Posts tagged ‘iran’

Round & Round: This Is Not A Film film review

Jafar Panahi, house arrest, This Is Not A Film, 2012

Iranian director Jafar Pahahi has been under house arrest for more than a year now awaiting the outcome of latest appeal of his 2010 conviction of conspiring to overthrow Iran’s Islamic Republic. His latest effort, This Is Not A Film is a documentary of what he describes as “two idle filmmakers,” Panahi and fellow Iranian director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, attempting to make sense out of a nonsensical situation. Filmed mostly inside Panahi’s Tehran apartment over the course of a day and evening, the movie is an interesting metaphor for the likely state of Panahi’s frustrated creative mind right now.

The movie follows Panahi as he eat breakfast and kibitzes with his lawyer on the phone about the possible results of his legal appeal.  It then continues with a visit from Mirtahmasb who films Panahi as he describes the scenario for his most recently script, lately rejected by the Iranian censorship board. Panahi and Mirtahmasb begin to block out the film on Panahi’s living room rug, but the process abruptly ends and the documentary goes on several tangents. Somehow Panahi ends up filming Mirtahmasb on his cell phone camera while Mirtahmasb is filming him, in circumspect defiance of the regime’s ban on Panahi making films. The film ends with Panahi interviewing an art student/garbage collector/deliveryman on his trash-collecting rounds as they discuss the difficulties of creating work under the current regime’s oppressive eye.

Attesting to Panahi’s status as one of Iran’s leading directors, we see him in his comfortable flat casually name-checking various members of the Iranian filmmaking pantheon such as Rakhshān (Bani-E’temād) and Khambozia (Partovi). Yet he also seems quite at ease chatting with the art student/garbageman and doesn’t seem to mind riding in an elevator with a smelly trashcan.

Jafar Pahahi, blocking, This Is Not A Film, 2012

This Is Not A Film has the same watchful intelligence as Panahi’s narrative films (The Circle; Offside; Crimson Gold), and as with those films, this one possesses a sharp critique of the Iranian power structure. Several times Panahi mentions his unwillingness to solicit public support from his fellow Iranian filmmakers due to the risks from the government their aid may cause them and Mirtahmasb at one point asks Panahi to take a picture of him as evidence in case the government retaliates against him for helping out Panahi. Throughout the documentary an uneasy undercurrent of repression flavors the goings-on, adding a furtive guardedness to the proceedings.

Panahi maintains a keen eye for metaphor–he paces fitfully in his apartment, only able to connect to the outside world through remote devices like the cell phone or through TV news, or at a distance, by watching the city’s daily life at a remove on his balcony. The storyline of Panahi’s rejected script involves a young woman attempting to escape the house that her family has locked her in, which of course echoes Panahi’s own real-life house arrest. Tellingly, the recounting of this story and others in the documentary are interrupted and unfinished, adding to the film’s mood of incompleteness and frustration.

Jafar Panahi, frustrated, This Is Not A Film, 2012

Panahi also makes good use of the spectacle of Fireworks Wednesday, the boisterous celebration of Persian New Year. The film ends with Panahi viewing from afar a bonfire just outside the gates of his apartment building as his visitor warns him not to be seen holding a camera or “they will see you.” As he lingers in his doorway he clearly longs to join the celebration, yet his wariness that “they” will censure him constrains him.

This small moment is an excellent representation of the invisible restrictions on Panahi’s freedom and the way in which the Iranian regime holds him captive, as well as the means by which he attempts to subvert that captivity. The doublespeak of This Is Not A Film’s title echoes that subversion, as Panahi tries to find a workaround to his confinement without pushing the regime too far. It’s a delicate, frustrating balance and one Panahi captures pretty effectively in this film. His creative life hangs in the balance and, like the interrupted stories throughout, if the Iranian government prevails, it may never reach its full completeness.

