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Meir Russo, Head of the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Israeli Film Archive is the beating heart and soul behind the archive’s various projects, at the top of which is of course its digital restoration and preservation scheme which enables audiences everywhere to access and revel in thousands of home movies and newsreels that have captured Israeli history; not to mention hundreds of narrative and documentary films made here in Israel though the years that are now all available online. The core of this current, ever-expanding collection is the cache of films collected in the early 1960s by Jerusalem Cinematheque founder, the late Mrs. Lia van Leer whilst she was still living in Haifa. From a catalogue of just dozens of films in its nascent years, the archive now boasts a formidable collection of tens of thousands of titles – Israeli and international – to which it is home.
Russo himself is very much a wallflower and the kind of man who would never go out chasing fame or recognition; nevertheless, he remains a pillar of Israeli film culture and by now, his smiling face has become synonymous with the Jerusalem Cinematheque. “There are many archives out there in the world,” Russo says, “and they all tend to be quite insular. I don’t subscribe to that. Movies are made to be seen.”
Russo takes particular pride in the fact that the IT equipment required for the scanning and preservation processes is physically based in Jerusalem as opposed to the other end of the world. “The consultancy firm we retained suggested we outsource, but I wanted the whole thing to be done inhouse,” he explains and lists three reasons for this decision: “for one, this way, we could learn the craft and get proper professional training. Second of all, let’s say I make this amazing film discovery five years from now, right? What am I supposed to do with it if I haven’t got the equipment here with me, huh? And thirdly, having the equipment inhouse means that if we’re, for example, digitising some documentary footage from the ‘60s and the footage includes a rare frame of Moshe Dayan; that’s something I would spot, whereas if we had outsourced to India, whoever would have been doing that over there would never have known [the value of] what they were looking at.”
As far as Russo’s concerned, one of the biggest highlights of his job is reviewing home video footage that arrives at the archive. “I really do enjoy this aspect, especially when it’s pre or early-Israel footage. You could have a tourist who came here on holiday and shot videos of Jerusalem pre-1948 or was there to film Kibbutz Hanita being build. A great deal of the footage is from ’47 or ’67. As a Jerusalemite who grew up in Romema (local Jerusalem neighbourhood – EE), it’s especially moving for me when I come across archive footage of my old stomping ground.”
What are the biggest disappointments you’ve faced on the job?
“Whenever we’re unable to scan a film. Sometimes, it will have spent years sitting in some attic and just degrading with time until it’s done for – and that’s that. We’re essentially racing against the clock because you’ve got these chemical processes that are happening.”
When Russo is asked how he’s ended up in his current position, he replies that when all is said and done, it all comes to “life’s sheer randomness.” Russo completed his military service in the late 1980s, after which he went travelling. On his return, he started job hunting when a friend happened to overhear that the archive were looking to hire. His first archive job was a film testing technician, “and the more you train, the higher you climb.” Later, he underwent countless professional training courses and was eventually made Team Leader. Russo currently heads a team of dozens of archive staff.
When you first started out at the cinematheque, back in the early days, what was it about the place and what it does, that you were excited about?
“the sheer cultural-cinematic wealth I was exposed to when I first started working in the archive gave me the biggest thrill every day and if I’m honest, it still does. I was completely fascinated with the idea of being around films from the earliest days of cinema, both from Israel and around the world.”
And the rest is history. And part of that history currently sits on a computer screen in his office. For instance, a file named Schnitzer which refers to Israeli film critic, Meir Schnitzer’s book about Israeli film history which was used to create a database containing every feature-length Israeli film ever made. The majority of these films are stored at the cinematheque, either in their original negatives or their copies, with hundreds of titles now available for online streaming on the archive’s recently revamped website in the Artistic View section. “There will be those rare instances when there’s literally no trace left of the film,” Russo explains, “but 95 percent of the films are available here in one format or another.”
