August 8, 1924
A pioneer in Israeli film, Lia Van Leer was born Lia Greenberg in Beltsy, Romania (today Moldova). Her parents were assimilated members of the middle class who were active in local Zionist organizations. In 1940, she left on an extended trip to visit her sister who was living in Tel-Aviv and working as a dentist. She was still in Palestine when the Nazis invaded Beltsy in summer 1941. Her father was murdered along with other Jewish community leaders. Her mother and grandmother were deported to Ukraine where they perished in concentration camps. Lia remained in Palestine.
In 1943, Lia moved to Jerusalem to study Humanities at the Hebrew University. It was there that she met her husband Wim Van Leer, an engineer who had volunteered in the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 Independence War. After the war, Wim founded a company that created pesticides for the agricultural sector. Married in 1952, the two traveled abroad frequently and developed an appreciation of cinema as an art form. Describing the state of film culture in Israel in the early 1950s, Lia wrote,
Here you had only commercial cinemas. You had no art cinemas. And you must remember that there was no television and no video. People had no chance to see Chaplin or Buster Keaton…or Greta Garbo. We thought, we’ve got to bring films here because we felt it was like bringing books or paintings from a museum. (Shai Tsur, “Israel’s Great Lady of Film,” Jerusalem Post, July 3, 1998, p.B2)
Lia and Wim created the country’s first film society in Haifa in 1956. The film club evolved into the Haifa Cinemathèque. They created two other Cinemathèques in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. The couple traveled the country, visiting settlements and kibbutzim and showing films that were otherwise not available in Israel. They amassed a significant collection of films from which they created the country’s film archive in 1960. Today the Israel Film Archive is the largest in the Middle East. In 1999, the Knesset passed the Cinema Law requiring that every film supported by an Israeli fund have a copy deposited in the Israel Film Archive.
With the help of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, in 1973 Lia created a permanent home for the Jerusalem Cinemathèque and the Film Archive near the Old City. In May 1984, Van Leer directed the first Jerusalem Film Festival. The inaugural festival featured 100 films from twenty countries. Lia has served as a member of the jury at many prestigious film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival. In 2004, she was awarded an Israel Prize for her cultural achievements.
To read a June 2001 article about Lia Van Leer in Variety, click here.
In the photo, Lia Vann Leer receives a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011.