Fade to gray at the Jerusalem Cinematheque
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Fade to gray at the Jerusalem Cinematheque

Alesia Weston tells the Times of Israel why, after little more than a year, she has left her job as director of Jerusalem’s revered art house film institution

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Alesia Weston and Lia Van Leer at Weston's first festival as director, July 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)
Alesia Weston and Lia Van Leer at Weston's first festival as director, July 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)

It was opening night at the Cinematheque’s 30th Jerusalem Film Festival, the flagship event of the city’s historic art house theater, earlier this summer.

Director Alesia Weston, dressed in her customary black with a shawl thrown over her shoulders against the cool July night air, addressed a crowd of thousands seated on the bleachers and white plastic chairs of Sultan’s Pool, the concert space under the walls of the Old City.

In her warm, easy manner, probably honed from years of being “the new girl” in a perpetually peripatetic life, Weston welcomed the attendees and told them, possibly tongue in cheek, that this year’s festival was “a miracle.”

At the time, no one paid much attention to the comment. Every film festival feels like a marvel of sorts, not least for the movie lovers who eagerly await the yearly catalog.

But for Weston — who joined the fabled institution just last year — this festival was indeed a miracle given that it was nearly canceled in April, around the same time she gave her notice.

Alesia Weston at the opening of her first Jerusalem Film Festival, last year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)
Alesia Weston at the opening of her first Jerusalem Film Festival, last year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)

“The organization has been suffering for a long time and most have not really known,” said Weston. “As late as April, we weren’t sure that we could go forward with the festival, because of the financial situation, but we felt we had committed to showing the work of filmmakers who have been banned from their countries, who had risked their lives to make these films and bring them to Israel. We were not about to go to them and tell them we can’t honor those commitments. And we also felt we had an obligation to the audience, the subscribers and the local film industry to show up and be present.”

The festival went on and the two filmmakers in question — Ziad Doueiri, from Lebanon, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an Iranian — did end up screening their respective films, “The Attack,” and “The Gardener,” both filmed in Israel and banned across the Muslim world. Meanwhile, thousands filed through the Cinematheque building as usual, making their way from the festival’s offbeat documentaries to quirky feature films, along with discussions, seminars and workshops.

Most people had no clue that anything was amiss at the Cinematheque. Weston, however, was done, after months of juggling the dire financial straits and fractured relations at Jerusalem’s beloved film institution.

Looking back

It was several weeks after the festival, and Weston was sitting in Lavan, the in-house café at the Cinematheque — the “only place to eat around here,” she likes to say, referring to the building’s wondrous but isolated location overlooking the Hinnom Valley — idly stirring an iced coffee with a straw. Cinematheque staffers occasionally passed by the table and said hello, with Weston returning each greeting with her usual smile.

No animosity was on display here, nor did any mark Weston’s brief tenure at the film institution. Details were in short supply, on purpose; Weston balked at going public with specific elements of the conflict out of a desire to preserve her relationship with the movie house.

Weston, 42, raised in Europe, Israel and the US, wanted to bring her vision of films that connect people and cultures to Israel, the place she loves most. But instead, she found an institution that appeared to need a drastic change in thinking.

The film festival always opens in Sultan's Pool, an event attended by thousands each year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)
The film festival always opens in Sultan’s Pool, an event attended by thousands each year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)

Like the Cinematheque’s beloved founder, the nearly-90-year-old Lia Van Leer, who established the country’s first Cinematheque with her husband, Wim, in their Haifa living room back in 1955, Weston has a deep and abiding love of film. It’s the reason she got into this business in the first place.

Born in London to a British father and an American mother, two lawyers who later divorced, Weston lived in various cities around Europe, and then spent six influential years in Israel, between the ages of 9 and 15.

The Cinematheque, she likes to say, is where she spent some of her best hours as a young teenager. She left Israel in the middle of high school to attend a Quaker boarding school in the American Northeast near her two brothers who were already in college. After high school, Weston headed to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where she studied languages.

