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TIFF 2017: Silence of the pirate growl speaks volumes about the festival

A man takes a selfie in front of a TIFF sign on a closed city street during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, on Sept. 7, 2017.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

For years, one of the most loathed parts of TIFF was also among its most innocent pleasures: filmgoers growling "yarrrrrr," like a pirate, before every screening.

For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, perhaps it merits a brief explanation.

For a long time now, every screening at the Toronto International Film Festival has been preceded by a warning against bootlegging the movies. So, like, an anti-piracy warning. And so it follows that the funny thing to do, when faced with such a thing, was to make the pirate noise. It used to be popular at even the most severe, solemn, arty screenings, met with titters and contemptuous eye rolls. Now? The pirate growl is all but extinct. (It's still common at the Midnight Madness screenings, but that seems like one of those exceptions-that-prove-the-rule things.)

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Quite honestly, from about the time I figured out what it meant until, well, this year, I hated the pirate sound. I thought it was infantile and, more than anything, just straight-up annoying. (Certainly, at the Press & Industry screenings, daring to growl like a pirate would be deemed a cardinal cinematic sin, right up there with daring to glance at your phone.) TIFF felt similarly annoyed. Which is why, year after year, festival after festival, it tried to phase it out. The pre-movie bumpers removed any mention of the word "piracy" in hopes of essentially ruining the joke. It worked. But you know what? Now that the pirate growl has been all has been silenced, I find myself missing it.

To reiterate, at the risk of looking uncool: It's not like I'm so hokey as to believe that going "yarrrrrr" like pirate is especially funny. Or even passably funny. But there was something to it. It belonged to the audience. And in particular, it belonged to audiences who had gone to enough TIFF screenings to a) get the joke and; b) get in on the joke. It's like going to just enough screenings of The Room to know all the lines you're supposed to yell back at the characters on screen. There's a sense of communication there: between TIFF and the growling audience, between the growling audience and the people annoyed at them. There was a give-and-take.

That the "yarrrrrr" noise has faded into a faint whisper underscores what strikes me as a larger problem with TIFF. More and more, the festival seems to narrow toward autocracy, with TIFF, the festival, coming to be synonymous with TIFF, the charitable organization and Toronto arts powerhouse. Especially since the opening of its Lightbox HQ, cinema – or at least worthwhile cinema – in Toronto has come to be defined by TIFF's agenda.

We treat its CEOs and programming staff like local celebrities, while they hide the side of their ID badges that identify them, thanklessly, as an "independent contractor." We're expected to applaud their founders during pre-film bumpers, like dutiful apostles sat slumped in the cathedral of cinema. We suffer the annoyance and aggravation of transit rerouting to accommodate the festival. (Those who don't give a rip for TIFF are, I imagine, even more aggrieved.) The public festival-goers stand in unruly rush lines, barked at by power-tripping line-up co-ordinators in dinky headsets, for the privilege of spending $28 to see movies that sometimes appear in theatres days after their TIFF bows (or, in the case of Netflix original movies, premiere simultaneously). We all fall over ourselves overestimating the "Oscar buzz" of any passably decent studio pap. (If Guillermo Del Toro's artless surf-and-turf romance The Shape Of Water makes it to the Academy Awards, I'll gladly go live in the sea with its saltwater monster.)

Of course, the festival also abounds with its pleasures. Granted. But there's a toxic mood of reverence that demands that we fall in line (often literally) and respect the creative authority of what is, at the end of the day, an arts-based charity. It's all more than a bit rich. TIFF's oft-repeated mission statement declares it dedicated to "transforming the way people see the world through film." They could probably swap out "transforming" for "defining."

So, in the face of such pompousness and circumstance, I'd encourage anyone reading this to get to a movie in the festival's waning days and, when that warning pops up telling you that illegally recording a movie is "frankly, not cool," dig deep into your diaphragm, summon your inner Davy Jones, and let loose your gnarliest, most gratingly obnoxious, "Yarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr."

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