Independent Cinema Office Blog

News and views on the world of independent film

Cannes 2016: Team Training's blog

Posted Friday 27 May 2016 by Corinne Orton in Festival Reports, General

Cannes Film Festival provides the ICO’s training team with a unique opportunity to network, build our profile and meet up with international partners and funders to discuss current projects and future plans. A one-hour face-to-face discussion is worth a 100 emails as the old proverb goes...

Cannes Film Festival

Hatice’s perspective

2016 marked my sixth Cannes Film Festival and overall it felt like a fairly sedate affair, with the visible presence of the French military, quieter screenings and parties, and ramped up security checks airport-style (including an unfathomable attempted brioche confiscation). The main reason for the trip was to have several key conversations with international partners about the expansion of our Film Festival Symposium model and the evolution of our Developing Your Film Festival course, both of which are currently funded by Creative Europe. These courses offer a unique professional development opportunity for people working at film festivals, and over the last six years have helped change the sector by training hundreds of film festival personnel. We’ll share more information about new plans in the autumn.

The fact is you really can’t put a value on all the impromptu catch-up conversations you have in Cannes over the space of three days: speaking to our course alumni, colleagues from Creative Europe offices across Europe and other international partners. For me, Cannes is a place where new ideas spark and start to take form.

Julieta posters Cannes
Festival posters for Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta, Hatice's top pick at Cannes

My favourite film was Almodóvar's Julieta, an absolutely beautiful film which proved to me that Almodóvar hasn’t lost his touch. 

Corinne's perspective

After 9 years working in various roles in the film industry, it was a pleasure to visit the mecca of all film festivals, the one even your granny has heard of: Cannes. I had certainly developed a curiosity for the festival, hearing stories of long queues, booing in the auditorium, star-studded parties and Uber helicopters!

Cannes
Corinne takes in the view at Cannes 2016

Our arrival was fairly starry: landing on the Croisette we almost immediately entered a crush of curious tourists and Shia LaBeouf fans clamouring to see the cast of American Honey, who were literally dancing down the red carpet to blaring hip hop. Once we’d dropped our bags at our apartment I went straight out for the evening premiere of The Nice Guys. I queued alone in a long line at the side of the road in my rarely worn high heels, surprised to see men in tuxedos holding signs requesting spare tickets like very classy ticket touts. A man behind me was turned away for not having worn a bow tie and before long I was herded on to a very crowded red carpet, finding myself in a surreal, frenetic haze of flashing camera bulbs and excited chatter, oh and Geena Davis.

Once inside the Palais we watched a live feed from the red carpet and finally the stars of the film arrived to what felt like never-ending applause. As the film began, the audience continued to applaud the festival trailer, the production company, the cast and so on. I was swept along and really enjoyed the spectacle of it all. When the film ended there was no Q&A or words from the cast, just a whole lot more clapping until the cast looked as uncomfortable as possible. I left the auditorium high but dry – sadly no invitation to a yacht-based after party in sight.

Aquarius
Sonja Braga in Corinne's top festival pick, Aquarius by Neighbouring Sounds filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho

The following few days weren’t quite as glamorous but were no less enjoyable. We had some productive meetings with our partners, bumped into colleagues and course alumni from all over Europe, and enjoyed some excellent films, all in a sunny bubble. The best thing I saw was Brazilian film Aquarius which features an astounding performance by Sonia Braga, who's in almost every scene playing a strong and stubborn former music critic who refuses to leave her family home when developers want to renovate. If you can't wait for it, check out the director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s previous film, Neighbouring Sounds which is almost as good and bears a strong resemblance.

One of my favourite things about festivals is the accessibility for audiences, chance encounters and shared experiences, but Cannes is different - by focusing purely on industry it makes itself very elitist, and for this reason I can see why some will shun it. However, as I learned its organisers have every respect for the films and the filmmaking talent and this comes across in their every move. And hey, if you are lucky enough to be able to enjoy the best quality films with the best quality projection while in the French Riviera, maybe it’s best not to knock it.

Cannes 2016: Jo's blog

Posted Thursday 26 May 2016 by Jo Duncombe in Festival Reports, General

Elle Cannes 2
Paul Verhoeven's Elle, a favourite from Cannes for ICO programmer Jo

I was a Cannes first timer this year, so I figured I ought to start out by noting a few of my general and naïve observations about the Festival. Aside from the obvious wardrobe faux pas to avoid (I took heels and, against all natural inclinations, I needed them), Cannes is a wonderful spectacle of unwritten rules.

A good friend and old-timer gave me some advice before arriving. It isn’t Elle you’re about to watch, it’s 'The Verhoeven'. I’ve always been sceptical about auteur-driven language that singularly forefronts the director and neglects the project. But anyway, good. Armed with this information and my heels, I felt confident I would, at the very least, be able to have eye-level conversations about films with most people I encountered.

