It’s good timing for Jerusalem’s celebrated Cinematheque movie theater to complete the lengthy process of digitizing and now opening its storied audiovisual digital archives to the public.
The Israel Film Archive at the Jerusalem Cinematheque launched its free website this month, featuring 120 years and thousands of hours of Israeli and local filmmaking, divided into historical and artistic views. Just in time for Israel’s lengthy coronavirus closure.
“We did make a push to get the website up by the holidays,” said Hila Avraham, director of the digital department of the archives. “We just wanted to get it up already.”
The website contains a treasure trove of filmmaking, featuring people, places and stories that hadn’t been visible for decades, said Avraham.
The platform includes viewing options in VOD format, supplementary tools enriching the viewing experience, search possibilities by year, landmark, location, topic, public figures, and more. The platform is available free of charge in both Hebrew and English, although English subtitles are the next stage of the project, said Avraham.
The Cinematheque had thought about digitizing for years, taking stock of its home movies, news reels, documentaries, student films and feature films. Since the 1960s, every film produced would share a digital version with the Cinematheque for preservation.
The project has been in the making since 2015, said Avraham. Its back story is similar to that of any archives, said Avraham, who has a degree in the subject from the University of Rochester, noting that “archives are always started by someone who’s just obsessed with the idea.”
These archives had their start with film lovers Lia and Wim Van Leer, the husband-and-wife couple who founded the Jerusalem arthouse theater (as well as similar theaters in Haifa and Tel Aviv).
They traveled the country with a 16mm projector, creating film clubs in local kibbutzim and communities, and later bringing films from the US and Europe for screening in Haifa. Van Leer joined the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) in 1960, helping to establish the Israeli Film Archive.
In order to digitize the archives, the Cinematheque wanted it to meet all international standards, with similar equipment, staff and a work plan. The greatest benefit was being able to receive films from all kinds of organizations and individuals, said Avraham, people who trusted the Jerusalem Cinematheque as an institution.
Individuals bring unmarked reels to the archives, often home movies that are “so real and so alive,” she said. “You just keep on seeing more and more puzzle pieces of what life was like back then.”
The Israeli Film Archive holds over 30,000 titles, recorded on two million meters of film, and 4,500 hours of productions made in Israel, with a digital storage volume of about 6 petabytes (6 million gigabytes).
As part of the $10 million project, the Cinematheque established the first advanced professional laboratory in Israel transforming film reels into digital formats at international standards.
Following three years of research and a detailed mapping of historical information that enables viewers to search for subjects within the film clips, the next films are now accessible to the general public.
For now, the archives are free, and will be “as long as it’s on us,” said Avraham. “We’re trying to be an open, non-profit, cultural institution, although it does depend on our supporters and on the national budget.”