Highlights from over a century of Israeli historical footage

TEL AVIV (JTA) — For years, only people with special permission could visit the air-conditioned depots of the Jerusalem Cinematheque to view the moving footage held in Israel’s film archive. But following a massive digitization effort, anyone with an internet connection can now watch the footage.

“We’re at the fun part where we can share this treasure with the public,” says Noa Regev, director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Following a $10 million project that began in 2015 to preserve, restore and digitize its audiovisual collection, the archive can now be streamed through a website that launched in Hebrew in late 2020 and added English subtitles. English in October.

Divided into two sections, the website includes an on-demand paid category, “The Artistic View”, containing 300 Israeli feature films, and a free “Historical View” area with digitized versions of rare films; all newsreels created in Israel from 1927 to 1972; home movies; and family collections.

“The Historical View” exposes, in mostly black-and-white film with a rough patina, the life of the region through elections and wars, tree plantings and advertisements for beauty salons of the 1920s. There are also full versions of historical footage that you may have seen as blips in documentaries, like the Declaration of the State of Israel.

There’s plenty to see on the platform, which is searchable by decade, keyword and location, with more selections on the way. Only about 30% of the celluloid and video documents in the archives have been digitized so far; Regev estimates that within five years the complete archive will be available. “People are discovering more and more documents,” she adds, warning that as the archive continues to grow, it may never be fully available online. “The most fascinating materials are those brought back from someone’s boydem [Yiddish for ‘attic’], both in Israel and abroad.”

Below is a shortlist of some of the materials you can see now, spanning the late 19th century through the 20th.

Film by the Lumière Brothers of Jaffa, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, 1896

Filmed by a representative of the pioneers of French cinema, the Lumière brothers, just a year after inventing their revolutionary Cinematograph device, this nine-minute clip, the region’s first video footage, opens with a train entering the station of Jaffa in 1896. the crowd of fez-wearers can’t decide where to look: the locomotive they’ve been waiting for from Jerusalem (which only comes once a day), or the strange machine driven by a stranger. As this reel travels through Jaffa, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, it shows vendors, mustaches and camels from 130 years ago.

Thomas Edison’s cameraman in the Holy Land, 1903

Not to be outdone by his French colleagues, American inventor Thomas Edison sent cameraman Alfred C. Abadie to the area a few years later, in 1903, with a Kinetograph. Abadie captures a main thoroughfare in Jaffa and the unnamed “busiest street” in Jerusalem. Five men with intertwined arms are the focus of Abadie’s lens during a section introduced by an intertitle card that reads “Jewish Dance in Jerusalem,” hopping to music we can’t hear in the silent clip.

Purim at the Tel Aviv Zoo, 1959

The archive contains charming footage of Purim and the Tel Aviv Zoo (which once stood in the center of the city near present-day Rabin Square), and they coincide in this 1959 short film of costumed celebrations among cages of leopards. . This was back when Purim costumes were handmade originals, and here we see a child in a feathered chicken costume standing comically near pelicans of roughly the same size, while brothers dressed as explorers hang around a fake hot air balloon. This iteration of the zoo is a step ahead of its popular 1930s version, set in the backyard of Rabbi Mordechai Shorenstein (immortalized in this 1935 clip).

Josephine Baker and other celebrities visit Israel

American stars of stage and screen visited Israel throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with their ceremonial landings at Lod Airport recorded in the news. Josephine Baker, an American-born cabaret singer and activist who calls France home, stole from El Al in 1954 to perform several shows (and tried, unsuccessfully, to adopt an Israeli child). When “White Christmas” actor Danny Kaye made a surprise visit a few years later in 1961, he spent most of his time at the Caesarea golf course. The following year, Frank Sinatra arrived by private jet to give seven performances, the proceeds of which benefited a Jewish-Arab youth center in Nazareth. And during Kirk Douglas’ visit in 1964, he met Israel’s third prime minister, Levi Eshkol.

The most moving of these paparazzi clips is that of Sammy Davis Jr., who came for a one-day visit in 1969 and asked to be driven straight from the airport to the Western Wall, where he wedged a handwritten wish between ancient stones.

Archaeological discoveries

Ancient stones are a recurring theme in the archives, including a Hasmonean period burial cave accidentally discovered in 1956 while preparing the foundations of an apartment building in Jerusalem’s Alfasi Street. In another clip, aerial footage records the excavations atop Masada, conducted in 1963 by archaeologist and politician Yigael Yadin. The rededication of Caesarea’s ancient Roman amphitheater in 1961 – after a 1,700-year hiatus – was filmed to record the host of international musicians brought in to re-inaugurate the space, including cellist Pablo Casals, who played on a humble stage amid the ruins.

Carmel Market, 1969

Two Israeli children celebrate Purim at the Tel Aviv Zoo in 1959, in documentary footage available from the Israel Film Archive.

On the other hand, some clips aren’t weighted with the gravity of ancient history, biblical empires, or historic battles – they’re just funny. This reel showing shoppers shamelessly pricking pickled fish and discarding limbs from slaughtered chickens at Tel Aviv’s Carmel open-air market is one of them. Only women shop in the clip, and they want to make sure they’re selecting the absolute best filler. What if their hands and noses touched half a dozen cream-filled pastries that they didn’t end up buying?

Advertisement for Instant Soup produced by Osem, 1960

When they weren’t pushing things in person at the market, Israeli shoppers trusted TV ads to tell them what was good. Regev says vintage advertisements from the archives are an under-explored gem, like one from Israeli manufacturer Osem encouraging mothers to feed their toddlers a broth of bouillon cubes and boiling water. (It must have made an impression – powdered soup is a staple of Israeli households to this day.) The Israeli landscape features in other advertisements, such as the beach at Caesarea in a 1964 Gottex swimwear advert. , and a road trip to Rosh Hanikra as the premise of an advertisement for fuel-efficient Heinkel scooters.

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