I was regularly informed that Cannes 2016 was the quietest iteration of the festival in a long while, owing perhaps to heightened security over fears of a terrorist attack (take a read of this for a few statistical and anecdotal explanations). Moreover, I arrived in the second week when the festival mellows a little. Some of the circus disbands, leaving space for serious film consumption without the long queues.

The air was still rich with reviews and predictions from the previous week. I heard much praise for American Honey, Raw, and the three hour German comedyToni Erdmann from the troupers who were now entering their second week of the festival with bleary eyes. My fresh-faced focus was to seek out the films by women directors, both in and outside of competition, and to discover whether or not the suggestion that the Cannes 2016 programme represented ‘a new breed of female lead’ was in fact valid.

So let’s start with some evidence in the affirmative. Verhoeven’s latest offering: Elle.

Elle Cannes
Isabelle Huppert and furry friend in Paul Verhoeven's Elle

Ostensibly, Elle is billed as a ‘rape-revenge melodrama’ which made me feel anxious and ready to be offended. The film opens in darkness to the gruesome sound-scape of brutal sex. We meet the film’s protagonist Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) in her bourgeois Parisian home as she is raped by a masked intruder.

Michèle is a victim of rape. Until she gets up, has a bath, and goes to work the next day. As the exposition unfolds, the film reveals her anew as the powerful and emotionally infallible CEO of a gaming company. She is realistic about the value of sex in her industry, and the fact that men are mortal in its wake, a truth she smacks home with precision at the expense of a young, cocky developer who dares to question her insistence on more “boner moments”.

We also learn that Michèle has spent her life haunted by her father who infamously went on a killing spree in the 1970s, implicating her by asking her to help him with the bodies. The incident, along with a photograph of a young Michèle at the crime scene, is impressed upon the national psyche. At one point we see Michèle watching a documentary marking the anniversary of the murders on national television, and we can only assume that her life has been littered with avengers and fanatics, looking for moral justice.

The remarkable circumstances under which Michèle has grown up (which could appear far-fetched) enable the film to make the point, with some complexity, that this is very much an individual’s story and not a universalising narrative about ‘rape survival’ or indeed ‘rape revenge’. Certainly, Michèle is no moral compass - she is an adulteress, an emotional manipulator and a shrewd businesswoman. But she’s also wonderfully funny and emotionally honest. She wants control, and knows how to regain it – a character trait that allows the film to touch on dangerous notes without inviting judgement. Michèle responds to her circumstances as is befitting to her.

Elle is most certainly not 'The Verhoeven'. Though deftly handled by the director, who avoids prescriptive notions of victimhood, the film belongs to Her. The character (and of course Huppert’s glistening performance) are at the centre of it all.

Divines Cannes
Divines, the triumphant feature debut of Houda Benyamina

Other highlights at the festival included:

Divines: A gorgeous and heartfelt first-time feature from director Houda Benyamina, which justly won the Caméra d'Or. Like Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, the film follows two young girls living on the outskirts of Paris. Enticed by the trappings of fast money and fast thrills, the two tumble haphazardly into a life of crime, dealing hash for the estate’s alpha femme. Inevitably, darkness ensues, but unlike the more earnest Girlhood, Divines retains a wonderful lightness of touch, owing largely to the heart-on-the-sleeve performances from its two young stars, Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena.

Risk

Risk: Risk is Laura Poitras’ new feature doc about the events leading up to, and including, Julian Assange’s detainment in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The film shouldn’t be read as anything other than an advocacy piece: everyone who features is very much on Team Assange. This imbalance aside, the film is slick and provides a fascinating insight into devotion and sacrifices made by the WikiLeaks personnel. Assange himself remains elusive, and the film’s best moments appear when Poitras reveals his vulnerability, or hints at his flaws. Assange’s grilling from super fan Lady Gaga, for example, presents a rather more flappable version of the man than one might expect.

The Lexi & The Nomad: Exhibitor of the Month

Posted Thursday 26 May 2016 by Duncan Carson in General, Pop-up and Event Cinema

Lexi external shot

The Lexi in Kensal Rise, West London, is a unique cinema with a purpose beyond showing incredible films and selling popcorn: mostly staffed by volunteers, its profits are all driven back to a South African charity that changes lives through sustainable living. The Lexi has now been running for nearly ten years, set up by Kensal Rise local Sally Wilton (whose title now is Lexi Founder/Dreamer). This is the fifth year they'll be travelling around London with their itinerant screen The Nomad, taking top films to unusual spaces across the capital. We sat down with Rosie Greatorex, the cinema's programmer, to talk about putting a cinema at the heart of a community and how their cinema is making a difference to people's lives.

How do the volunteers shape the Lexi and the Nomad?    

Our volunteers are key to everything we do. At the Lexi, they come from all walks of life - we have teachers, mental health nurses, students, business people, freelancers, retired people, firefighters – every profession and non-profession you can think of. Volunteering at the Lexi has also been a way for quite a few out of work people to improve their CV. We train you up and then you commit to a 3 hour shift every 2 weeks. It does take a lot of management time though. Zoe our Ops Manager does a great job, as does Dave our front of house manager. I think the important thing is to realise people volunteer for loads of different reasons. To make friends, to see more films, to support their local community and of course to support our charity in South Africa.

