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Film Maven Lia Van Leer Helped Israel’s Movie Business Grow up

It’s impossible to look at the trajectory of Israeli cinema — its evolution from the slapstick, racially tinged films of the 1960s to the critically acclaimed dramas and documentaries of the past decade — without noting the immense influence of one diminutive, smart-talking little old lady: Lia Van Leer.

Her story, chronicled in Taly Goldenberg’s 2011 documentary “Lia,” will be at the center of a special screening and Shabbat dinner in New York on June 13 as part of the Israel Film Center Festival at the Manhattan JCC.

Now 87, Van Leer has lived a life in film. She arrived in pre-state Israel as a teen from Romania in 1940, one year before her parents were sent to die in a Nazi concentration camp. She made the Jewish state her home, and in the early 1950s met and married Wim Van Leer, a Dutch engineer and pilot who shared her love of cinema.

The pair inherited a 35mm film projector, and began hosting a film club in their home in the northern city of Haifa, inviting the ragtag expats and Holocaust survivors flooding into Israel at the time to share a bit of old-world culture and conversation in their living room. Over black-and-white films brought back from their travels to Paris and New York, Israel’s first-ever film club was born, giving rise to generations of Israeli cinephiles.

Eventually the gatherings outgrew the Van Leer home, and the Haifa Cinematheque was built to accommodate them. A few years later, when the Van Leers moved to Jerusalem, Lia raised cash from everyone including the mayor and her Hollywood friends to build the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which now houses  an extensive film archive that fills the basement with cans that run the gamut from “Down by Law” to “Eyes Wide Shut” on a campus just beneath the Old City’s white stone walls. The site also features four sparkling screening rooms and a gourmet restaurant.

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In 1981, at age 57, she became the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s first director, and three years later launched the Jerusalem Film Festival, a gathering of local and international critics, filmmakers and movie aficionados modeled after the Cannes fest. She flourished in the cinematheque post for three decades.

Today, although dependent on a walker and technically retired, she can still be found daily in her office at the cinematheque.

“I haven’t left,” she says, as we sip lemongrass tea in her home, designed by prominent Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. The house features an indoor arboretum and original Chagall and Picasso paintings. “I go to work every day,” she says. “I’m not going to be on a pension. I love (the Cinematheque) too much.” Her husband died in 1991, and Van Leer inaugurated a film award in his name to encourage high-school students to make movies.

She will attend the June 13 screening of “Lia” in New York, and will appear on a panel discussing the evolution of world cinema in Israel.

“Lia, and the Cinematheque, made world-class film relevant for Israelis,” says Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israeli Film Center. “It set a standard.”

Van Leer says she hopes most of all to speak to younger New Yorkers who have fallen out of love with Israel.

“There is a lot of boycotting of Israel, including from filmmakers,” she says. “I would like to tell them to come and see Israel as it is. Come — and give money to the cinematheque.”

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