There was a post-college “Ratatouille”-like experience in a 3-star Michelin restaurant in France, where she spent a year gaining the respect of a sexist chef and his vulgar kitchen staff; and then another year deferring law school, which she spent in Israel, the year of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and numerous bus bombings. That was one of her less-than-successful years.

Finally, she tried England again to see if that felt like home. It was there that she received some good advice about what she could do with her life — work in film.

“I didn’t want law or sign-language interpreting or social work,” she said. “I wanted to do something that would have a social impact, that would change the world, one person at a time… maybe a few people at a time. Film had been my constant; when my brothers weren’t around, I had movies and TV. I would pick out unknown actors in small roles in movies, and say they’re good, and the actor would turn out to be Michelle Pfeiffer.”

Weston went to Hollywood, where both of her brothers were living, and landed a job as the assistant to a director at Imagine Entertainment, the film and television production company founded by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer. She couldn’t have been less qualified, she noted, but somebody took a leap of faith.

A view of the Hinnom Valley from the Cinematheque, which overlooks the classic Jerusalem scenery from its lovely but isolated location (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash 90)
A view of the Hinnom Valley from the Cinematheque, which overlooks the classic Jerusalem scenery from its lovely but isolated location. (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

It was in LA that Weston learned everything that she didn’t want to be doing in film while working on Hollywood flicks like “Nutty Professor 2” with Eddie Murphy. Yet even the Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” was not, Weston said, her kind of movie. She didn’t feel at home making those films; she was always the person sitting in the meeting saying, “This isn’t good.”

“I would come in on Monday morning and everybody would talk about the movies they’d seen over the weekend. I was the one who saw the movie that made $4 at the box office, and everyone would say, ‘How nice that Alesia does that,’” said Weston. “I didn’t think that what they were doing was good. I felt like I had skills, but didn’t know what to do with them.”

She moved over to actor Kevin Spacey’s new development company, but he soon left to run the Old Vic Theater in London. And when September 11 happened shortly thereafter, she took it as a sign and quit, aiming to figure out what would make sense for her in the world of film. Working on a project for the American Film Institute — monitoring and writing up a list of the greatest American movies — Weston began to formulate her idea of the perfect job.

“I had been at two of the best [development companies] and didn’t like it. And I couldn’t work with Gene Kelly, or be Mary Poppins,” she said, laughing.

Instead, she made her own Mary Poppins list of what she did want in a job and, in a round of informational interviews, told the person sitting on the other side of the desk that she wanted something with languages and education… something meaningful that involved travel and connecting cultures, working with people who she liked and respected. “They’d look at me, these busy studio people, and say, ‘Sounds great, and good luck,’” recalls Weston.

“The last interviewer’s comment was, ‘I have no idea what that is, but I like that you’re asking for it.’” Three days later, he sent Weston an email from the Sundance Institute, which was looking for a person to run its prestigious Sundance/NHK award program. It felt like someone had read her list.

“My brother told me my life had been the preparation for the job,” recalled Weston.

From Sundance to Cinematheque

Working for Sundance, Weston would come through Israel every year from Jordan. At first she looked for local filmmakers, which is how she first met Hany Abu-Assad, Dror Shaul, Shira Geffen and others.

“I knew the business and I would meet the Israelis at festivals around the world. I’d help out at the Israeli filmmakers’ brunch — at one time, it was impossible to get people to attend this; now you can’t get in,” she related.

It was while she was at Sundance that the Jerusalem Cinematheque first asked Weston to join.

Renen Schorr, the acclaimed director of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film School, recommended her. At the time, however, it was too early in her career at Sundance. But when Katriel Schory, the director of the Israel Film Fund — regarded as one of the key people engaged in moving Israeli film forward worldwide — didn’t take the job six years ago, the Cinematheque began the process of wooing Weston.

