Another magical drama about a refugee in hiding with a carefully balanced comic tone, this was inevitably going to be compared to Le Havre, my favorite movie of a few years back, and fall slightly short. But it’s nice to have more of refugee Khaled’s story in this one, as opposed to near-mute Idrissa in Le Havre, and the acknowledgement of the racism and xenophobia within the country’s citizens fueling the policies that are making it so difficult for him to gain asylum in Finland.

Syrian Khaled has bounced through ten countries on his way to Finland and is desperate to locate his one surviving relative, his sister Miriam, and bring her to a safer place. His Iraqi friend Mazdak offers communications help to look for the girl while Khaled finds work with Wikström (Leningrad Cowboy Sakari Kuosmanen), who has left his wife for reasons unknown and purchased a dumpy restaurant. Wikström and Khaled are given too little shared screen time for us to watch them bond (alongside a cute dog and three bedraggled employees who came with the building), but Wikström proves to be big-hearted, protecting his newest employee from the elements and the authorities.

Kaurismäki won best director in Berlin (A Fantastic Woman, Félicité, On the Beach at Night Alone). My moviegoing companions were surprised and appalled that Finland would not offer Khaled asylum and try to have him deported, but now that I’ve seen Stranger in Paradise, nothing is surprising. Others were dismayed by all the screen time given to amateur performances of rockabilly songs, but I preferred those to the half hour of backstory showing how Wikström came to run a restaurant. I recognized Kati Outinen (the wife in Le Havre) in one scene, and restaurant doorman Ilkka Koivula (probably also from Le Havre), but that apparently was not Carel Struycken as a bartender.

Dreamy and free-flowing, the story spiraling into mirrors and coincidences, feeling sometimes like a less grim A Very Long Engagement. The story traces back and forth along their lives with kinetic editing and glowing camerawork – pretty much my favorite kind of movie.

Palindromic couple Ana and Otto are destined for each other, seen at different ages. The oldest Ana was 20-year-old Najwa Nimri, of Before Night Falls and Abre Los Ojos – which also featured oldest Otto Fele Martínez (also of Thesis and Bad Education). Writer/director Medem made Sex and Lucia, and last year he had a Salma Hayek movie at TIFF.

Both Bens Rivers & Bussell are in Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, and I’ve checked them both out before – Russell with Let Each One Go Where He May and Rivers with Two Years at Sea and some shorts.

Spell opens and closes with Russell’s shaky follow-cam, the camera behind the head of a walking person. I can see a theoretical point to his relentless follow-cams: regular movies are always showing people leaving and arriving in scenes, while his movies show them traveling to the scene realistically. Theory or no, they still annoy me, and maybe he needs to find a new thing.

In between we’ve got Rivers’s “man living alone in the woods” motif and his long still shots of nothing much happening (man in a slowly drifting fishing boat – think I’ve seen that one before).

Three parts:

Estonia: bunch of foreigners in a commune, including one Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who is not the star of this section in any way but on whom I focus whenever he’s around, since I’ve seen his face in the promo photos.

Finland: just Rob Lowe alone, mountain climbing, fishing, cooking, hunting, slow-paced, no dialogue. Cutaways to the lake, a photograph of a lake, a magazine, etc. Then Rob is applying makeup, then his house burns down.

Norway: Long guitar intro over blackness, then we’re at a metal concert, interestingly shot up close by slow roving camera (this whole section is just a few long takes), with Rob as a guitarist and vocalist. They play a few songs, then he wastes no time getting backstage before the last one has ended, removing the makeup and walking into the night. I love the sound during this part, the club noise following him into the street and gradually getting louder.

M. Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Russell and Rivers share an engagement with the history of ethnographic film, but only inasmuch as the critiques of its shortcomings and power relations have been fully internalized … Russell’s films have often favoured group dynamics, or at least individuals losing their identities in tandem; Rivers has more often than not worked within a mode of solo portraiture. The resulting collaboration is a dialectical meld of these tendencies. … The resulting film is a triptych fully reflective of Rivers’ and Russell’s longtime concerns: how does one remain a part of society while carving out a space that is, in Heidegger’s terms, true to one’s ownmost possibility?