This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Iran 2011), dir. Jafar Panahi

opens April 6

SF Film Society Cinema

1746 Post Street

San Francisco CA

go here for tickets and information

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April 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm Leave a comment

Windows of the World: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and A Separation film reviews

Big country, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, 2011

Although I love the overwrought histrionics of commercial cinema (see Agneepath), that’s certainly not the only way to make a movie. Two films that have been on a lot of last year’s top ten lists have recently made their way to San Francisco cinemas. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation are both riveting pieces of work that deal with the ambiguity and shades of gray found in complex moral situations

Despite a title that harkens back to Sergio Leone’s expressionistic spaghetti Westerns, Ceylan’s Anatolia is an understated, masterfully told story that sidesteps the conventions of most genre films. The film follows a group of local police through a long night on the Anatolian steppes as they search for the grave of a murdered man. The cops are reluctantly assisted by two perps whose memory of the crime wavers in and out of focus throughout the night.

Moral complexity, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, 2011

As they drive around western Turkey’s vast landscape the police amiably debate the benefits of sheep versus buffalo yogurt, meticulously tot up mileage for reimbursement, and gossip about who among them might have prostate issues, among other mundanities. The narrative unfolds naturalistically, without a soundtrack, with some of the dialogue seemingly improvised or loosely scripted. Themes and plot points emerge slowly and sometimes indirectly—a character’s offhanded comment in one scene takes on great relevance later in the film. Such restraint and respect for the audience’s intelligence is a welcome change from the hamhandedness of most films, where exposition is a blunt instrument used to club the viewer into submission.

The film presents realistic, complex characters, with killers that weep remorsefully, cops that show compassion for criminals, and men who are overawed by the beauty of a young woman simply serving tea by candlelight. Ceylan’s direction brings a deft and subtle touch to the film—the movie concludes with a matter-of-fact autopsy with the unsettling sounds of the procedure, including cracking breastbones and dripping fluids, emphasizing the operation’s dehumanizing effect. Overall Ceylan’s direction is a lovely thing to behold, as he uses the policemen’s wanderings through the Anatolian countryside as a metaphor for the imprecision and ambiguity of humanity’s moral landscape.

While it also looks at the unclarity of human morality, A Separation’s briskly paced and intense storyline takes a different tack than Anatolia’s slower, more naturalistic tale. Farhadi’s political allegory/family drama starts in medias res, with a middle-class Iranian couple arguing their case directly to the camera (standing in for the off-screen judge). Simin, the wife wants a divorce in order to move to the United States against the wishes of Nader, her husband, who feels a duty and an obligation to remain in Iran to care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Simin pleads the urgency of going abroad in order to improve the life of their adolescent daughter Termeh, although the details of this necessity are not made clear. The judge dismisses her suit, and Simin decides to move to her mother’s house rather than stay with her husband. The film follows the aftermath of her decision, with this seemingly small action leading to unexpected, ever-broadening repercussions.

The film features an outstanding ensemble cast including Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, who won Best Actress and Actor awards at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival for their portrayals of the conflicted couple. However the rest of the performances are also excellent, including Sareh Bayat as the devout woman that Nader hires to care for his father, and Shahab Hosseini as her hotheaded husband.

Divided, A Separation, 2011

Director Farhadi makes great use of his locations’ architecture, confining his characters in small, enclosed spaces that stifle communication and hinder movement. He also effectively utilizes windows and doors, often framing the actors separated or trapped behind panes of glass. Several times his characters slam or pound on a rattling, fragile stained-glass door, yet it resolutely resists shattering. The door thus becomes a symbol for the delicate yet impenetrable separations of class, religion, and gender that divide Iranian society.

Farhadi also successfully conveys the illogic of government bureaucracy in a chaotic trial that takes place in a cramped, crowded judge’s chambers. Witnesses shout at each other without hesitation, various people come and go, and criminal charges quickly escalate from theft to battery to murder based on hearsay, conjecture, and unproven accusations.

