Lia Van Leer, 90, grande dame of Israeli cinema

Israel’s film matriarch once said she didn’t want to think about the end, but hoped it would happen at the Cinematheque

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

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)

Lia Van Leer never wanted to leave the Cinematheque. In fact, she once said that she’d like to die at the arthouse theater she founded in Jerusalem.

“I don’t even want to think of the end because I know it will come,” said Van Leer in “Lia”, a film made by Taly Goldenberg about her life. “I want to be onstage at the Cinematheque, speaking about something, and then bang.”

It was a typical statement for the city’s matron of film, the silver-haired sprite who was always ready to speak to anyone about her pet topic and could almost always be found at the center she founded more than 25 years ago.

The 90-year-old doyenne of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the city’s arthouse cinema, as well as the Haifa Cinematheque, Israeli Film Archive and the Jerusalem Film Festival, died Friday night at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital.

She was at the Cinematheque shortly before being hospitalized, and was recently in Berlin in February, for that city’s film festival. She didn’t like to miss a film festival, said one Cinematheque staffer.

The theater was Van Leer’s second home, a multi-level edifice overlooking Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley and the Old City walls, the embodiment of all that Van Leer and her husband, Wim Van Leer, created when they began their lifelong project of establishing Israel’s film industry.

“You went into the Cinematheque and she was there,” said Ruth Cummings, an old friend of Van Leer and a longtime supporter of the Cinematheque. “She gave it a place and presence that were very unique and special for Jerusalem. Lia was the anchor.”

Film, as she often said, was her life.

She first fell in love with the cinema in her native land, Romania, after seeing Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise.” It opened her to the magical world of film, said Van Leer in “Lia.”

“I left the movie theater and couldn’t believe there was another world out there,” she said. “I sat and didn’t want to talk to anyone else.”

It was that very experience that Van Leer ended up creating for so many other film lovers.

After being sent to Palestine to visit her older sister when she was 16, Van Leer, whose maiden name was Greenberg, ended up staying when World War II began. She met her husband, Wim Van Leer, a Dutch Jewish industrialist, while studying at Hebrew University, and they embarked on a cinematic endeavor together, screening classic films in their home.

Those movie nights quickly grew as the Van Leers traveled the country with a 16mm projector, creating film clubs in local kibbutzim and communities. They soon established a film club in Haifa, which became today’s Haifa Cinematheque, 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.

What started as a home-based archive now contains 50,000 films, including all the films that have been produced in Israel and Palestine and hundreds of copies of Jewish cinema from all over the world.

By the early 1970s, Van Leer helped found the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, but then moved to Jerusalem to establish that city’s Cinematheque with the help of George Ostrovsky, who offered her a million dollar donation to create the center.

By then, the Van Leer Group Foundation, a privately endowed charitable organization, had been established by Oscar van Leer, the younger brother of Wim van Leer. The foundation provides financial support to the Jerusalem Film Center and contributes prizes for the advancement of cinema in Israel and to young filmmakers in particular. It was part of the team made up of longtime Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and the Jerusalem Foundation that set up the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 1981, and founded the Jerusalem Film Festival three years later.

“I didn’t think of it as a career, just something that I loved,” said Van Leer in the film “Lia.”

She helped inspire generations of Israeli filmmakers, and was a pioneer of the local film industry as well.

“She was a pioneer between Jerusalem and the movie industry,” said Avi Nir, the CEO of Keshet Broadcasting, speaking at INTV, a television industry conference currently taking place in Israel. “She is an example for all of us of making the impossible possible.”

She served as a judge of the world’s leading film festivals, and won the Israel Prize in 2004.

In 2008, at the age of 83, Van Leer stepped down as director of the Cinematheque. The beloved institution then experienced some turbulence and financial troubles as it sought a new, stable direction.

The new director, Noa Regev, the third since Van Leer’s retirement, took over last spring.

“It’s like the passing of an era, but what’s so wonderful with Noa Regev in place is that Lia had enough time to pass the baton,” said Cummings. “There’s no Lia replacement, but there’s the resonance of her.”

Regev said in a statement that Van Leer continued to be active until her last days, working out of love for the movies and film culture in Jerusalem, Israel and the world.

“I’ll miss her very much as an inspiring and hopeful woman in my life,” said Regev.

Van Leer was a force in many peoples’ lives and in the cultural life of Jerusalem, added Cummings.

“What I’ll always remember is her beauty and elegance and that twinkle in her eye when she spoke about any film or film star that she admired,” she said. “You saw her bask in this cinematic glow. She projected cinema.”

Service of remembrance for Lia Van Leer at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Monday, March 16, 2015, 1 p.m. Funeral at the Sanhedria Cemetery, 3 pm. Shiva at the Van Leer residence daily between 5 p.m and 9 p.m.

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