Russell:

One of the most important realizations that I had through the making of this film was that cinema was, in fact, one of our best vehicles for realizing utopia. During a conversation about his experience in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, Tuomo (he’s the Finn who tells the asshole story in the film, also the subject of our next collaboration) proposed that utopia only exists in the present, that it can only be realized in the now. Cinema is a medium that is likewise always arriving (as the future) and receding (as the past) simultaneously. It is only alive when we are alive with it, when we share our time and allow our space to be occupied. It can only happen as experience in the present, and its capacity to produce worlds unto itself positions cinema as a very real site for utopia. For Thomas More, Utopia was a no-place, a construct; taken positively, this is cinema defined.

Sicinski again, but for Fandor:

Although the makers of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness have been most closely aligned with the avant-garde film world, they stake out a position somewhere between trance film, portraiture, and ethnography. Their films, then, identify and problematize certain dual aspects of realism that could be said to “haunt” both experimental film and anthropological documentary.

Opening titles: we hear a nice Tom Waits song (the soundtrack is great overall) and see “JVC PRESENTS.” Didn’t JVC used to make blank tapes? The kind that weren’t even as good as Maxell?

Five segments in five cities. Has cute parts, and I guess it’s part of the greater Jarmusch body of work or whatever, but also kinda feels like something that could’ve safely stayed in 1991 (or maybe ’93; it was ahead of its time). What’s funny is that it doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that should get easily dated (except through the usual – fashions, cars, mobile phones – only period pieces are immune to those) but it has this early 90’s aura about it, like Smoke or a Hal Hartley movie, which I don’t see in Dead Man or Down By Law or Mystery Train. Maybe it’s just Winona Ryder. Anyway this remains my least favorite Jarmusch picture, though I did enjoy it overall. If you could break it up Coffee & Cigarettes-style, it’d be nice to lead from New York straight into Helsinki, and maybe add Rome every third or fourth viewing.

LA: Winona Ryder is a midget phonebook-sitting wannabe-mechanic driving fancypants cellphone-calling casting agent Gena Rowlands home from the airport. Gena’s client is looking for a tough young girl, an unknown, so predictably she propositions Winona, who turns Gena down. Jim says it’s the first movie Gena agreed to do after John Cassavetes died. I never made it past this segment when I first tried to watch Night On Earth a decade ago… pixie Winona is too hard to take as a street tough.

NY: East German Armin Mueller-Stahl (same year he did Soderbergh’s Kafka) is new to New York and cab driving, so passenger Giancarlo Esposito takes over, picking up sister-in-law Rosie Perez for a miniature Do The Right Thing reunion, wide-eyed Armin taking it all in.

Paris: Isaach De Bankolé (stolen from Claire Denis) kicks out some diplomats, picks up a blind girl (Beatrice Dalle, star of Time of the Wolf, also a Claire Denis regular) and asks her a bunch of dunderheaded questions.

Rome: Roberto Benigni picks up a priest, drives like a madman (but there’s no traffic so it’s cool) visits a couple transvestites, and tells horribly perverted stories until the priest dies after dropping his meds on the floor and Roberto quietly unloads him on a park bench.

Helsinki: Cabbie picks up three guys from a hard night on the town. Of course all four of them have been in Kaurismaki films (one of the passengers played Polonius in Hamlet Goes Business. They tell their drunk friend’s hard luck story and the cabbie replies with his own hard luck story. Way to end your movie on a dead baby tale there, Jim.

Nice color cinematography by Frederick Elmes (a Lynch regular who later shot Broken Flowers) – not seen here cuz it was a rental and I forgot to get screen shots.