The film ultimately hinges on 11-year-old Termeh’s choice—which parent will she stay with? Her indecision becomes the crux of the film, symbolizing the impossibility of neatly resolving most human conflicts.

Like Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, A Separation eschews a Hollywood ending—loose ends dangle, storylines are unresolved, and characters remain in limbo. As in real life, clear and easy resolutions aren’t a part of the picture.

UPDATE: As expected, A Separation won for Best Foreign-language Picture at this year’s Oscars, following a similar award at the Golden Globes and, as expected, with Israel on the verge of bombing its irascible neighbor, (with the tacit approval of the U.S. government), the film’s increased profile is being spun by all sides. Although director Farhadi used his Oscar acceptance speech to make a plea for tolerance and understanding, the Iranian government claimed the award was a blow against “the Zionist lobby,” while Iranian hard-liner Masoud Ferasati called the film “the dirty picture (of Iran that) westerners are wishing for.” No doubt more mud will be slung on both sides of the propaganda war.

February 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm 1 comment

Standing In The Way Of Control: Jafar Panahi, David Wojnarowicz, and Cultural Strategy

Jafar Panahi, 2010

The Berlinale opened this week and the film festival posted on the front page of its website a powerful and poignant letter from jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, whom the Iranian government recently sentenced to six years in prison and banned for twenty years from making films, for supposedly plotting against the regime. In his letter Panahi states, “The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that an artist as talented as Panahi and as outspoken in his support of human rights might be muzzled for two decades. I’ve only seen his three most recent films but each of them are both innovative and imaginatively made movies as well as clear, uncompromising critiques of social inequities in Iran and beyond. The Circle (2003) savagely exposes the gender inequities in the lives of Iranian women. Crimson Gold (2003), written by fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, concerns an everyday pizza delivery man whose daily humiliations by the ruling class eventually push him over the edge. Offside (2006) also takes on gender roles in modern-day Iran, framing its story against the runup to the World Cup.

The international film community, as evidenced by the Berlinale’s decision to leave a symbolically empty chair for Panahi on its jury panel, has been vocal in its opposition to his sentence, but it remains to be seen if the Iranian government will bow to public pressure to release Panahi or reduce his sentence.

Panahi has been eloquent in his own defense, noting in an interview in August, ““When a filmmaker does not make films it is as if he is jailed. Even when he is freed from the small jail, he finds himself wandering in a larger jail. The main question is: why should it be a crime to make a movie? A finished film, well, it can get banned but not the director.”

David Wojnarowicz, still from "A Fire In My Belly," 1987

Though Panahi’s sentence may seem shockingly excessive, we here in the U.S. shouldn’t forget that culture wars are still being fought in this country as well. In October 2010, conservative Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio (now Speaker of the House) and Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) targeted the inclusion of the late artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s short experimental film A Fire in My Belly in the show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Citing a brief passage from the film in which ants are seen crawling over a wooden crucifix, Boehner called the exhibit “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Skittish Smithsonian curators quickly pulled the film from the show, to the outrage of much of the art world (the Warhol Foundation threatened to withdraw its funding from the museum). As with early 1990s attacks on NEA-funded artists by Sen. Jesse Helms, another far-right stalwart, the current assault attempts to silence what the right considers a dangerously subversive perspective, that of a gay man who dared to include religious iconography in his work. It’s one more volley in the ongoing attempt by the right to control the cultural discourse of the U.S.

Perhaps more so that the left, the right wing keenly understands the ability of art and culture to sway public opinion. As Jeff Chang and Brian Komar so astutely note in Vision: How We Can Beat Conservatives With Progressive Culture, their excellent essay on alternet.org about what they term “cultural strategy,”  “When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and make new politics possible.” There’s a reason why conservatives are once again agitating to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it’s not because they don’t like the tote bag they got with their membership pledge. It’s because the right understands that by controlling arts, culture and media outlets, and by extension controlling the master narrative, it can control the social and political landscape as well. As Mao Zedong famously stated, “[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapon for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.” (Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942) Change “revolutionary” to “conservative” and “enemy” to “Democrats” and this quote could be straight from the latest installment of Fox News.

