SPOTLIGHT August, 2014: Lia Van Leer, Film Programmer, Promoter, Provacateur

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallThis month, AWFJ’s Spotlight is focused on Lia Van Leer, the extraordinarily accomplished, influential and beloved cinema programmer and cultural provocateur who has has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to promote filmmaking and film appreciation in Isreal and around the world. Lia Van Leer celebrates her 90th birthday this month, and we celebrate her! Read on…

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For almost six decades, Lia Van Leer has played one of the leading roles in Israeli — and international — cinema. She is her country’s cutting edge cultural animator, and her extraordinary list of accomplishments includes the establishment of the famed Israeli Film Archive (in 1960), the founding of the renown Jerusalem Cinematheque (in 1981) and of the acclaimed Jerusalem Film Festival (in 1984). Much of Van Leer’s career is chronicled in the 2011 documentary Lia, directed by Tali Goldenberg.

At age 90, Van Leer still goes to work at the Jerusalem Cinematheque every day! She attends Jerusalem Film Festival screenings and events every year. She says she loves and is committed to her work and will never fully retire!

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Van Leer came to her career in cinema by chance rather than by design. After attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she married Wim Van Leer, a Dutch engineer and pilot, and the couple settled in Haifa. Lia and Wim shared a passion for cinema and in 1955 they began Israel’s first cinema club, using a 16 mm projector they’d received as a gift to screen films in their home in Haifa. An invitation to a Van Leer screening quickly became the hottest ticket in town. The Van Leers introduced club members to cutting edge films from around the world as well as the best Israeli films.

lia van leer 3-croppedLia eventually converted the film club into the Haifa Cinematheque, which became center stage for the release and distribution of Isreali films.

The films the Van Leers collected for screening in their home and at the Haifa Cinematheque were the first to be donated to the Israeli Film Archive, which like the Cinematheque, was borne of Lia’s labor and inspiration.

On Lia’s initiative, funding for the Jerusalem Cinematheque was raised from international contributors, including Brazilian businessman George Ostrovsky and a number of Hollywood honchos. Lia, named the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s first director, became a major player in the international film arena, programming films from around the world for release in Israel, and advising foreign festival programmers and distributors about trends and successes in Israeli cinema. Lia’s influence in cinema has been recognized around the world. She’s served as a juror at many of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, and programmers from around the globe call on her for advice.

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After her husband died in 1991, Lia established the Wim Van Leer Award for High School Students, intended to encourage young filmmakers to pursue their craft. In its first year, eight films were submitted for the award. In 2008, the year Lia officially stepped down from her leadership positions at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and Jerusalem Film Festival, which is held annually at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, there were 90 films submitted for the Wim Van Leer prize.

Why We Chose her:

At a time when the world is beset by cultural clashes and outbreaks of violence predicated by prejudice — in Israel and Gaza, and elsewhere around the globe — Lia Van Leer has created cross cultural dialogue through the fine medium of cinema. In the movie venues she’s created, people can come together to contemplate what life is all about, to share laughter and tears, to overcome enmity and enhance mutual understanding.

Thank you Lia Van Leer for all you’ve done for the art of the moving image. You are the undisputed queen of Israeli cinema, but the realm of your influence extends way beyond your country’s borders. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists salutes you and celebrates you. Happy birthday, and best wishes for a wonderful year to come.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).