Since 1960, the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Israeli Film Archive has been in charge of the safekeeping and preservation of original Israeli narrative and documentary film works – from the late 19th century until present-day. In 2020, the Jerusalem institution launched its official website and the general public can now explore and sample the archive’s generations’ worth of film treasures.

Leia Van Lear in the Film Archive

In the Beginning

Way back in the 1950s, Wim and Lia van Leer went on holiday to Paris. On their numerous visits to the French cinematheque, the couple was gradually introduced to a range of film classics and art films. “Back in those days, distributors never brought these kinds of films over to Israel,” recalled van Leer who would later establish both the Israeli cinematheque and film archive, “so we figured, we’d just have to do it ourselves, won’t we? And with that, essentially, the archive was born.”

In those days, the couple was living in Haifa and would regularly host a film club at their home, inviting over likeminded film buffs for an evening of quality cinema. “At first, I used to keep the copies at home, under the bed,” recalled van Leer, who passed away in 2015. “Of course, eventually, I ran of space, so we ended up moving them to another flat.” Back then, the film copies were kept in a flat on Moriah St. in Haifa, whilst the archive and the film club both operated from Rothschild House (later Hecht House) in the Carmel Centre neighbourhood.  

Wim and Lia van Leer continued to buy films and in 1960, the couple officially founded The Israeli Film Archive which, by the following year, was already made a member of FIAF –International Federation of Film Archives. This move allowed them to connect with sister archives around the world, and to bring over to Israel copies of films never before seen on local big screens. A 1964 report sent over to FIAF stated that the Israeli archive’s then-current stock had 130 film titles. Of the many films the van Leers had imported to Israel at the time were D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street, Howard Hawks’ Scarface, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Moving to Jerusalem

In the seventies, the van Leers moved to Jerusalem where they founded the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Initially, the cinematheque was based in Agron House before later relocating to its current residence in Gehenna, established with the generous donation of philanthropist, George Ostrovsky and where later, the film archive was also relocated. Over the years – thanks to its founders’ dedication, and the ongoing support from The Jerusalem Fund, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and the Ostrovsky Family Fund, it grew into the biggest, most prominent film archive not only in Israel but the whole Middle East; an institution in charge of compiling and preserving tens of thousands of Israeli and international films. The archive is currently home to roughly 32,000 film screener copies, 12,000 negatives, 20,000 videotapes, and 2,500 copies of Israeli film works. The films come in a range of formats – both digital and analogue (16mm film, 35mm, Beta, U-matic, etc.) – which in some cases, are the only existing copy anywhere in the world.

Also stored in the archives are genuine holy grails such as film pioneers, the Lumiere Brothers’ ultra-rare footage from when they were filming the landscapes of Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Bethlehem in 1896. These films, shot by the Lumiere Brothers, are considered the first ever video footage of Palestine. The various archive collections combined, make up a puzzle in which the land’s visual and audiovisual history from the late 19th century through to present-day is depicted. Words cannot stress enough the importance of this collection for the State of Israel in particular, and for Jewish heritage as a whole.

The archive serves as Israeli cinema’s official film deposit centre. Copies of both fiction and documentary films made in Israel are left there for preservation and research purposes and are regularly loaned for cinematheque and festival screenings in Israel and around the world, and for a host of other film-themed events. In 1999, the archive was awarded official status when the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) passed the Film Act and ruled that every production that is funded by an Israeli film fund must leave a copy of the film at the Jerusalem archive.

Digital Preservation in the 21st Century

In 2017, in order to tackle the ravages of time and film copies’ inevitable wear and tear, the Jerusalem Cinematheque took the decision to march the archive into the 21st century and in the process, bring about a digital revolution in the field of Israel’s audiovisual heritage. To kick things off, the cinematheque’s management reached out to a wide range of peers, institutions, and funds – all of which offered the scheme their full backing, including the Jaglom Foundation, the Beracha Foundation, Mifal HaPayis (Israel’s National Lottery), the Heritage wing of the government’s Ministry of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Development Authority, and the Ministry of Culture.

As part of the scheme, state-of-the-art, top-end equipment worth millions of shekels was acquired and has since been used to clean up the copies and to scan both audio and video. A professional preservation lab running around the clock was set up at the archives. There, all film copies of the Hebrew and Israeli collections are copied and converted into the most advanced digital film formats. The archive team runs a whole system that is in charge of infrastructure, storage, and management of all film master files which supports reception, retrieval, handling, playing, mapping, and optimised management of the archive’s digital assets – including new digital deposits and scanned items.

Alongside restoration works, the archive both initiates and produces restored digital copies of select film works from the Israeli repertoire. What this means for these restoration jobs is that in addition to the auto-cleaning and scanning that takes place at the archive lab, there are also several manual processing stages – cleaning any and all scratches; fixing audio and video that has deteriorated over time, and also meticulous colour treatment (known as colour-grading) –this, in order to retain the film’s original qualities. Some of the films to have been restored thus far include Three Days and a Child (1967), Avanti Popolo (1986), Siege (1969), and Life According to Agfa (1992).