Poster, Cultural Revolution, ca. 1971

Mao had a good reason to fear the millions of artists and intellectuals that he exiled to hard labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He understood the power of art to shape popular thought and sway political opinion, as does the Republican brain trust that has been fighting for control of the arts and culture of this country for decades, and as does the ruling party in Iran that has chosen to silence Jafar Panahi.

So while we wring our hands over the fate of Panahi, we should keep in mind that we’ve immersed in a culture war here in our own backyard as well. Rush, Sean, and Bill aren’t just harmless kooks mouthing off on cable tv, but are significant bully pulpits of the right-wing thought-control machine. It’s no accident that in the dire hours of the Egyptian revolution this past month, then-President Mubarak immediately moved to shut down Internet access, repress independent media outlets, and harass journalists. The power to define and shape the cultural narrative, whether through art, media, or information exchange, is the new high ground in the battle for ideological and political power.

UPDATE: Jafar Panahi has just been awarded the Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach) at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which is awarded for “innovative qualities, courage and independent-mindedness.” Cannes will screen Offside on May 12 and will keep an symbolically empty chair in the theater for Panahi.

February 13, 2011 at 7:04 am 2 comments

Picture This: 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

I’m not sure that the nice Chinese American ladies sitting behind me during the screening of James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen’s Lessons Of The Blood, shown last Tuesday as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), knew exactly what they had signed up for when the bought their tickets. They had been behind me in line outside of the Sundance Kakuki Cinema, chatting amiably in English and Toi San, and I heard them mention that the film was “about the Nanking massacre” and that it had “won some kind of award in Europe.” As the film progressed and drew the audience deeper into its horrific tale, the ladies began to gasp and groan in dismay since Hong & Jin’s movie is not for the faint of heart and tells its story in chilling detail. Not unlike when I see a particularly brilliant horror flick, I found myself overwhelmed with dread and anxiety by the end of the movie, all the more so since its story is drawn from facts and history.

Germ warfare victim, Lessons Of The Blood, James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen, 2010

The film outlines the infamous series of war crimes commonly known as ‘the rape of Nanking,” but as told by Hong & Chen it’s quite a bit more. Unflinchingly graphic in its description of the various atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Nanjing during World War II, it also included several stomach-turning closeups of festering wounds found on the now-elderly survivors of the germ warfare unleashed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1940s. Lessons Of The Blood, however, is more than sensationalized propaganda or simple polemics. It’s also an impressively crafted film, using found footage from propaganda films, newsreels, Hollywood movies, television news, and other filmic detritus, as well as a disturbing and ominous soundtrack, coupled with modern-day interviews with Chinese wartime survivors (who willingly reveal their various scars and disfigurations). The result is a haunting condemnation of both the historical crimes as well as the modern-day complicity that implicates us all. Needless to say, watching this movie was hella intense.

Lessons Of The Blood was one of the strongest films from this year’s action-packed SFIAAFF. Although once again I spent more time at the parties than watching movies (in part because so many shows sold out), I managed to catch A Moment In TimeRuby Yang & Lambert Yam’s luminous elegy to San Francisco Chinatown movie houses. The film is a comprehensive look at the ways the Great Star, the World, the Bella Union, and the Mandarin theaters were in days of yore the glue that held together the Chinese community, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until their collective demise in the mid-1990s. I myself had the privilege of seeing several classic Hong Kong films with my buddy Patrick at both the World and the Great Star (including a strange and awesome double bill of the violent shoot’em up Big Bullet and the weepy melodrama Comrades: Almost A Love Story) and I can attest to the downscale utilitarianism of both of those movie houses. But there’s nothing like seeing a Chinese-language film with a roomful of Chinese people who are eating cuttlefish, smoking, and chattering incessantly in Cantonese during the show, and Yang and Lam’s movie captures that sensation exactly. One patron interviewed described his entire family including young children attending 9.30p Saturday night shows for 25 cents total, the kids running up and down the aisles and the parents gossiping and eating chicken wings and melon seeds until all hours.

