Israeli film biz legend looks to future

Lia Van Leer guides Jerusalem Film Festival

Lia Van Leer has been a mainstay of the Israeli film biz for the best part of half a century.

She’s become as much of an institution as the annual Jerusalem Intl. Film Festival that she founded in 1984 with her now-late husband Wim Van Leer.

Despite her status, rumors of Van Leer’s departure have been swirling ever since May 2006, when popular Israeli film blog Cinescope reported she was set to be replaced by Israeli Film Fund topper Katriel Schory.

Furious denials from Van Leer, the board of the Jerusalem Foundation (the org that provides coin for fest) and Schory temporarily silenced the talk. If anything, last year’s outcry over the leak ensured that Van Leer would stay in her job for another year.

But Van Leer admitted in an interview with Variety on July 7 that this year’s Jerusalem fest would be the last for which she would be solely responsible.

“I’m not going to live forever, and I would like someone to come in as a co-director,” Van Leer says. “I will still be involved, but not in everything, maybe as a president or head of the board. We can always invent a name, but I will still be involved in some capacity for as long as I can still stand on my feet.”

Van Leer set up the country’s first film society in 1956, which later became the Haifa Cinematheque.

She followed that by opening cinematheques in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as the country’s first film archive in 1960, which now has 30,000 films, the biggest in Israel.

Despite the talk about Van Leer, the fest unspooled without a hitch June 5-14. Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” was the big winner, picking up the Wolgin Award for best Israeli film, best actor and actress for Sasson Gabay and Ronit Elkabetz, respectively, as well as most promising actor for Saleh Bakri. Lubna Azabal won the award for most promising actress for her role in Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv’s “Strangers.”

Van Leer is also keen to counter suggestions that the Wolgin Award — once the most prestigious film honor in the country — was losing its importance.

This year saw only seven Israeli films compete in the feature-length category, due in part to Israeli cinema’s growing success at international fests.

The Israeli distrib of Cannes winner “Jellyfish,” for example, decided not to compete in favor of opening nationwide while interest in the film was still high.

“I think it’s wonderful that all these films are being invited overseas,” says Van Leer. “But local filmmakers will still need local help here to promote their films in Israel.”

When Van Leer does move on, she will leave behind her a commendable legacy of a thriving festival in a region more commonly known for its troubled conflicts.

“This town is not so easy,” Van Leer says. “But we have to promote peace, tolerance, understand each other more and continue to show Palestinian and Israeli films.”

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