|Fifty-five years have passed since Lia van Leer, together with her late husband Wim, established the first film club in Haifa. They had a membership of about 200 and held screenings every two weeks. "There was hardly any film culture in Israel, and young Israelis simply weren't interested," she recalls. They persevered, launching film clubs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and taking films to remote kibbutzim and desert towns. Their modes of transportation were an old jeep and a crop dusting plane. "I suppose we had about 100 prints, which we'd bought from various film buffs, all in fairly poor condition," she explains.
In 1958, Lia struck a deal with the British Film Institute, under which the BFI agreed to send copies of their season's films. The arrangement ended after three years, when someone at the BFI remembered that Israel was no longer part of the British Empire. Still, the link helped establish the film clubs as a cultural fixture in Israel.
In 1961, Lia started a film archive. "On the basis of the 100 or so films, ours did not really constitute an archive, but we were nonetheless accepted on trust by FIAF [the International Federation of Film Archives]." Haifa Municipality gave the van Leers a flat to house the new archive, and Lia secured governmental recognition, enabling the Israel Film Archive to preserve, collect, and screen films.
In 1973, Lia van Leer opened the Jerusalem Cinematheque in the Agron House. For many years, Lia dreamed of a new building to house the Cinematheque. After a meeting with George Ostrovsky who had come to Israel with the dream of building a cinematheque; the Jerusalem Film Center was born. One of the most beautiful cinema centers in the world, it opened its doors in 1981 with the thanks to major support from the Ostrovsky Family Foundation, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Van Leer Foundation, and many other people from around the world. It housed the Cinematheque with two screening halls, the Israel Film Archives, a film library and a lively coffee house. Today, the Cinematheque has collections of the history of film, the Israel Film Archive, the Joan Sourasky-Constantiner Holocaust Multimedia Research Center, the Department for Film and Media Education, and the Lew & Edie Wasserman Film Library. The culmination of Lia's passion for film, is the annual Jerusalem Film Festival. In 2009 a new wing will be completed which will house two additional screening halls, a mediatheque and a much larger space for the ever-expanding film archives.
Lia has served on juries in Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, Tribeca, Chicago, Edinburgh, Rotterdam and Venice and as host at the 2002 Berlinale Campus. She received the Ordre du Mérite from President Mitterand; the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from Jack Lang, French Minister of
Culture followed by the highest honor-Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur. She has received lifetime achievement awards from the Israeli Academy of Motion Pictures and the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. In 2004, Lia was awarded the Israel Prize for improving the quality of life for Israeli citizens. On June 6, 2005, she was made "Yekir Yerushalyim,", an honored citizen of Jerusalem.