Cell phone a-go-go, Tehran Without Permission, Sepedeh Farsi, 2008

I also caught a screening of Tehran Without Permission, shot surreptitiously on a cell phone in the months running up to the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Although I was dog-tired from attending my own world premiere and reception for The Oak Park Story earlier that day, Sepedeh Farsi’s verite documentary held my attention throughout its 80-minute run time. Through subtle and succinct vignettes the film captures the mood and attitude of citizens of Tehran, with small details and comments presaging the upheavals that would occur in a few months hence.

Deepika Padukone & Saif Ali Khan, just another impossibly gorgeous Bollywood couple, Love Aaj Kal, 2009

I also made time to see the festival’s annual Bollywood at the Castro movie, Love Aaj Kal, although it was the fourth film of a long day of movie-going. I have a soft spot for this program since it was at last year’s festival that I caught my very first Shah Rukh Khan movie, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which spurred my obsessive love for SRK in particular and for Bollywood movies in general. Love Aaj Kal, alas, does not star Shah Rukh Khan but the hot and charming Saif Ali Khan makes an acceptable substitute. Paired with the doe-eyed and astoundingly pretty Deepika Padukone, Saif plays dual roles as a modern-day commitment-phobic NRI in Britain and a noble and lovestruck suitor in the 1960s Punjab. The film deftly shuttles back in forth in time between these two stories, drawing parallels and distinctions between the romances from each period. A well-made and satisfying love story with some excellent dance sequences, the film is a great example of high-quality Hindi-language commercial moviemaking—in other words, a fun and rewarding bit of Bollywood entertainment.

I also passed by a rush line full of excited teens waiting for the special appearance of youtube darlings kevjumba, wong fu, nigahiga and timothy delaghetto. The youth were madly texting and tweeting as they waited to see their favorite internet stars in the flesh, but tickets were, alas, impossible to come by since the show had sold out as soon as it was announced. It was nice to see the next generation of SFIAAFF fans out in force, which hopefully augers well for the continued health and well-being of Asian American filmmaking.

Filmmakers Felicia Lowe & the late, great Loni Ding, 2009. photo: Jay Jao

NOTE: This year’s fest was dedicated to the memory of the force of nature known as Loni Ding, the legendary Asian American filmmaker and educator who a few weeks ago died at age 78 from complications from a serious of strokes. Loni was one of the fiercest and most amazing people on the planet and her energy, dedication, and sheer determination guided her filmmaking, which included seminal documentaries like Ancestors In America and The Color of Honor. She always had a kind word and a smile for younger filmmakers like myself and made us feel like we were doing something significant in our work. She was the moral center of the Asian American film community and she will be sorely missed.

March 24, 2010 at 6:28 am Leave a comment

We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang: One Day: A Collective Narrative Of Tehran

Tehran, Undated, 2009, Merhan Mohajer, C-print, 27.25″H x 27.25″W

Just got back from Intersection for the Arts, where I saw One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran, a brilliant group show organized by Iranian American, San Francisco-based Taraneh Hemami, and Ghazaleh Hedayat, an artist living in Iran. Taraneh is a visual artist and curator whose past work includes several projects dealing with her experiences as a diasporic Iranian woman.

Taraneh’s been creating a lot of work that utilizes images downloaded from the web, such as her mixed-media piece Women In Tehran (2007), in which she threaded together small cut-out pictures of downloaded images of women from the Iranian capital city. Her larger 2007 installation, Most Wanted, included a beaded curtain that replicated a poster of fugitive Islamic terrorists that she found on-line, its fuzzy and indistinct images suggesting a culturalist compositing of all Muslims into an overarcing mashup of  conflated identity.

