoided the big-name commercial films from America and instead, focused on old films and silent and rare movies otherwise inaccessible to the public. Following the screenings, they would discuss the material they had seen. And they were committed to taking their films to Israelis who otherwise wouldn't be able to see them. Equipped with a 16 mm. projector, the van Leers flew the length and breadth of Israel in a small Piper Cub plane, to development towns and kibbutzim. Over the years, Wim decided to turn his attention to other ventures, leaving the film project to Lia. But the collection of films grew, and Lia decided to establish a Cinematheque. In 1973, the van Leers moved to Jerusalem and van Leer brought her passion with her. "I came to Teddy [Kollek, then-Jerusalem mayor] and told him that I needed a site to create a Cinematheque in Jerusalem," recalls van Leer. "His answer was: 'What is a Cinematheque? What is it good for?' That's Teddy. So I explained to him that I wanted to screen films and he said, "Why do you need a new place to show films? We have already a few cinemas in Jerusalem - aren't they enough?' I had to explain to him that these were not the same kind of movies, that I was talking art and not entertainment. "As you can see, I convinced him. And with the generous help of the Ostrovsky Family and the Jerusalem Foundation, we built this wonderful house for the Jerusalem Cinematheque." As the work progressed in its unlikely location by the Hinnom Valley, far from the center of town and still in ruins, Jerusalem was full of rumors that "Lia van Leer is opening a discotheque in Jerusalem." "Friends came to ask me what was going on and I had to explain what I had in mind," van Leer recalls. "Today, of course," she says with obvious satisfaction, "This Cinematheque is part of this city. It brings it culture and beauty." The Jerusalem Cinematheque and Israeli Film Archives opened its doors in 1981. Three years later, the Cinematheque sponsored the first Jerusalem International Film Festival. Says van Leer, "After I had been a judge in a few prestigious festivals in Europe, I thought, 'why not a film festival in Jerusalem?' I must say we were very lucky. At the first film festival, Lillian Gish, the legendary film actress, was our principal guest and the festival was an overwhelming success." Van Leer continues to direct the Cinematheque and to travel the world. She has served as a judge in numerous influential film festivals around the world, including Lucarno, Venice, London, New York, Toronto and Berlin. At the celebrated and prestigious Cannes Festival, she has served as a head juror. Over the many years, van Leer has watched tens of thousands of films, some for her own pleasure, some for her work. Yet when asked about her earliest memories and her most favorite film, she doesn't hesitate. "The Children of Paradise, an all-time masterpiece, made by the French director Marcel Carnet. Before that, I had seen some of Charlie Chaplin's films, and, of course, I liked them very much. But then, one day, I went to see an afternoon showing of Children of Paradise in Tel Aviv. It was wow!!! I can still feel the emotion I experienced almost 50 years ago. I can still recall the enchantment, the beauty, the emotion. "When the movie was over I stepped outside, in the afternoon light of Tel Aviv, and still under the spell, I thought to myself is it possible? Is there another world out there? "Since then, I have watched some 30,000 to 35,000 films at least, but that was really something that I never experienced again." Although for professional purposes she sometimes has to view a film privately, van Leer says that for her, watching a film is a social activity. "Watching a film is something I want to share with friends and people close to me. I enjoy being in a theater, sharing the same cultural experience with other movies lovers." She loves theater and music, but, above all, she loves film. "Nothing compares to a good movie. It is here, and you can watch it again and again." Van Leer is proud of the Cinematheque and she is proud of its contribution to Jerusalem. "I consider myself very lucky. I have had the privilege of adding the art and beauty of cinema to this city that I love so much. I have dedicated my life to this and I feel great satisfaction when I see all the young people who come here, not only during the festival, but all year round." The Jerusalem Film Festival, she says, has become a part of the life of the city and brings tourists to Jerusalem, too. "I see it every year, people - couples and families, too - come here for the whole duration of the festival. They take vacations from work, come to Jerusalem from all over the country to participate in this festival. Isn't it wonderful?" The Jerusalem Cinematheque is, indeed, a wonderful success story. Subscriptions are constantly increasing and the lectures and special programming are growing. The Jewish Film Festival, held at Hanukka time, has become a tradition. The International Festival now offers the Wolgin and Free Spirit Competitions. Facing one of the most beautiful views in the city, the Cinematheque building will be renovated and expanded after the festival, to satisfy the ever-growing demand of cinema lovers and visitors. "And you know what?" she continues. "This is what gives me the strength to wake up every morning. This is what gives me the strength to stand on my feet for so many years and to work so hard, even at my age. I never tire of this work." Indeed, van Leer does work very long hours. According to members of her staff, she is one of the first to arrive in the morning, and often the last to leave. The Israeli media, including The Jerusalem Post, recently reported that van Leer intended to retire. Van leer denied the rumor, adding on more than one occasion, including this interview, that the cinematheque is the center of her life. No detail is unimportant in her eyes and she insists on being involved in every aspect of the Cinematheque's and the festival's operations. This year, for the first time, the festival will open with an Israeli film, Oded Davidoff's Someone to Run With. Davidoff, a Jerusalemite, studied cinema at the Sam Spiegel School. The movie was produced at a cost of $2.5 million, which according to Cinematheque officials, places the Israeli film industry at the level it deserves. Says van Leer, "I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to give the honor to an Israeli film. I think that it is not only a good choice, it is a proper choice. We have good cinema in Israel, and it deserves to be honored properly."