Renen Schorr, the director of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School (at right of picture) and Katriel Schory, the director of the Israel Film Fund, were both considered for the Cinematheque job (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)
Renen Schorr, the director of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School (at right of picture) and Katriel Schory, the director of the Israel Film Fund, were both considered for the Cinematheque job (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

For Weston, the opportunity to work directly with Israeli filmmakers, in Israel, was the selling point. She wanted to interact with the films and filmmakers she’d gotten to know. By then, Israeli film was starting to hit its stride, and Weston had been working with various Israeli directors. More than that, she wanted the films to succeed.

“I just thought, it’s such a mess there, but I loved the work,” said Weston. “There’s a disproportion of good talent to the size of the country; it’s really good stuff. My [festival] colleagues have the same problem. They say, ‘The Israeli talent is really messing me up; there’s a bunch of movies I have to say No to, and they’re as good as — or better than — other films, but I can’t take all of them.’”

According to Weston, it’s a problem of “way too much inspiration.”

Israel offers “the breadth and depth of stories, human stories, challenge, angles, opinion, personal experience, larger collective experience, and trauma. And couple that with the fact that we are storytellers,” she said. “It’s in our DNA to tell stories, and we’re always looking for that. Whether or not we’re good at it, we do it over and over again.”

That said, the quality of the acting wasn’t always perfect, and neither was the sound design or editing, for that matter. To Weston, it seemed clear that she didn’t want Israeli films to start looking like American films, but she did want them to have more options.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back to Israel, and yet I was always looking for ways to spend more time here,” Weston explained. “There was a part of me that wanted to connect my work to this place.”

Various prizes are awarded during the annual festival, as the Cinematheque is seen as an institution that has helped promote Israeli filmmaking (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash 90)
Various prizes are awarded during the annual festival, as the Cinematheque is seen as an institution that has helped promote Israeli filmmaking. (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash 90)

She also liked the idea of helping create the meeting point between Israeli cinema and world cinema. From her perspective, there was nothing provincial about the Cinematheque or Israeli film, and yet Israeli filmmakers were only interested in succeeding abroad, not in Israel. In fact, Israeli film was suffering here in Israel and she couldn’t figure out why.

And so, despite some concerns about being boycotted by her friends and colleagues in Jordan and Lebanon, and wondering if she would lose her film neutrality by becoming Alesia Weston from Jerusalem, she decided to take the job; she started work in the spring of 2012, just prior to the summer film festival. At the time, it seemed like the perfect way to meld her love of Israel and of film, and to assist in honing the local industry that had made such strides, all packaged within the institution — the Jerusalem Cinematheque — that had helped make it happen.

A cinematic year

Weston keenly felt the differences between Sundance and the Cinematheque when she stood in front of the crowd at last year’s festival, her first as director. Her experiences at Sundance had given her the confidence to stand in front of an audience — albeit in the requisite parka and jeans that are de rigueur at that festival’s Utah’s headquarters — yet the Israeli crowd was vastly different.

“I’ve never experienced as rude an audience and yet as delicious an audience,” related Weston, referring to an unruly crowd that took its time finding its seats, causing time delays and other logistic issues. “It’s challenging. I didn’t realize I was going to be in dialogue with all of your opinions, and if it were up to me, we’d start right on time, but it’s not something you can really get a handle on.”

Lia Van Leer, the founder of the Cinematheque art house theaters, in the lobby of the Jerusalem Cinematheque (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Lia Van Leer, the founder of the Cinematheque art house theaters, in the lobby of the Jerusalem Cinematheque (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The other difficulties, said Weston, had nothing to do with aligning her personal politics with those of the institution — which were a good match — or any agreement about the power of film and how the Cinematheque showcased the medium. Instead, it was largely about internal challenges for an organization that began as a small, intimate effort by the Van Leers, and then grew to a large body that was not supported by the necessary infrastructure, organizational model, financial planning and funders.

The organization has long been divided into territories, where staff members weren’t paid on time and the board kept demanding reports but hadn’t provided Weston with enough cash flow to continue operating, she said. Meanwhile, she had to fundraise for the various events and never had time to actually work on the summer film festival, the main event that consistently pulled people to Jerusalem.