Most Wanted, 2007, Taraneh Hemami, 87,000 6 mm faceted beads, string, pole

Her use of internet-based images reflects her own status as an exile far from her homeland as well as the ways in which diasporic peoples now retain contact with their countries of origin, through websites, social networks and other virtual spaces. By utilizing web-based imagery Tareneh’s work also mirrors the significant role that the internet played in this year’s presidential elections in Iran, during which opposition leaders and activists as well as everyday Iranian citizens communicated their concerns and bypassed the censorship of traditional media outlets through the use of twitter, facebook, youtube, and other net-based media. Without such social-networking sites the Iranian government would likely have been able to completely obfuscate reportage of the protests and demonstrations that took place in the days following the elections.

Find The Lost One, 2007, Neva Razavipour, two-channel video installation

The current show at Intersection builds on some of these concerns in a complex and elegant presentation. The pieces work individually and as a unit, showcasing the mundanities of life in Tehran as well as the heightened tensions now present following the disputed presidential elections. Several of the projects also take on new meaning and significance after the elections and the crackdowns that followed it. Neva Razavipour’s two-channel video installation, Find The Lost One (2007), projects the same image twice, side by side, of passengers exiting a train station in Tehran. With one exception the projections are identical—-Razavipour has digitally erased one of the figures leaving the station. Text running at the bottom of the projection challenges the viewer to “find the lost one” in the right-hand image. As the artist’s statement notes, the piece was created in 2007, but following last summer’s elections the installation has now become a canny commentary on the increased repression of oppositional voices in Tehran.

 

One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran, installation view, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco

Taxiography, Ghazaleh Heyadat’s processed-based pen-and-ink sketches, also take on additional resonance following the June 2009 elections. Each day Heyadat made a drawing by allowing her pen’s gyrations to trace a line based on the bumping and swaying of the bus or train she was riding through Tehran, with each small sketch reflecting the routes Heyadat followed in her sojourns across the sprawling city. Originally created as a means of passing time on Heyadat’s lengthy commute on Tehran’s public transit system, in the wake of last year’s crackdowns the drawings can also be read as records of the furtive travels of fugitive activists seeking refuge from the Basij and other military personnel.

Yekrooz (One Day), 2009, Taraneh Hemami, neon

Taraneh Hemami also has a couple pieces in the show, including Yekrooz, a green neon sign that spells out “one day” in Persian, and Turning Green, a large laser-cut green wool rug that traces a street map of Tehran. The rug’s central placement on the gallery’s floor unifies the exhibit while referencing Mir Hossein Mousavi’s oppositional Green Movement.  It’s also a sly pun on Iran’s more Western-friendly name, Persia, and the ubiquitous carpets of the same name, reflecting the still-fraught relationship between Iran and U.S.

Interestingly enough, of the eight pieces included in the exhibition, only two were physically shipped from Iran. The rest were conceived in Iran, but fabricated in the U.S., from computer files and design plans sent over the web or email. Not only did this strategy save on freight but it also allowed the artists to circumvent censorship of their work by the Iranian government.

Not unlike the role that twitter et al played following the disputed elections, once again the web has aided Iranians in speaking out and voicing their concerns, despite their government’s best efforts to suppress them, and such dauntless determination speaks volumes about the urgent relevancy of this show. The risks that these artists take hopefully will make us here in the U.S. appreciate the casual ease with which we can tweet about our latest DVD purchases, what we had for lunch, or who we support for dogcatcher. With diligence we won’t let net neutrality and other civil rights erode in the U.S., and they’ll remain a given here as they are not in Iran.

One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran

Wed, Nov 4 – Sat, Jan 23, 2010 | 12pm – 5pm | FREE

Gallery closed December 20, 2009 – January 4, 2010

Sat. Jan. 16, 7 pm: Artists Talk

Intersection For The Arts

446 Valencia Street

San Francisco, CA 94103-3415
(415) 626-2787

December 22, 2009 at 5:52 pm Leave a comment


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