History of Forest Row Film Society

Still from Windfall in Athens

The film society in Forest Row was founded in 1978 by Loli Carter and Aqil Minhas with the aim of showing film “in the cultural field and of a classic nature by the world’s great directors.” Since then, the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray have featured most often in our programmes, together with films by Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Louis Malle and Zhang Yimou. With an emphasis on great world cinema, Forest Row Film Society has also shown more mainstream features, together with films from the silent era.

Michael Cacoyannis’s Windfall in Athens was the opening presentation on 2nd June 1978, and the society screened films about once a month all through the year for its first six years. Since then the season has run from about October to May with ten films a year, though this has expanded since the 2006 season. By 1980 there were 150 members, high attendances, and the society had established itself on a secure foundation. Indeed, as a feature in the East Grinstead Focus indicated (18th October 1980), the society was even able to screen Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker simultaneously with the London first release cinemas.

Particularly popular films over the years have included: The Tree of Wooden Clogs; Tous les Matins du Monde; Delicatessen and Wings of Desire.

The first few years of the society’s existence required many experiments to optimise the viewing experience. The committee minutes from that time record various changes to the projection set-up, with different projectors, and the eventual abandonment of the projection room, resulting in the current practice of projecting from the stage. The society bought its own Bell & Howell projector for £400 in 1982, and the current Elf machine in 1991. A new screen was installed in its current permanent position in 1987.

In the early years, 16mm prints of a wide selection of films were easily available; however, this meant that a dozen or more different distributors may have had to be contacted when each season’s programme was being planned. Through the 1990s the availability of 16mm prints markedly declined, to the extent that today all of our films are sourced from the British Film Institute. Though this makes bookings somewhat easier, we often find that the BFI’s rights to distribute a film may have expired as well, further limiting the choice of films.

The source of prints has not been the only impact on the society. Audience numbers continued to be strong through the 1980s, with 174 people somehow squeezing into the village hall to see Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice in 1987, but the huge take-up of home video by the 1990s started to result in a decline in attendances, and losses for the first time for many years. Though a few films continued to attract good audiences, the film society increasingly found itself having to use up some of its reserves to keep going. Indeed, by the 1999-2000 season, the committee had decided to close the society the following year.

Mercifully, audiences picked up again, and we have since been enjoying some of our biggest audiences for more than a decade. Recognising that the diminishing availability of 16mm prints limited our programming choices, in the society’s thirtieth anniversary season, we had a major fundraising activity for new digital equipment and raised about £13,000. That meant that from October 2008 we have been using a Sanyo PLV80 projector which has given us a huge range of new possibilities, including screenings in other venues and a huge increase in the number of films in our programme.

Through our activities with Transition Forest Row and in the Forest Row Festival, our profile has raised considerably in recent years and we were delighted to be awarded the prestigious Engholm prize for Film Society of the Year 2009. Extending our programming even further, in March 2011 we organised a comedy film festival, which even got a mention in Sight and Sound, and also took part in the national premiere screening of Countdown to Zero. Together, these certainly helped towards out being awarded the Best Film Programming at the BFFS awards in September 2011.