Supposedly part of a comic deadpan losers trilogy, but given what little I’ve seen of Kaurismaki’s cinema (Hamlet Goes Business and two shorts) it seems you could grab any three movies and call those his comic deadpan losers trilogy. This wasn’t awfully comic, either. I remember laughing a bit in the first half hour, but after our hero goes to jail and gets increasingly hopeless and depressed, nobody would call it a comedy anymore.

Koistinen is a loser security guard with a good heart and little apparent sense, no interests and no friends. One day a hot blonde starts pursuing him. They date, she asks questions about his job, finally drugs him, steals his keys and hands them over to her actual gangster boyfriend who robs the jewelry store Koistinen was supposed to be protecting. K. spends some time in jail (framed for participating in the heist), gets out, lands in a halfway house, is fired from an even more menial job as a dishwasher (again prompted by the fatale girl’s boyfriend) and in the last minute is found destitute on the streets by the snack bar girl who always liked him and given a happy, hopeful final couple of seconds (in the film, not in his life – he survives).

I was enjoying the rock songs. I thought one of ’em was in the same style as “Rich Little Bitch” from Hamlet Goes Business, until I realized it’s the exact same song. He used the same song (and prominently) in two movies twenty years apart. Movie is great to look at, and very Jarmusch-cool (although I know it’s actually vice-versa) but the story is kinda minor and depressing.

V. Rizov:

Newcomers to Kaurismäki should understand that a character’s facial expressions give almost no clue as to what’s going on; everyone has a poker face that makes Buster Keaton look thoroughly emotive. A visit to Kaurismäki’s land of perpetual misery is always perversely comic — the characters and situations shoot past miserabilist drudgery quickly: The worse things get, the funnier they are. But Kaurismäki’s sentimentality is a double-edged sword, as it prevents his movies from being shallow one-note exercises but can also suck the life from them.

I. Johnston:

Underneath it all, and in spite of a popular tendency to read his films along hip-cool-quirky lines, Kaurismaki is an old-fashioned romantic, layering his films with a charming retro appeal. There’s a wider political-ideological connotation to this, a deliberate disassociation from the values of the globalised monetarist contemporary world in favour of those “loser” heroes of his who simply fail (where they don’t more overtly refuse) to adapt to the demands of that world. Kaurismaki loves his characters, those few — in the case of Lights in the Dusk, Koistinen and Aila — who maintain values of humanity, authenticity, love, and moral action. And the director places them in a social environment that seems out of kilter with the modern world: hence, the retro décor, the pop songs from years past, the tango music, and the old-fashioned rock’n’roll (hip-hop’s made no impact here).

The snack bar girl apparently plays the lead in that movie about the photographer for which I saw trailers for three months before it came and went quietly one week at the Landmark.

When the ghost tells Hamlet to avenge his death, he calls Hamlet stupid and H replies “Get on with it, it’s cold and I don’t want to be late for dinner.” This ain’t your gramma’s Hamlet!! It’s a black-and-white Finnish satire of the business world. In corporate Finland, there are no good guys, no sympathetic souls, just murderous fiends who all want to get ahead. Thus, it turns out Hamlet poisoned his own father, and in the end he is dispatched by the family chauffeur, a spy for the workers’ union.

Movie does have its funny parts (which include Polonius’s mustache), but I regret I can’t say it was a total delight to watch. Not a chore, either, and not mediocre or a waste of time, just a mild success, a Jarmusch-reminiscent dark comedy. All that Shakespeare probably held it back (although he cut all soliloquies and cut the story to a sleek 85 minutes). I’m still optimistic, wanna check out more Kaurismäki soon.

Our… hero?
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Polonius and his mustache:
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I liked the music… this band got to play a whole song in the middle of the movie. Note found online: “the film features a live performance of the song Rich Little Bitch by Melrose, a Finnish rock trio very popular at the time when the film was made.”
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Choice Kaurismaki quote: “When I was young, I would sit in the bath and ideas would come to me. But I’m not young any more, so now I just sit in the bath.”

