February 19, 2020

Art house bucks multiplex trend in Herzliya

It’s not easy to find the Cinematheque Herzliya. The name is written in simple block Hebrew letters over the awning of an indoor strip mall located on Sokolov Street, the main artery in this central coast town. The obscurity is a sharp contrast from the American-style multiplexes located at the major malls near the entrance to the city, like Cinema City, Israel’s largest, or the Rav Chen.

A strip mall isn’t a place where one expects to find a cultural venue. There’s an old-fashioned barbershop, a dry-cleaning store, a mom-and-pop-style household goods store and a nondescript clothing boutique. The Cinematheque was built on the grounds of the building’s old movie theater, once a local hangout until multiplexes decimated Israel’s early theaters. But the location couldn’t be more fitting for the cozy art house: It was founded on the belief that good films aren’t always about bombast, glamour and big names. Rather, they’re down-to-earth, independent and hard to find.

“I get excited from the oldies, from films I discover, films no one knows or I think they forget,” said Nir Ne’eman, program manager since the Cinematheque’s founding in 2008 as part of the city’s efforts to upgrade and revitalize its cultural centers. Ne’eman is a distinguished alumnus of Tel Aviv University’s film school and has directed short films. “That’s what’s important about my job.”

The Herzliya Cinematheque is one of six in Israel. The others are located in Haifa, Holon, Jerusalem, Sderot and Rosh Pina. The character of each Cinematheque depends largely on the program manager, who shapes the monthly calendars according to trends and his tastes.

However, Ne’eman has found that his artsy tastes didn’t always fill the seats. “When we started, we were very naïve, and what we learned through the first month of operating a Cinematheque is that we can’t just make a program built on oldies.”

He often turns to Eithan Weitz, the box-office manager and film buff who writes a column for a Canadian e-magazine on Israeli film, for updates on popular blockbusters and big-studio films.

“Our tastes are completely different. We shout all the time,” Ne’eman said. But he recognizes the need for flexibility: “You need the new stuff. You need to be more diverse than that.”

Usually American blockbusters are shown as part of a theme, like last month’s “the seven deadly sins” theme in which David Fincher’s “Se7en” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” were shown alongside Japanese film “Gohatto” (“Taboo”) and the Russian film “Oblomov.”

Jewish-themed and Israeli films are also highlighted. This summer, the theater premiered “A Film Unfinished,” the widely acclaimed documentary with never-before-seen footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, and “Precious Life,” a film-festival favorite about a Palestinian woman who cares for her son in an Israeli hospital. In honor of the 150th anniversary of Anton Chekhov’s birth, the Cinematheque launched a series inspired by his works. Recent guest speakers have included “Capote” producer Michael Ohoven and documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Friedman.

To entice families, the Cinematheque also shows kid-friendly films, like Disney’s “Fantasia” and “Bambi.”

To further brand the theater as the go-to film venue for the outlying communities in the Sharon region, the Cinematheque has recently appointed Nir Ramon as the new director after the founding director, Noa Ron, left her post to pursue a master’s degree in arts management in the Netherlands. Ramon, also a graduate of Tel Aviv University’s film school, comes from the professional world of advertising and sales.

“People who come here aren’t really those who go to Cinema City or [the Rav Chen] for big movies,” Ramon said. “They come here because it’s in the middle of the city, it’s convenient for them, it doesn’t involve traveling.”

Ramon hopes to draw more Israelis from Ra’anana, Kfar Saba, Ramat HaSharon and Hod HaSharon. He has plans to give the Cinematheque a facelift while maintaining its mystique by improving signage, installing a cafe on the premises and serving popcorn. “That’s part of the fun when you go to the cinema,” he said.

The Cinematheque is equipped with two comfortable theaters, separated by a small lounge and concession stand. A boon to the cinema has been the installation of DigiTitle, an Israeli invention that allows Hebrew subtitles to be screened on a separate banner so Israelis no longer have to rely on English translations for foreign films.

A few months ago, the site of a third theater on the premises was converted into a late-night bar that draws 20- and 30-somethings. Sometimes it hosts live performances by comedians, musicians and actors, and while Ramon hopes to collaborate on space and refreshments, the bar and Cinematheque keep separate artistic visions. The bar is open late for anyone who wants to catch a beer — and sometimes a sports game — after some fine cinema.

For more information, visit hcinema.org.il. English programs are available online.