Dr. Noa Regev

A special interview with Dr. Noa Regev, exiting Jerusalem Cinematheque CEO and founder of the digital archive, in honour of her departure from the role

Interview by Anat Rivlin

Dr. Noa Regev took over as CEO of the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 2013, following a long-term career in various Israeli film institutions which she began at the mere age of 15. In tandem with her work at multiple film festivals and cinematheques over the years, Regev delved deep into film studies, and her contribution to academic film research in Israel cannot be stated enough. Her passion and charm take on many forms – one of which is her capacity to gather round her a group of people whose devotion to all things film appears to override any and all problems and obstacles they may encounter along the way. Whether cinematheque staff or Israeli film buffs, none seem able to resist Regev’s passion for what she has dubbed “the rolls into which sunlight has etched reality.”

During her tenure, the cinematheque’s various branches have all enjoyed a genuine renaissance, following years where the struggle has objectively been real. In my view, one of the most important schemes championed by Regev was the comprehensive digitising of the Israeli Film Archive’s catalogue which was then made available for streaming online on the cinematheque website, to any and all viewers, everywhere.

As part of my work in Israeli public television, I’ve often found myself having to dig up archival footage. As such, my visits to the archives were not without their (many) challenges. Most of which involved actually tracking down the footage, or the condition of the film rolls and the risk of compromising them in the course of my research. In all my previous interactions with various archive staff, they all seemed to share the same concern that eventually, these rolls will disintegrate, and that swathes of footage depicting entire periods’ worth of local history will vanish forever, without a trace.

Now, as we commemorate the end of Noa Regev’s tenure, I was able to sit down with her for a chat about the scheme she had championed and later, headed, which led to the digitising and preserving of the Israeli Film Archive, and to it being made globally accessible, online.

When did you decide that taking the archive online was going to be the project you were going to champion?

NR: It was already at my job interview, when I was being asked what my vision was. And whilst I genuinely dislike the pretentiousness of the word ‘vision,’ I did say that the cinematheque’s greatest asset, by far, was its archive and that I thought it was time it was revolutionised.

How did you know to highlight the archive as the single-most important asset?

NR: Well, I’ll start with the fact that Lia van Leer was one of the few individuals in Israel who appreciated the importance of film preservation as an act of cultural protection; and there are stories of how she used to keep films under her bed because she was so scared something might happen to them. It was important to me to carry the torch, as it were, and continue with her life’s work. And I’m so pleased that we actually got to tell her we were going through with it.”

And at what point did it become your end goal?

NR: When I was Director of the [Tel Aviv] International Student Film Festival, it dawned on me; the sheer size of this treasure trove that the cinematheque had. This is an archive that spans 120 years’ worth of filmmaking in the land, in 35 and 16mm formats. I fell in love with the storage spaces that created this whole unique experience, in and of itself – just the sight of endless piles of tin boxes with film rolls inside. As a film buff, myself, it blew my mind. Even back when I was a student, I already knew that this was the only place in the country where you could find Israeli films, so when I eventually started working at the cinematheque, it was the most obvious thing in the world to me that this had to be the end goal in my body of work – creating a digital archive alongside the film one; getting us to a place where preservation is a long-term prospect, and that all the content is readily accessible to the general public. Because film just isn’t. Watching film [rolls] is way too clunky.

What can one find in the archive? Why is it so important?

NR: For decades, the archive, under the management of Meir Russo, knew how to tackle film roll preservation. Which is why he ended up in possession of dozens of cultural heritage treasures of the utmost historical significance. It’s important to realise that the sum total of our audiovisual cultural and artistic heritage is right here, at this archive. It has all this historical documentation – from general, to national and individual histories – which lend themselves to virtually infinite insights into just about every field of research conceivable. And this thing – it just has to be protected for future generations, and be accessible; wherever you are, and using the simplest search terms.

Can you give an example?

NR: Take the first ever film in history that was shot in Palestine in 1896 by the Lumière Brothers’ film crew. In the film, you see [a ship] docking in Jaffa, a train journey to Jerusalem, a trip to Bethlehem – it’s a look at the land as it was at the time. The archive has all this rare footage that was shot by early 20th century pilgrims, alongside films commissioned by the Zionist movement that capture the many enterprises across the country, and the local landscapes. And of course, there’s the newsreel collection that spans the history of local news, and family home movies in which you see the country from the people’s own individual point of view. And obviously, virtually every narrative and documentary film produced here since 1932, as there is a parliament act which dictates that a copy of each film work be left with the archive. This is footage that if lost, will cost the world a tremendous deal of scholarly knowledge.

Could you take us through this journey? What sort of difficulties did you encounter along the way?

NR: Well, for one we discovered that there’s neither [local] knowledge nor experience of any sort when it comes to the process behind this type of preservation. Nor did we have any idea how we were going to fund this complex, not to mention incredibly costly endeavour.

Where does one start then?

NR: During one of the trips [abroad] I’d gone on with the idea that I was going to start fundraising, I took some disintegrating film with me so I could illustrate just how dire things were. I got to witness all these preservation systems in the States, and that made me realise that we needed to come up with our own system. A bit like this whole project which, in itself, is essentially a string of miracles, at this point we had a veritable timing miracle. Hila Abraham had just got back from her studies at Eastman Kodak and was looking for a project where she could implement all this vast knowledge she had amassed – and so, she and I found each other. Just so you realise how long this has been in the making – the year was 2014. Hila, Russo, and I spent hours on end thinking about it all, and mostly realising that we understood approximately nothing about any of it. It isn’t just working out all the technical and budgetary kinks – there is so much more to it than that. You are essentially creating an entire digital library, with everything that it entails.