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À bientôt, j’espère [Be Seeing You] (1968, with Mario Marret)

“Almost 10,000 workers have lost a day’s pay, just like that. It is not a prowess, it’s solidarity and it is something formidable compared to TV games or trash papers. It’s far better, it’s wonderful. It’s normal, it’s the working class… that’s what we must be aware of. What is beautiful is not what is written in the tabloids. It’s what the working class does. It’s to lose 5000 francs to support our sacked mates, and to contribute today again to make up for their lost pay. If only this was advertised and spread. Isn’t that culture? I want to tell management we’ll win thanks to the solidarity they know nothing about. We’ll get you. We’re not mad at those who think wrongly they are the boss, but we’ll get those who own capital. It has to be, it’s natural, and we’ll be seeing you.”

Unfortunately this does not seem like an intricate film which will grow deeper in meaning with repeat viewings – just on-the-spot reporting, interviews with striking factory workers who calmly explain what’s wrong with factory conditions and the effects (both actual and hopeful) of their strike. The only good speech is the one quoted above, at the very end. Movie was a letdown considering the great strike movies I’ve seen lately, including Harlan County USA just last week… but this wasn’t aiming to be similar to that film, or to The Battle of Chile, just small-scale reporting of a single event, leading (hopefully, but not actually) to a revolution of working-class-created films.

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2084 (1984)

Filmmakers are asked to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the 1884 start of trade unionism in France. “They were rather at a loss, so they had this idea of simply jumping ahead a century… afraid of defining the state of the movement today.” Their software and studies predict three possible futures, color-coded.

The Grey Alternative: a never-ending crisis. “When it takes all your energy just to stay afloat, there’s not much imagination left for creating a future.” An alternative with the possibility of “a social or nuclear explosion”, “a fearful society huddled in its blankets of false security, staking its hopes on a precarious balance that is forever in jeopardy. Here the union is at best a powerful protective organization” to “safeguard your job, keep you as comfortable as possible… A union like that doesn’t bother with changing the world.” “Union ritual becomes… nothing but congresses, meetings, demos, slogans. What a drag.”

The Black Alternative: “it could be fascism, it could be stalinism… it’s not easy to forsee a world where the technical developments replace ideology… The appropriation of this technology: who is to benefit from it, who should control its development, was the overriding question of the late 20th century, its real challenge. Because we didn’t understand in time what was really at stake, it was left to a new type of leader to govern the future: the techno-totalitarians.” It forsees “violent workers revolts [in] the 80’s and 90’s and their repression.” This leads to a Wall-E utopia. “At home you get more images than your eyes can absorb and more information than your memory can stock… Anger too belongs to a bygone age. The state is a well-oiled feeding machine and the union nothing more than the engineer who keeps it working, the one who detects the little glitches, little breakdowns, and who can’t even imagine that the machine can serve some other purpose. In fact, of ‘union’, only the name remains. Trade unionism passed away with the dawn of the year 2000” because of infighting.

The Blue Alternative: a tentative hope. “before our eyes, technology is beginning to prove itself a fantastic tool for changing the world, and this transformation includes the struggle against hunger, against suffering, the struggle against ignorance and against prejudice. It is still a struggle, but in the context of the 21st century, not the 19th.”

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“The 20th century hasn’t even existed. It was nothing but a long, painful transition from barbarism to civilization. In the 1980’s those who still felt angry about poverty, about the injustice of industrial societies were right. Those who felt there was hope for change were right too. The part unions played was to bridge the gap between this anger and this hope. They were the instrument of a new struggle, a place where imaginations could meet and create new solidarities, where people could… learn how to make good use of their differences, and how to win control of their days.”

The film proclaims that it has been “talking less about what has been done already than about what remains to be done. Nothing is programmed yet. The three alternatives are open to us.” “We’ve just got one century left.”

Definitely had to watch this a second time to make sense of it because of the rapid-fire low-key narration and the bizarre images (mostly of film students in a lab combing through 20th century film images), which I would focus on and lose the train of thought of the narration. They don’t exactly work together most of the time. It’s a great commentary though, and a strong little film.

