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Toronto Toronto alternative-theatre founder stands up to bullying threats

Reg Hartt, who runs The Cineforum, is photographed with his cat Berlin at his home in Toronto on Feb. 24, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The founder of a landmark alternative theatre in downtown Toronto is refusing to back down in the face of a poster-bullying campaign that seems designed to bring violence upon him and his associates.

Reg Hartt, who runs the Cineforum out of his Bathurst Street home, had decided earlier this week that it was too risky to stay open. Patrons keen to see Salò on Tuesday night were sent home disappointed and he said he planned to lie low for a while and then start angling for a new venue.

But by Friday he was determined to stand firm. He will screen a Jane Jacobs picture and a psychiatric hospital documentary tonight and is "rebooting" his film schedule. Among the movies he plans to show is the gay pornographic classic Boys in the Sand – the very picture an anonymous detractor cited on a downtown poster that was part of an attempt to smear Mr. Hartt.

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"If he can do it to me he can do it to anyone," he said during an interview in a tiny screening room decorated with old movie posters and paraphernalia.

"The only way I can deal with this is stand up and say, 'here I am.' If someone wants to let their emotions run rampant, if something happens, I'll deal with it."

His theatre and arts centre typically includes a rotating cast of house guests and creative types. It is known for its screenings of unusual movies, including uncensored animated films, as well as extemporaneous lectures from the founder.

The 22-year-old Cineforum almost fell victim to the latest salvoes in a barrage of vitriol on posters throughout the downtown, including attacks against Mr. Hartt, which come close to calling him a pedophile.

The poster campaigns range from overt incitements to violence – in one case offering $500 "to brutally break" the legs of a particular person – to more indirect threats. One person was labelled a police informant, alongside his photo. Another was accused of videotaping drug dealers, on a poster that said where he lived. One poster mimics others put up by Mr. Hartt, but adds a racial epithet. He believes it was designed to provoke attacks upon him.

One of the people targeted said that he was put in danger by the posters.

"I'm actually kind of scared," said the man, who did not want to be named. "You got a lot of crack heads. They get all freaked out on that stuff and you never know what they're going to do. I got to watch my back every day."

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The targets of some of these posters insist they know who is responsible, pointing to a local figure with whom they have soured business relationships. The person they accuse did not respond to several requests for comment.

In Mr. Hartt's case, the attacks were a careful mixture of implication and accusation. Recently put up in various locations, including near schools, were a trio of posters headlined "ATTENTION PARENTS."

The first poster mentions recent local child porn arrests. The second claims that Mr. Hartt has possessed and displayed material of "children in sexual situations" and says he watches local school kids walking home. That poster includes the bold-type phrase "BOYS BEWARE." The third poster encourages people to contact politicians to shut down the theatre and asks those with "stories about Reg" to e-mail them. But the account is not active and the wording of the e-mail address is itself a smear.

Mr. Hartt acknowledges the danger he is in, noting that pedophilia is society's great taboo, but said he is more worried about the posters that describe the videotaping of drug dealers. The man accused of that lives in the neighbourhood, putting the many people who drift through Cineforum at risk if retribution occurs.

"He was sending people to take us out," Mr. Hartt said of whoever is putting up the posters.

He said he sees little relief in going to the police or taking a legal route, noting that the person he believes responsible has no money and would probably ignore a cease-and-desist order. And having thought about it through the week, he decided the venue was too important to shut down.

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"This place is a combination of the academy of Athens, the factory of Andy Warhol, the salon of Gertrude Stein and the original Paris cinémathèque of Henri Langlois," he said. "This place means a lot to a lot of people, even if it means nothing to most of Toronto."

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