Lia van Leer, the very life and soul of the Israeli film industry, talks to Edna Fainaru about forging her own path, building the national film archive and launching Jerusalem Film Festival

“For many years, they used to say in Cannes that when I go to sleep, there’s nothing more happening in town!” says Lia van Leer, Israel’s pioneering film archivist and programmer, often referred to as the first lady of Israeli cinema. Today she is sitting back in her office at Jerusalem Cinematheque and is reminiscing about her action-packed life at the heart of the Israeli film scene.

Van Leer started Israel’s first film club in Haifa in 1955, building it into Haifa Cinematheque and adding her family’s private collection of 16mm films, which became the basis of the Israel Film Archive.

She opened a second Cinematheque in Tel Aviv before moving to Jerusalem in 1967 to officially found Jerusalem Cinematheque, the archive and Jerusalem Film Festival. The latter is now celebrating its 31st anniversary.

For many years, van Leer was the factotum who kept the whole organisation moving. Running from one festival to another, from one capital to the next, begging, pleading and collecting films wherever she could find them.

She seemed to be on the move 24 hours a day, chasing her one fix: films.

It was not a serious endeavour, some people would say, including her husband’s mother, Polly van Leer — the founder of the Van Leer Foundation — who considered films to be, at best, an entertainment.

“When I got an honorary PhD from the Hebrew University for my activities, everyone was impressed, except her,” says van Leer.

Mother-in-law or not, Lia van Leer is credited as a founder of film culture in the country. Wandering around the world with her late husband, Wim, who was always by her side, often seemed to be her main occupation.

“Every year, we would start in Athens and then make our way from one country to the next, stopping wherever there were films to be found, and wouldn’t stop for three months,” she remembers.

If she was keen, there was little that would prevent her seeing a film.

“We were in Rome when La Dolce Vita opened, I tried to get in and they told me there were no more seats. I answered that I don’t mind sitting on the floor but they claimed it was against the law. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ll sit on the floor and you call the police.’ That’s how I saw La Dolce Vita,” says van Leer.

She has always enjoyed being around young people and nurturing new talent.

She discovered the late Wouter Barendrecht, who was to become the co-founder of Fortissimo Films. At the time he was a young intern at the Berlinale Forum. She invited him to Jerusalem.

“He would have long conversations with Wim in Dutch,” says van Leer. “They got along famously and soon he was referring to him [Wim] as his adoptive father.”

Equal opportunities

Van Leer has always forged her own path ‹ she turned a deaf ear to the Jewish Orthodox community when they objected to keeping the Cinematheque open on Shabbat ‹ and has been determined to make both Jews and Arabs feel at home there.

“The year Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle Of A Disappearance was shown at the festival in 1996, on the day we were about to announce the award he got for the film, a bus was blown up by terrorists in Jerusalem,” she says.

“When I was attacked for giving such a film a prize in these circumstances, my answer was that these people live here, next door to us.

They have no country and no army to defend them, this is their only way to resist the occupation and they have a right to express themselves.” The response was a host of angry and often threatening phone calls and letters from right-wing hardliners. But she was undeterred.

Age has not slowed down van Leer, at least not her spirit. Now aged 93, she has finally renounced her position as CEO of Jerusalem Film Festival but remains president of the three Cinematheques, the archive and the festival.

She pledges to go on, every night of the festival, travelling around town from one watering hole to another, making sure her guests are happy and comfortable, and treated as they should. Woe betide those who stand in her way.