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Remembrance of Things to Come (2001, with Yannick Bellon)

Excellent movie by two 80-year-old artists celebrating the photography of Yannick’s mother Denise Bellon. Tells stories through Denise’s photographs of France and surrounding countries (including colonized north Africa) and of her friends the Surrealists, first in the pre-war 30’s, then the lead-up to WWII, and briefly post-war (incl. a surrealist reunion photo). Nothing afterwards, though Denise lived until 1999 – makes for a short, focused movie. Electro-sounds and female narration by the Sans Soleil crew of Michel Krasna and Alexandra Stewart.

“Each of her photographs shows a past yet deciphers a future.” This is the kind of movie I’d been waiting for while sorting through Marker’s lesser-known 70’s stuff – poetic commentary weaving history and art around the images. Don’t know how the collaboration with Yannick Bellon worked, but this feels very much like a Marker movie, and a great one at that. There are cats, of course (see below), and the second mention I’ve seen him make of the 1952 Olympics.

From what Acquarello writes about this, you’d think he was talking about Sans Soleil: “It is in this analytical deconstruction between the integral art of composing an image and the cognitive assignment of significance behind the captured image that filmmakers Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon create a compelling exposition on the processing and (subconscious) self-actualization of human memory.”

Movie opens on Dali’s Rainy Taxi, which I saw in Spain.

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The Bellon sisters:
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Auguste Lumiere:
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The Pont-Neuf, which I recognized from Lovers on the Bridge:
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The commentary on this part, about scrap metal used to fuel the war effort, is one of Marker’s finest:
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Puisqu’on vous dit que c’est possible [We Maintain It Is Possible] (1973)

“We can now point out that the government preferred to surrender to multinationals rather than grant anything to the workers. That’s what we can say for now.” [via megaphone]

Movie about worker occupation of a factory in 1973, with an intro saying the movie was shot by “Scopecolor”, edited by Marker, and is the sole responsibility of those involved – the strike participants’ way of distancing themselves from the film, perhaps. A watch factory called Lip is to be shut down, then bought out, then restructured with massive layoffs, and the workers decide not to accept this, to take the factory and sell the watches themselves. Negotiations don’t go well (the workers have all sorts of demands, the owner simply says it’s not profitable so he’s shutting it down) then the police evacuate the building and demonstrations hit the streets.

Has much more interesting editing than À bientôt, j’espère but that’s not saying much. Still, for the most part, video interviews and a few photographs for a while, then footage from inside the factory, nothing exciting to watch. I mean, all praise to Mr. Medvedkin, and I agree that cinema can have many useful purposes, but personally I’ve seen an unusually high number of movies about worker strikes, so forgive me if I yawn when this one’s narrator goes on about how exciting are union meetings.

“The outrage lies in labor exploitation and the alienation that capitalism inflicts on workers.” says a speaker during a convincing speech – which is exactly the point here. Rich factory-owners aren’t going to freely hand their factories over to the workers, and the government isn’t going to allow one group to occupy another group’s buildings against the owner’s will, so the only way to win is the change the system, to reform capitalism. It happened, however briefly, in Chile, but the watchmakers at Lip failed to overthrow the French capitalist system.

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Set Theory (1985)

An ugly slideshow done entirely in HyperStudio, accompanied strangely enough by string music by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke instead of the electronic sounds Marker is fond of using. The story goes: Noah is on his ark wondering how to sort out all these animals, when two wise owls come by and teach him set theory. “Eureka,” cries Noah, who now understands all manners of mathematics through understanding set theory. Since it uses French intertitles instead of spoken narration, I transcribed the titles and ran ’em through google translator to make a subtitle track with helpful program Media Subtitler. The movie itself was only halfway worth the effort – it seems a very minor work (though more amusing than À bientôt, j’espère) – but it was fun to play around with. Some of the clip-art and dialogue is actually pretty cute – a tiger being confused with a house cat due to faulty classification and taken home is portrayed using an oversized tiger in a bathtub, with E. Munch’s “The Scream” in the foreground.