Besides the festival, Weston’s interest in the organization involved a desire to focus on establishing a strong center for Israeli film in Israel and restoring it as a key place for discovery as well as a platform for some of the best films in international cinema.

“Given how little this organization was working with, in terms of tools or support, the fact that the Cinematheque was functioning was somewhat miraculous and the quality of the work produced fairly extraordinary,” said Weston, “and the organization deserved better.”

A view of the Cinematheque, nestled between the Begin Center (on the right) and the Mount Zion Hotel (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)
A view of the Cinematheque, nestled between the Begin Center (on the right) and the Mount Zion Hotel (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

The Cinematheque building, renovated several years ago, was also a known challenge. It had been expanded but without attention paid to its ongoing maintenance and accessibility. Van Leer, who now uses a walker, has to be driven down a back driveway in order to enter the building and takes the elevators to the organization’s offices.

On a larger level, said Weston, the Cinematheque was under too much stress and didn’t have a functioning board to help Weston figure it out. There also wasn’t the kind of support she had anticipated from the municipality, given that the Cinematheque is a prime cultural institution for a city that aims to attract, and keep, the younger population who settle here for their university studies.

The challenges began there, but were extensive. Weston felt they needed a very different solution from the one anticipated during the previous year when she had been hired, and wasn’t sure from the get-go that she was the right person for the job.

The Cinematheque at a crossroads

It has been a rocky period for the Cinematheque, agreed Ruth Cummings, an adviser to the arts and nonprofit institutions who helped the theater with fundraising for a period of time.

The place is an anchor, an important cultural institution in Jerusalem, and Van Leer, its founder, said Cummings, “is the matriarch of Israeli love of film and film production.”

Robert De Niro and Jerusalem Cinematheque founder Lia Van Leer (photo credit: David Vaknin/Flash 90)
Robert De Niro and Jerusalem Cinematheque founder Lia Van Leer (photo credit: David Vaknin/Flash 90)

“God bless Lia! The place rolled along and did surprisingly well over so many years,” she said. “I think it’s a time where people need to take stock of what is the Cinematheque and all the assets. You don’t want to lose the soul of the institution, but now they’re at a very particular moment and it really falls to the board to iron out those relationships and put the institution above individual board members. In the best world, the Cinematheque is going to outlast any board members currently serving.”

Institutions all over the world are changing, said Weston. The Cinematheque wasn’t supposed to be a profit-making organization, but it did need to sustain itself.

“You can’t run a cultural institution by the rules of the marketplace,” agreed Katriel Schory, the Israel Film Fund director. “But you have to understand, like the Israel Opera, like the choirs and the dance troupes, that you can’t survive on performance income; you need to take that into account, to be budgeted into the horizon.”

That, said Schory — and having a united board of directors, one that has the same goals and agenda for the organization. He pointed out that he has that at the Israel Film Fund, but he didn’t think Weston had it at the Cinematheque.

By last winter, Weston realized it wasn’t going to work and that she wasn’t the person to save the Cinematheque.

“Ultimately, I believe that with the right care, commitment and skill set of some key figures, the Cinematheque will recover and get back on track,” she said. “It will need a lot of love and support to get there, but there are so many that love the organization and I am hopeful they show up for it.”

Head to the Cinematheque to choose some flicks for the festival (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg)
The entrance of the Cinematheque during this year’s festival (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg)

With that, Weston’s brief time at the Cinematheque was over, and she experienced a certain sense of relief to have made the decision. This July’s festival went on — which was a kind of “valentine to Lia,” commented Cummings regarding the stressful, last-minute planning — and now Weston has to decide what’s next for her. She stopped work at the end of July, and left Israel at the end of August. She knows she wants to go back to working with filmmakers and connecting between cultures, and she’s hoping she’ll still be able to do so, working with the Cinematheque, rather than for it.

“I still love this place and want to contribute and do so from a position of strength,” she added. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. The programming here has always been extraordinary, and what it needs now is a different kind of rehabilitation. If I can be a kind of ambassador, then happily. This is an extraordinary place.”

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