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Happy ending for Dan Savage's amateur-porn film festival, after it moves from Dormont to Lawrenceville

"The films are explicit but also very artful and real. The ‘porn' label is there due to the sexual nature of the shorts, but it's not really porn."

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The Hump! Tour, a festival of independently made dirty movies curated by sex columnist Dan Savage, has been touring cities in the U.S. and Canada. But the festival will not be appearing at Dormont's Hollywood Theater, as originally planned, because of objections raised by borough officials last week.

Organizers have found a new venue for the June 13-15 event — Lawrenceville's newly opened Row House Cinema — but say the local controversy was unexpected. Since the festival's founding in 2005, "We have never had a complaint from a city in nine years," says Robert Crocker, executive producer of the Hump! Tour.

Hump! consists of five-minute films that feature an array of naked bodies and un-simulated sex acts — performed by pairs, groups and soloists and representing a broad spectrum of gay, straight and transgender performers. Taken together, says Savage, the films "combine erotica with humor and compassion in a way that's oddly absent from commercial porn." (Read the article here.)

And the festival has attracted indie filmmakers, some of whose work boasts impressive cinematography and clever scripts. The program even features a stop-animation segment.

"The films are explicit but also very artful and real," says Crocker. "The ‘porn' label is there due to the sexual nature of the shorts, but it's not really porn. It's much more an artful and real expression of human sexuality."

Borough officials in Dormont, however, didn't see it that way.

The tour was slated to come to Dormont's single-screen, refurbished 1920s-era community theater until last week, when the theater's executive director, Chad Hunter, received a call from Dormont Borough Manager Jeffrey Naftal.

Hunter says Naftal told him the municipality "had received some complaints" about the festival, and the screenings violated zoning laws in the inner-ring suburb of 8,593. Hunter says he "accepted that if they said it was illegal, it was illegal" and refunded the festival's deposit.

Naftal says the borough council relayed citizen complaints to him, and that screening the festival would involve "multiple violations" of zoning regulations. According to section 210-62 of the borough code, "adult businesses" must feature the classic "peep show" format, with individual viewing booths, and be at least 500 feet from a church or school. The former Dormont Presbyterian Church, which now houses an interdenominational Christian church, is just across Potomac Avenue from the Hollywood.

Naftal says that a weekend engagement with Hump! is enough to reclassify the Hollywood as an "adult business."

"If they show adult movies, they're an adult business," he says. "The code is very specific and the theater didn't argue." When asked if similar reasoning could be applied to limited screenings of other controversial films, Naftal retorts, "There is a difference between homemade sex movies, which is what this was advertised to be, and Last Tango in Paris."

Borough Council President Bill McCartney says he doesn't know how many citizens raised objections to Hump!, and says it isn't "relevant" anyway. "Does a theft constitute a theft even if no one sees it?" he asks. "Does a violation of a code constitute a violation even if no one reports it?" He cites another local ordinance that asserts, "It shall be unlawful for any person to promote pornography."

"The description of the Hump! festival uses the term ‘porn star' in its publicity," McCartney notes.

Naftal says the Hump! cancellation raises no greater constitutional issues than does a blocked driveway. "When I have a person call up and say a person has parked illegally in front of their yard, I don't wait until the complaints add up. I call an enforcement officer and see if it is or is not illegal."

Sara Rose, a staff attorney at the Pittsburgh office of the American Civil Liberties Union, says Dormont's actions were unconstitutional.

When seeking to quarantine a certain kind of commerce, Rose says, officials "need to show a reason for keeping out the crowds this would attract," such as evidence that a business created "secondary effects" like an increase in crime.

"Dormont can't say, ‘We don't like sexually explicit movies.' That would be overtly unconstitutional," Rose says.

Given that the Hollywood usually doesn't host anything racier than a midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, she says, "The borough would have a hard time arguing that two or three days of more explicit films would create any secondary effects."

That may be especially true given the socially conscious, indie-film-viewing, alt-weekly-reading crowd that consumes Savage's output. Borough officials "don't have much of an argument," Rose says, "unless they're saying they don't want to attract hipsters [for a reason] like increased bicycle traffic."

Hump! should be right at home, then, in Lawrenceville, home to two bike shops and a population of new residents who skew young, tattooed and bearded.

The neighborhood's Row House Cinema, which just had a "soft opening" on June 6, is much smaller than most Hump! venues: It seats 83, compared to the Hollywood's nearly 300. The festival has added three Sunday screenings, on June 15, to accommodate the expected crowd.

Brian Mendelssohn, the developer who spent two years bringing Row House to fruition, stands by Hump! as just another cinematic experience.

"The great thing about the movies is they touch us in a lot of ways," he says. "Some are emotional, some political, some violent and some sexual. If you want to challenge people, you aren't going to shy away from any of it."

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