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Rare Exports Inc. (2003, Jalmari Helander)
One of those one-joke comedy shorts. The joke is that this elite group of skilled hunters are capturing wild “father christmases” and training them to sit at mall displays listening to children request gifts. It’s got a nice visual style (if you dig watching naked old men get captured, hosed down and beaten), and I guess besides the Eija-Liisa Ahtila short it’s the only film I’ve seen from Finland.
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The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions (2005, Jalmari Helander)
And since I didn’t like it much, I watched the sequel and didn’t like that much either. Like all sequels, it’s longer with more effects and new characters. This time the santa-hunters teach safety and behavior lessons and execute an unrehabitable santa.
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OïO Cinepainting (2003, Simon Goulet)
Took over a decade to make with the participation of 100+ Canadians. Looked like gloopy claymation swamp monsters wrecking countless painted glass vases.
I liked it, would watch again.
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Workers Leaving The Factory (1995, Harun Farocki)
A catalogue of scenes of workers leaving factories, including the Lumiere film shown about ten times along with Intolerance, Red Desert, Clash By Night, I think Modern Times, Man of Iron, Metropolis, some German movies, and an industrial advertisement for heavy-duty equipment to protect your factory from attackers. Female narrator tells us that there oughtta be more scenes of workers leaving factories, or that there are too many, or that we need to see inside the factories instead of staying out at the gates? I dunno, because she speaks with all the excitement of a hired narrator reading academic text from a translated script, and it put me to sleep twice – impressive for a 35-minute movie. Saves its poetic deep-thought summary for the end: “If we line up 100 years of scenes of people leaving factories we could imagine that the same shot had been taken over and over… like a child who repeats its first word for 100 years to immortalize its pleasure in that first spoken word… or like far-eastern artists who repeatedly paint the same picture until it is perfect and the artist can enter the picture. When we could no longer believe in such perfection, film was invented.” Cute, but I prefer Kaurismaki’s take on the Lumiere short, and all these shots of people leaving work make me want to see Joe vs. The Volcano again.

From the director’s article on the film:

I have gathered, compared, and studied these and many other images which use the motif of the first film in the history of cinema, “workers leaving the factory,” and have assembled them into a film, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers leaving the factory, video, 37 minutes, b/w and color, 1995). The film montage had a totalizing effect on me. With the montage before me, I found myself gaining the impression that for over a century cinematography had been dealing with just one single theme. Like a child repeating for more than a hundred years the first words it has learned to speak in order to immortalize the joy of first speech. Or as though cinema had been working in the same spirit as painters of the Far East, always painting the same landscape until it becomes perfect and comes to include the painter within it. When it was no longer possible to believe in such perfection, film was invented.

In 1895, the Lumières’ camera was pointed at the factory gates; it is a precursor of today’s many surveillance cameras which automatically and blindly produce an infinite number of pictures in order to safeguard ownership of property. With such cameras one might perhaps be able to identify the four men in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) who, dressed as workers, enter a hat factory and rob the payroll. In this film one can see workers leaving the factory who are in fact gangsters.

The first camera in the history of cinema was pointed at a factory, but a century later it can be said that film is hardly drawn to the factory and is even repelled by it. Films about work or workers have not become one of the main genres, and the space in front of the factory has remained on the sidelines. Most narrative films take place in that part of life where work has been left behind.

The Phantom Museum (2003, Quay bros.)
Starts with John Carpenter-style music, setting up the camera and lingering too long on each shot, but it picks up the pace soon. Don’t think they were being modest with the post-title card calling this a “random” trip through the museum of medical oddities. Showing off items they thought were interesting, bringing them to life with stop-motion whenever possible. Nothing much revelatory in the hospital (except the spiked chastity belt, ooh) or the film, but it’s nice that the Quays are still out there.
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