Producing results

It doesn’t have a permanent home yet, but a new cinematheque in Ashdod is aimed at helping change the face of culture in the city.

Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri 521 (photo credit: Avner Rothenberg)
Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri 521
(photo credit: Avner Rothenberg)
Yigal Gamliel has his work cut out for him.
Indeed, filling cinematheque auditoriums is not always easy. By definition, cinematheques are art-house facilities that cater to a wide range of artistic and entertainment tastes and, more often than not, steer clear of the mass appeal blockbuster stuff.
But when the movie house in question is located outside the accepted geographical and cultural center of the country, that only serves to exacerbate an already challenging situation.
But Gamliel remains optimistic about the fledgling Ashdod Cinematheque’s chances of success.
“Things were slow to begin with,” he said, “but audiences have grown significantly in the past month.”
Gamliel serves as director-general of the Ashdod Company for Culture, Sport and Community Centers. The idea to try to get a local cinematheque up and running came from the top of the municipal tree.
“The mayor [Yehiel Lasri] came up with this initiative,” Gamliel continues.
“We are always looking to add new cultural facilities in Ashdod, and Zvi proposed starting a cinematheque.
I started looking into it and I contacted [Ashdod-based film director] Zvika Zellinger and [Jerusalem Cinematheque acting director] Yigal Molad-Hayo, and they came to my office and we discussed the idea. Zvika is currently in charge the cinematheque setup team.”
The next stop was Molad-Hayo’s backyard.
“We went to the Jerusalem Cinematheque to take a look at how it operates. It’s a very impressive institution.”
Not that Gamliel has any illusions about Ashdod’s ability to emulate the capital’s cinematheque just yet. The incipient Ashdod art house also got some help from a retired Jerusalem cultural powerhouse.
“Avner Rothenberg has been a tower of strength, and done so much to help get our cinematheque off the ground,” said Gamliel of the former Jerusalem Municipality cultural department director. “Avner cares a lot about making this project a success.”
The Ashdod art house officially opened for business, at its current premises in the cultural wing of Beit Lavron Community Center, on November 16.
Both Lasri and Molad-Hayo delivered stirring speeches before the inaugural movie, Ashdod July 1961, by Helga Keller, was shown. It was a natural choice. The short film was shot by Keller 50 years ago and portrayed a small town as it began absorbing a large wave of olim (immigrants) from Morocco. Ninety-year-old retired filmmaker and sculptor Keller attended the event and was given a special award.
Naturally, before you start up a new financial concern, of any nature, it’s a good idea to do some marketing research. In the case of Ashdod that’s a little more complex than usual.
“This is a very varied city in terms of the cultural elements we have here,” explains Gamliel. “I have to say that the Russian aliya boosted cultural consumerism here to a very impressive degree, so we have a difficult challenge to provide for their needs, and the needs of the rest of the population in Ashdod.”
That, as Keller’s documentary clearly shows, also includes the Moroccans who came here all those years ago, as well as the second and third generations who were born in Ashdod, not to mention locals from other cultural backgrounds.
“We do our best to tailor the multicultural activities in the city to the needs of all the various groups of olim who came here,” continues Gamliel, “and that includes people who came here from India.”
While the Russians may, indeed, have given the local cultural agenda some impetus, the question still remains whether going out to watch a movie as opposed to, say, attending a classical concert or hearing a performance of Russian folk songs, is their thing. Gamliel is keenly aware of the cultural conundrum.
“This is a trial period for the cinematheque. We have to see how things evolve, to see whether there is any point to investing more in this.”
The early signs have been encouraging.
“You can’t get anything up to full steam overnight,” adds Gamliel. “You have to keep your finger on the pulse and, for now, we have decided to keep the pilot stage going until February or even March before we put more money into it. The mayor is all for increasing the budget, if we can be sure it is going to be a success.”
Thus far, all funding for the cinematheque has come from in-house sources.
“We haven’t asked any other institutions for money,” says Gamliel proudly.
“All the funding has come from the Ashdod Company for Culture. The first two-month period has been budgeted at over NIS 100,000, and I have asked for a further budget of around NIS 1 million. The mayor said that if things take off he’ll support my request and it will be submitted to the municipal finance committee. That’s why I extended the pilot stage by another two months, to give the cinematheque more time to develop, to see whether we can really make a go of it.”
FOR NOW, screenings take place twice a week, initially on Mondays and Wednesdays, and later on Mondays and Thursdays.
“We show one movie each evening, starting at 7:30 p.m.,” says Gamliel.
“That’s a good time for people to go out to watch a movie.”
But the multicultural element has to be kept in mind.
“We want to see which movies appeal to the different communities here, such as the Russians,” says Gamliel. “They like classical music and jazz and dance, especially ballet.
When we have Russian shows the auditoriums are always sold out but, when it comes to movies, we knew we had to get it right for them. We show sector-oriented movies at the cinematheque, for the Russians, the Indians and all the others.”
The new movie facility may be a slow-burning enterprise but, in case the thing does take off, there are big plans just waiting for the green light.
“I have a budget allocation pending from the mayor, when the time is right, to build a new facility for the cinematheque at our main cultural center, next to Heichal Hatarbut and Yad Lebanim and the museums, and where the orchestras perform,” states Gamliel. “We will build a new floor with 400 seats, and we’ll have another hall with a capacity of 150.”
That would put the Ashdod facility near the big league, with the ability to hold simultaneous screenings, but Gamliel is not about to embark on any risky escapades.
“We have to feel our way. There is no point in a spending so much money on a new hall if it stays empty.”
Even so, Gamliel is not expecting to pack them for every film.
“We know what the nature of cinematheques is. The hall is not always full, even a 150-seat auditorium sometimes only gets about 50 people in.
That happens in Jerusalem and anywhere else you have a cinematheque.
We’re not looking to draw people from Tel Aviv either. We want to appeal to people in Ashdod and in the surrounding region. That can take in a catchment area of about half a million people, and can include places like Yavne, Gedera and Ashkelon, and all the moshavim around here.”
Gamliel says the cinematheque will not compromise on the standard of products it offers, and will do its utmost to incorporate the needs of the local education system.
“You have to show quality films at cinematheques, and we want to appeal to schoolchildren, we want to introduce the younger crowd to the cultural item of the movie.”
In this day and age that, in itself, is quite an uphill battle.
“Of course, kids today have access to all sorts of things on computers,” Gamliel continues. “They can watch TV series and movies at home in front of their little computer screens, but we want them to have the experience of going to the cinema.”
That will require offering a more extensive program.
“We would bring them to the cinematheque, and have a lecturer talk to them about the relevant topic, or possibly a playwright or actor, to introduce them to the cinema, and to show them all sorts of elements they can benefit from at the cinema, which they wouldn’t get at home.”
That would mean making trips to the cinematheque part and parcel of the school curriculum.
“That’s not going to happen this year, but I’d like that to happen in the 2012-13 school year. If the cinematheque proves to be popular we will sit down with the local education administration and we will start to introduce cinematheque outings as part of the cultural basket.”
At least part of the educational infrastructure is already in place.
“There are film studies in some schools, so we could tailor the movies to the needs of the curriculum, and vice versa.”
That would, naturally, bode well for the future.
“We could bring up a new generation of cinemagoers,” adds Gamliel “That’s the idea. We want to build this thing up from the start. We’re not a city that attracts a lot of tourists, like Jerusalem. We are called a peripheral town, even though we’re close to Tel Aviv. So it is not going to be easy for us to make the cinematheque work. We have to nurture it and lay the groundwork correctly.”