Toronto’s cult theatre experience. Written by David Wencer and originally posted on January 26, 2009.
Since 1992, 463 Bathurst has been the home of the Cineforum, a unique Toronto institution dedicated to the collecting and screening of films, particularly those films which have the power to provoke. It is certainly Toronto’s most intimate of cinemas; the theatre itself is the modified lounge of a downtown Victorian townhouse, furnished cozily with an eclectic assortment of chairs. The Cineforum’s most distinctive feature, of course, is Reg Hartt, the resident curator and a self-confessed eccentric who personally hosts each screening.
Hartt’s history with Toronto goes back to the 1960s, a time when Toronto did not enjoy the same relationship with the film industry that it has today. Movie theatres in Toronto only showed content currently in wide theatrical release, and as such there were a great many films going unwatched by the local citizenry – these included not only independent projects, but also those films released several decades before. In the 1960s, Hartt began amassing an archive of film prints, and had his first screenings at George Henderson’s Viking Books, a bookstore then on Queen Street West.
Over the subsequent years, Hartt’s screenings of rare films developed a following as they moved around the downtown core. One memorable location was in Yorkville, in a boutique called “Queen Victoria Slept Here” over a pool hall. Yorkville at this time was still an un-gentrified Bohemian hub, where artists, writers, and others embracing the ideals of the time met and flourished. Hartt’s programmes fit right in until he became a resource person at nearby Rochdale College Toronto’s experiment in alternative self-education which lasted into the mid-1970s.
The culture of the time also meant that many controversial films were unknown to Toronto audiences. Hartt was the first in Toronto to screen “Boys in the Sand,” a 1971 gay pornographic film which achieved some crossover success, and which is often linked to galvanizing the gay liberation movement in North American cities. By screening films it wasn’t possible for Torontonians to see anywhere else, Hartt was enable to launch discussions that people in Toronto might otherwise not have had.
The fact that Hartt still chooses to launch these discussions literally, at his screenings, sometimes rankles his audience, particularly those who “just want to see a movie.” The clue is in the name, however: Cineforum. Rather than making theatre-going a passive experience, Hartt creates a genuine forum in the ancient Roman sense, wherein people are encouraged to challenge not only the films that he screens, but the ideas and opinions he expresses. Media accounts of the Cineforum are invariably written from an intensely personal perspective, because visiting the Cineforum is an intensely personal experience, where the audience, no matter what size, is always treated as the individuals that they are, and not as a homogenous group of people with a single thought.
Unsurprisingly then, one of the Cineforum’s longtime supporters was Jane Jacobs, the late activist who promoted individual communities within an urban mosaic.
This unorthodox way of screening films has lead to Hartt being considered a polarizing figure in Toronto, often branded as “controversial” or even “crazy.” Hartt is certainly in no hurry to rid himself of these labels.
After over 16 years at 463 Bathurst, it was recently announced that the Cineforum would soon be on the move again, as Hartt’s landlord intended to sell the property. This is evidently no longer the case, and the Cineforum can remain at its current location for as long as Hartt chooses. There was never any panic on his part, as the physical location is secondary to the films he screens and the relationship he has with the people who attend. It remains important to him that he be located in the heart of downtown, so as to best serve not only the people in Toronto who frequent the Cineforum, but to accommodate the many visitors he has from out of town – not to mention those from outside Canada – who come each year for the Cineforum experience.