A bit like every project which on paper, sounds simple enough, but in reality, is made up of hundreds of fine details, this miracle you’re describing is people coming together.

NR: Oh, totally. Daphna Jaglom who specialises in digital preservation, joined the force, and gave us the tailwind we needed, as well as professional and personal mentoring and guidance, every step of the way. We also had the great fortune of welcoming the likes of Hadar Miller on board, who was in charge of all things tech, and Hilla Shitrit who handled the public online access side of things. Along with our Finance Chief, Ariel Revivo, we embarked on this adventure together which, for me, has been truly unforgettable; starting this pioneering scheme from the ground up – a digital film archive in Israel.

You mentioned earlier that this was a costly project. What about it makes it so expensive?

NR: The workflow behind a preservation programme is a complicated operation. There are all these tech aspects, but also a whole lot of content and legal ones too. You have to have people who know how to work in this kind of tech eco system, but you also need people on content and research who would handle the digital cataloguing of all the materials. And there’s all the legal advice you need for all the footage that is so and so’s intellectual property and all that. Also, at every step of the way, we had to stop and think who our end users were. There were endless additional issues to staff and price that were added to pile later, on the go.

Could you share one of your main insights?

NR: One decision we took was to start our own inhouse lab at the cinematheque, as opposed to outsourcing the project. Because contrary to what you might think, the whole process is so much more than just technical – the digitisers have to take all these decisions that are often complicated, cinematic ones. For instance, how to join sound and image together. We wanted the process shadowed by all the relevant professionals who were working at the cinematheque.

And how did you tackle the budgetary issue?

NR: Even though we didn’t have all the funding, I knew and believed that as long as we got things off the ground, we would somehow make it happen. The budget we’d come up with – we, being the senior management along with our Finance Chief, Ariel Revivo, and our Managing Board Chair, Daniel Mimran – already had all the clauses that we knew we would have to be ready for. We decided that the moment we hit 50 percent of our starting capital, we would get the show on the road and keep any delays to a minimum. To my great joy, there were several bodies out there that took a leap of faith on us, and on the project, who realised very early on just how essential it was: the Simon & Marie Jaglom Foundation Inc., the Beracha Foundation, and Mifal HaPais (Israel’s National Lottery).

With a project as important as this, both culturally and historically, has the state offered any assistance?

NR: Over the years, the archive has had the support the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The project has also been supported by the Treasury, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Is there anything in the archive that speaks to you on a personal level?

NR: I managed to dig up this footage of my mum, in year two, getting an award for winning the national Know-your-Country geography quiz.”

No way! How did you ever find that?

NR: I suppose it’s a little to do with the obsession that I, and everyone else had with making all this footage widely accessible. We realised how meaningful and unique this content was, and that it would be such a shame if it was only ever available to scholars and industry professionals. A header that reads ‘Carmel Reel’ won’t mean a thing to people [on the outside]. So, we decided that when we were logging the footage, that each and every theme that that features in the film would be mentioned, in writing, including a Google Maps pin which, to my knowledge, does not exist in any other archive in the world. And when such a process is implemented, looking up whatever it is you’re after becomes that much easier. I literally typed ‘Know your country quiz,’ put in the year – and voila.

That’s extraordinary.  You really went all in with accessibility, didn’t you?

NR: We certainly did. We’ve had messages from hundreds of people about all kinds of things they’ve managed to find. Accessibility isn’t just about going digital. It’s important that the material also be accessible across as many areas of interest and affinities as possible. And indeed, our Head of Accessibility, Hilla Shitrit, and our Head of Tech, Hadar Miller, and the whole team who were working with them at the cinematheque – everyone joined forces in ways that can teach us so much.”

How do you go about educating people about the importance of film preservation and more broadly speaking, heritage preservation?

NR: The field of film preservation is seen as a branch of the humanities amongst the international philanthropy community because it is ultimately about the preservation of reality. The sun etched reality onto the film rolls that we keep at the archive. And I believed, wholeheartedly, that in preserving the archive I was delivering to the people something which I considered to be fundamentally good and essential – that is, their cultural memory which they may not even be conscious of.

It sure sounds like this kind of project called for a great deal of determination. How do you explain your tenacity all throughout?

NR: The urge to document and preserve has been with me since childhood. I still remember how I would stand in front of something or other I was looking at and feeling desperate to treasure the sight forever, long before I ever even held a camera. But with this, the driving force was professional, because it was crystal clear to me that this was the cinematheque’s crown jewel and that it was, for all intents and purposes, a bona fide treasure.

To sum up, do you have a favourite bit of cinematheque archival footage?

NR: My favourite has to be this film called Palestine, which lots of other people also love. It’s a hand-colourised film, shot in 1920 by a group of pilgrims who had come to explore the land. It has both aesthetic and historic value. Never mind the fact that it is the most extraordinary piece of historical testimony, it is shot so beautifully that honestly, I would put up frames from it on my walls at home in a heartbeat. And we don’t even have the cinematographer’s name.”

Subscribe to our mailing list and stay up to date
הירשמו לרשימת התפוצה שלנו והישארו מעודכנים

This will close in 0 seconds