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Profile: Reg Hartt

Toronto is two cities. There is Toronto the skyline, the postcard: the CN tower and the stadium formerly known as the Skydome. There is Nathan Philips square, Dundas square, the Eaton centre, and the gray valley of Bay street. And then, nestled between the main arteries, lie the neighbourhoods of Toronto, its brick houses, parks and markets. The architecture here isn’t designed to overwhelm the senses, or to be admired from a safe distance. The neighbourhoods are where we get down to the business of living.

The city is too often defined as a thing developed in boardrooms and promoted at press conferences. Our public conversation is trapped in endless debates over the waterfront, over the transit system, over vast projects with billion-dollar price tags. We too often forget that it is the skyline that attracts tourists, but it is the neighbourhoods that make Toronto a decent place to live.

Reg Hartt knows something about this. For two decades he has been the proprietor of the Cineforum. Much has changed in Toronto during that time, but the Cineforum has survived. Through force of will, Hartt has shown us that the prevailing vision doesn’t have to be the one born in the boardroom. Hartt sits down in his kitchen, barrel- chested, with thick black eyebrows and thick glasses. He opens a bottle of beer, but it sits barely touched as he lets loose in a monologue of anecdotes about Balzac, Rimbaud, and himself. Hartt was born in New Brunswick, and grew up in an abusive household. “At 13, I got it into my head that if I started to laugh before my father struck me I would feel no pain. I engineered the biggest beating he ever gave me. The harder he beat the louder I laughed. He beat and beat and beat and beat until he could beat no more. I had felt no pain. More importantly, he never touched me again.” In 1962 the family moved to Sault St. Marie. Hartt left high school and arrived in Toronto. In 1968 he discovered Rochdale College. Rochdale was an experiment in student-run alternative education, and became an important location for members of the counterculture. It was here that Hartt began presenting lectures and film screenings. He continued his screenings and lectures after the closing of the college in 1975, and founded the Cineforum in 1992.

The Cineforum is a tiny theatre that screens silent films, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and the Wizard of Oz synced up with Pink Floyd. Not many Torontonians have visited, but chances are good that they know about it. Reg Hartt advertises the Cineforum with basic white posters, and the posters are everywhere. The first time you visit the Cineforum is never what you expect. The floors creak and the lighting is old, yellowish and dim. Down the front hallway is a kitchen, cluttered but clean. You may feel the uneasiness of having trespassed in a stranger’s home, because that’s also what the Cineforum is. Reg Hartt has ignored zoning bylaws and has put the Cineforum in his living room. “[The Cineforum] is part Gertrude Stein’s salon and part Andy Warhol’s Factory wrapped in a Toronto version of Henri Langlois’s original Paris Cinémathèque”, says Hartt.

The Cineforum has persevered. because the films are well-publicized, but also because Hartt is a gifted speaker. “People walk in here and go, ‘why are you talking?’ Well, it’s called the Cineforum. Cinema and forum.” he says. “You can’t accept criticism of your work. Ever.” It is the key to his success: keep talking, and keep promoting. For Hartt, promotion has meant postering.

For most people, street posters are an easily-overlooked part of the urban landscape. They are advertising of last resort. Few would-be promoters rely on them for long, because postering is a messy, thankless and labour-intensive affair. It takes a stubborn sort of person to maintain a poster presence on the streets of Toronto.

Hartt has been postering for two decades. It has paid off; With a sheaf of posters in the front basket of his bicycle, he has made his mark on Toronto in a profound way.

“I like postering. I get outside, I do my best free-association thinking when I’m postering. I get out into the street, and I get to see what’s going on.” he says. In so doing, Hartt has become a presence on Toronto’s streets in more ways than one: not only is the Cineforum well-promoted, but Hartt himself has become acquainted with many of the people who are close to the street, in one way or another. Often this has meant offering his home to people with nowhere else to go. Hartt has made the Cineforum into a hub of community, a port-of-call in an unsympathetic city.

Reg Hartt is proud of his accomplishments. “In Lonely Planet, the most popular travel guide in the world, I’m listed as number three of things to see in Toronto, and the number one place in Toronto to see a movie. The world is paying attention to what I’m doing.” he says. His work also caught the eye of Jane Jacobs, the famous activist and urban theorist. Jacobs spent her life advocating against large-scale ‘urban renewal’ projects in favour of mixed-use urban areas. For her, the schemes of city hall could not replace the vibrancy and spontaneity that residents could bring to their neighbourhoods, if only they were left to their own devices. She saw the Cineforum as a realization of this idea. Hartt treasures his relationship with Jacobs, and arranges screenings of her documentary “Urban Wisdom.”

Hartt has enemies as well as friends. The Cineforum could be seen as a business, and it’s not legal to run a business in a residence. In 2010 Hartt was forced to stop charging admission for his movie screenings. Somebody had lodged a complaint with the city’s department of Standards and Licensing. In the face of extinction, Hartt got to work, writing letters to politicians in every branch of government he could think of.

“The best thing you can do to defend yourself, first of all, is to let people know what’s going on.” he says. One can imagine a secretary in a municipal office downtown, reading one of his four-page letters, complete with quotations from the Bible and the Tao-Tse-Ching, and dismissing him as a kook. But Hartt had now been at it for almost two decades. His theatre’s closure attracted media interest and support from around the world. It seems apparent that enforcing a zoning bylaw wasn’t worth the embarrassment. Hartt claims that the newly-elected mayor Rob Ford overturned the Licensing Violation and allowed the Cineforum to re-open. “Ford is the embodiment of Jane Jacobs and I supported her, she was a friend, she was a fan, and I think Ford is a really good guy and I fully support his office”, he says.

Now Hartt faces a new challenge: he has become the target of a slander campaign. Anonymous posters started appearing in Toronto, first targetting Hartt, then also targetting one of the other residents of the Cineforum. The latter were most troubling, as they accused the individual in question of secretly videotaping drug dealers and giving the address of the Cineforum. Feeling that they might be attacked, Hartt says he felt that closing the theatre was necessary.

When I looked at those [posters], the starkness of them, I said, no, you gotta shut down, you can’t take any chances. I was shut down for two days. That gave me time to think. In that time that I was shut down, I reflected and thought about all the people I’ve known over the years, and how I didn’t fight I would be letting them down, and realized sometimes you just have to stand up.” Hartt has responded by, again, calling and writing to every politician he can. Hartt has also put up his own posters, hundreds of them, defending himself from the charges and inviting people to come to the Cineforum again.

It all seems at odds with the popular perception of Toronto: we are supposed to be polite, distant, and a little awkward. Hartt, in his stubborness, doesn’t fit into this mold. Yet he is part of Toronto, and Toronto is better because of it.. “I have a bit of the fighting Irish in me”, he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

About Eric Brauer

I live in Toronto, Canada. I write often, hopefully moreso in the future. I write a lot about politics, music, culture, activism, etc.

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