In recent years, the archive was able to get its hands on dozens of Israeli film negatives. “It’s the kind of move that in past, we just wouldn’t have been able to pull off. But just in the last three years, we’ve restored an insane amount of negatives. There’s about 50 now that we’ve already finished restoring, with another 25 well on their way,” Russo tells us. “There was a time when they used to edit Israeli films in European labs, and we were able to obtain dozens of titles from over there.”
Why though is it so important that you have the Abba Ganuv [an Israeli ‘80s melodrama classic – EE) film negatives here?
“The answer’s a two-parter, really. First of all, why are the negatives so important? You could argue that anyone can go look at the Mona Lisa on YouTube, but people do queue up for a chance to see the original work. Nothing beats the original. Your point-of-view is ultimately that much more respectful when you watch a film this way. It’s better that a film exist in dreadful quality than for it not to exist at all; but what I want is to have that film in the best possible quality. When Tarantino was here, he brought over the original Pulp Fiction copy so that we could use it to show the film.
Now, why is it so important to have a film like Abba Ganuv here? It’s important because every film matters. If one person’s not into it, another one will be. Every film is a time capsule and testimony to the culture, atmosphere, and humour of the period it was made in. You love it? That’s great. You don’t love it? That’s also fine. But they all matter.”
Technically, and in layman’s terms, how does a film’s digital preservation process work?
“Once we’ve chosen the title we would like to digitise, we then go over the inventory of elements that exist for that title; that is to say, we go through all types of copies, choose only the finest of the lot, and then grab them from the archive’s storage spaces and bring them up to our various digitising stations. The film rolls go through a washing process in what we call a stop bath, then both audio and video are sent off to their designated digitising stations where they are scanned. The scanning technician then transfers the scanned audio and video files to a digital archiving system where they are stored on an LTO-type media backup device. This type of media lets you save files and data in the highest possible digital quality that currently exits. These files are kept on two different tapes whose content is identical. One copy stays in the archive, and the other goes into storage by a company that specialises in media data preservation in underground, humidity and climate-controlled spaces. We also use the audio and video files to create an access file that we send over to the archive’s editing deck – this is the file we use to make a film available online, or as the viewing copy for scholars or researchers who regularly frequent the archive.”
What is your most practical aspiration for the archive, and the least practical one?
“Well, the least practical one would have to be owning a copy of everything there is out there. The next least practical, I would say, is for us to make a digital copy out of every physical one we have so that the public is able to access it one way or another, even if it’s only for private, academic research purposes, for example. Now, my practical aspiration is that we get our hands on the majority of Israeli film negatives that have scattered to all four corners of the earth. It is an incredibly gruelling, frustrating task – but it is doable, because we are in contact with a lot of organisations and institutions worldwide.
And with all due respect to the digital age, if I had another 100 million dollars to spare, I would make a 35mm preserved copy out of every film, for future generations. A lot of archives around the world do that. I’d also like to get some funding for Arabic subtitles for the films. Sure, that’s not going to set me back a hundred million, but it does cost money. We’re working on it.
One of the archive’s main projects in recent years has been its restoration scheme that’s allowed us to create renewed and restored copies of films such as Avanti Popolo, Siege, and Life According to Agfa which were not only shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival but also in the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals’ most prestigious sections. As a result of the major interest we’ve had in the project, and the many conversations we’ve since had around it that included proposals to restore copies of other films in the same way, a public committee was set up that will ultimately decide which films get the restorative treatment.”
Many are familiar with the cinematheque and all its film activities, whereas far fewer people could say that same about the archive and its work. Are you hoping to see that change now?
“Obviously. I truly hope that the exposure we’re about to give all the archive’s treasures will light a fire under people who have these kinds of materials or footage lying around at home which they may not even be aware of, to reach out to us and leave them with us. Another aspect involves relying on the general public in terms of adding and expanding on the metadata of every film we make publicly available; the wisdom of the crowd, basically – and I’ve no doubt that what information we do currently have on every film will grow tenfold thanks to the general public.”
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