A bit of History: Philip French on the Edinburgh Film Guild at the time of its 75th anniversary in 2004
Before the coming of television, video cassettes, media studies, the art house, the National Film Theatre and its regional equivalents, the principal source of systematic serious filmgoing was the film society movement. That’s where we saw – often in joyfully masochistic discomfort – new foreign language movies, the canon from the silent and the talking eras. There are few alive today who attended the first British institution of its kind, known simply as the Film Society, launched in London in 1925 to show avant-garde work and films banned by over restrictive censors. Its founding members included Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, Roger Fry and John Maynard Keynes, and it was one of the few occasions when all kinds of artists and intellectuals came together in Britain to celebrate the great new art of the 20th century. This Film Society was already a legendary organisation when my friends and I began to pay serious attention to the cinema in the years following World War II and discovered with something like awe that in 1929 the Society had put on a double bill of John Grierson’s Drifters and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, with both directors present. The Film Society closed in April 1939, but a decade before it expired, it had inspired the creation of the Edinburgh Film Guild, which to this day shows no sign of dimming the lights. From the Guild came the Edinburgh Film Festival that has run alongside and complemented the Edinburgh International Festival since its inception in 1947.
From the start, the Guild spread its net as those trawlers celebrated in Drifters, including classics from the silent period which had just then come to a close, documentaries, foreign movies and works from the international avant-garde. “The old London Film Society” wrote Grierson in 1951, “was the first to break from somewhat exclusive attention to the avant-garde and take the longer and harder way of the Russians and more purposive users of the cinema. But it was the Edinburgh Film Guild which completed the movement – as the London Film Society did not – and saw the infinite variety of a Film Society’s obligations to all categories of the medium”. Having been inspired by London , the Guild did not take its cues from there or look to the English metropolis for leadership. Like the Auld Alliance with France , it looked directly abroad, establishing its own cultural links and exerting its own vision, as has its creation, the Film Festival.
Long before Ingmar Bergman achieved belated fame in London with The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, which led to the screening of his earlier films there, his work was well known in Scotland through the percipience of the Guild’s organisers. Among those, I must mention my late friend Forsyth Hardy, co-founder of the Guild and the Festival, who died in 1994. Long-time film critic of The Scotsman, biographer of Grierson, author of books on Scandinavian Cinema, Scotland on Film, and a charming history of the Guild and the Film Festival itself, he produced a couple of hundred films for the various Scottish Government Departments. He was also co-editor of the seminal Cinema Quarterly, another offshoot of the Guild, published between 1932 and 1935. Hardy was a beacon of common sense, a man of catholic tastes and wide sympathies, but an enemy of cant, pretentious jargon and ideological judgements. Meeting him every August at the Festival was one of the highlights of my cinema-going year. No one, not even Grierson, has made a greater contribution to the Scottish film culture. It is good to find that what he helped to create – the Guild and the Festival – is flourishing and responsive to change. On this auspicious occasion, I can only resort to the language of the Auld Alliance and say, Vive the Guild!
Philip French, 2004