Entertainment

Welcome to Dormont PA, the Town That Banned Dan Savage’s Porn Film Festival

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Dormont, Pennsylvania (population 8,593), is one in a ring of dusty, barely middle-class suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh. The borough sits on a vast hillside that slopes towards the city. Its storefront vacancy is low, by Rust Belt standards. Dormont’s diners, bars and boutiques are packed into small brick buildings and all tend to be independently owned, as is, impressively, the local bookshop. The Dor Stop Restaurant advertises “home cooking” and a storefront gunsmith offers custom rifle alterations right on the main drag. Four miles from Downtown, Dormont was once a place where throngs of steelworkers rode street cars into the city each morning. Now it’s a place to stash retirees and homeowners of modest means.

This town trapped in the ‘50s was briefly slated to be one unlikely stop on the Hump Tour, Dan Savage’s film festival/crusade to humanize pornography, and wound up being the first place ever to effectively ban it.

One of Dormont’s old-timey charms is the Hollywood Theater, a community movie house dating back to 1924. The single-screen cinema currently shows a mix of documentaries, indie films, midnight cult classics and old family favorites. (Want to see E.T. on the big screen on a Thursday? You could this month in Dormont.)

Since February, small, independent theaters of this type, from Vancouver to Boston, have been hosting a best-of compilation culled from Hump’s nine-year run in Seattle and Portland. Created by sex guru Savage, the festival screens five-minute dirty movies. Hobbyist filmmakers have latched onto the idea, and — in addition to un-simulated sex scenes of every orientation and starring pairs, groups and solo performers — Hump selections boast impressive production values and clever concepts. (My own favorite cut from the touring show was a comedic time-travel paradox entitled, naturally, “Go Fuck Yourself,” though a mockumentary on centaur fetishists came close.)

The Hollywood became the Pittsburgh area stop for the Hump Tour. But shortly the screenings were advertised in the alt-weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, Borough Manager Jeffrey Naftal called theater Executive Director Chad Hunter and said that hosting Hump would breach Dormont’s municipal code.

“He said we’d be in violation of the code and I took him on his word on it,” says Hunter. “I didn’t think too much about it because I have a theater to run.”

Naftal says Dormont residents had called their representatives on the Borough Council to complain about Hump, bringing it to the attention of municipal government, but it wasn’t citizen outrage, exactly, that put the kibosh on the festival; it was section 210-62 of the borough code.

“I looked at the code, and there were multiple violations,” says Naftal.

Firstly, that bit of the code states that an “adult business” cannot operate “within 500 feet of a church,” and Dormont Presbyterian is across the street from the Hollywood. Secondly, Naftal says the code stipulates that theaters showing XXX movies conform to “a certain structure” and seems to specify the classic peep show layout of single-occupancy “viewing rooms.”

Naftal was steadfast in his assertion that if Hump is on the screen, the Hollywood would instantly become an “adult business,” indistinguishable from a Deep Throat-era porn theater, legally speaking.

“If they are showing adult movies, it’s an adult business,” he asserts. To Naftal, the matter is not more complicated or constitutionally troublesome than a car sitting next to an expired meter. “If a car is parked illegally, it violates the code and we’ll deal with it according to the code, if one person complains or a dozen. If a business violates the code, we’ll deal with that, too.”

When asked how many folks in Dormont complained about Hump, Borough Council President Bill McCartney, says he doesn’t “know how many and do not think the number is a relevant fact.”

“Does a tree falling in the forest make a noise even if no one hears it?” he waxed in an email. “Does a theft constitute a theft even if no one sees it?  Does a violation of a code constitute a violation even if no one reports it?”

In its inaugural tour, Hump has been to Boston, Dallas, Long Beach, Madison, D.C., San Francisco, and Montreal (so far) — and has been a presence in Portland and Seattle for nine years. Tour Executive Producer Robert Crocker says Dormont is the first municipality to kick it out, or to even complain. (He adds that the only prior backlash of which he is aware took the form of solo religious protestor who showed up twice in Portland.)

Hump takes precautions in selecting venues in order to avoid a snafu.

“The films are explicit but also very artful and real, thus finding a theater that understands the content is not easy,” he says. “[The] Hump Tour is very unique, not really any other film festival like it right now.”

The cancelled dates in Dormont represent the only times Hump has tried to spread into the suburbs. The festival has managed to contract with a new theater and keep the Pittsburgh area dates. This theater, the Row House Cinemas in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville (once deemed the Williamsburg of Pittsburgh by Gawker) is firmly within city limits.