We made the transition to a volunteer-staffed front of house about five years ago. We took about a year to make the change, and I spoke to loads of community arts organisations and social enterprises about how they manage their volunteer teams and the different models and ways of thinking about it. We won an award for best practice in the first year of being volunteer run.

Bittu Lexi
Bittu, one of The Lexi's 50 volunteers, working in the bar

I am very aware that there are strikes going on with cinema staff in London, and a very important debate about the Living Wage in cinemas too. We don’t want our volunteering scheme held up as a reason to not pay your cinema staff! This is a model which works for us as a tiny 75 seat single screen with a small bar, in our local area. It allows us to operate with our staff costs as a fixed rather than direct cost which makes a huge difference.

At the Nomad, our volunteers are often just starting out in their career in exhibition or wanting to get into some area of the film industry. On both projects, we do try to understand why that person is volunteering and make sure we can help them get the most out of it. Loads of our Nomad volunteers have gone on to jobs in the industry, but come back every summer anyway. The Nomad needs 300 volunteers every year to make it work, so we're always on the lookout for new people to help out!

Nomad Brompton Cemetery
One of The Nomad's most popular screening sites, the spooky environs of Brompton Cemetery

How do you make the cinema something people want to contribute to?

We have a waiting list for volunteering at the Lexi! I guess it’s a really unique project and local people are proud to have us in their area and want to get involved. Mostly they get involved by buying cinema tickets and popcorn and wine, or by getting married here or having their mum’s party here, but we have 50 volunteers at any one time as well.

For me, at the end of a really long day, to see people come to volunteer on our box office or at a Nomad event after they have already done their own full day’s work, is just incredible. We all feel like that at the Lexi, and so even though it can be pretty hectic sometimes – especially in the summer, when Nomad is also in full swing – I think everyone here feels like they are valued and part of something. So I don’t think we do use any particular strategy to make people feel they want to contribute – it sounds corny but we are a community.

How do you communicate the charity aspect of what you do while keeping it fun?

Great question. We do think a lot about this. The Sustainability Institute is a charity project with a very hopeful, pragmatic and progressive approach. But clearly they are dealing with the realities of the huge inequality in South Africa and the legacy of apartheid and some pretty grim realities on the ground. We don’t want to manipulate our customers or over lay that side of things though. It’s also very important to respect the kids at the project and not use their image to try and get the sympathy ££s. So we try to strike a balance.

We have some great short films which screen sometimes before our main features to remind people where their hard-earned cash is going. We do also send out updates and snippets of news to our database if something great happens like one of the kids from the village matriculates or gets a job. Both the Lexi and Nomad make good use of the screen before the programme starts, with a slide show about the Sustainability Institute and at the Lexi we have a slide show projected onto the wall of the bar, so if customers are interested they can stay and watch the whole thing and get some more in depth info!

Lexi Coram Gardens
Coram Secret Garden is just one of usually secluded spaces opened up for al fresco cinema watching

How do you programme, playing off profit (for a good cause!) and culture?  

Like all thriving little cinemas we work very hard to understand what our audience want, and then to give it to them. One of the things that really influenced my approach was the ICO's Cultural Cinema Exhibition course and we obey the first commandment of programming from that: programme for thy audience, not thyself! We’re a first run cinema and we programme on date or week two, depending on the title. Basically we want to cram as much as possible into our programme. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t wish for a Screen 2. 

The Lexi audience are pretty discerning. They love documentaries. They will take a chance. We do as many Q&As as we can – one thing about the Lexi auditorium is that the acoustics are brilliant, so you don’t need a mic. The best Q&As I’ve been to have all been at the Lexi as you get a real conversation between the panel and the audience.

Programming Nomad is totally different, of course. We have 70+ screenings this year, all over London. From parks to palaces to cemeteries and churches and lidos. And being rep programming, it’s sort of a blank slate, which can be scary! But Nomad is in its fifth year now and I am hopefully getting a sense of that audience. I work on that programme with Kate, our Creative Director for Nomad. We made this amazing shared document which is like our programming hive mind and we’re adding to it all the time. What works well where, for how many people, what titles are best sellers, which are smaller but add something to our programme… I love that spreadsheet.

Lexi Cinema, London
Small but perfectly formed: the 75 seat interior of The Lexi

How do you build such a strong partnerships?

We are ethical, and professional. We may only be a small team but we will deliver on everything we promise. If you let us screen in your beautiful park, we will pop up the screen in one night, run a magical event and leave no trace. At the Lexi the same goes. We work really hard and we hope that shows, and it means people want to work with us again – it’s how we grew the Nomad so quickly and how the Lexi is thriving with only 75 seats. A lot of people giving their skills and time for free.

And sometimes you just meet other organisations you click with. We are screening Chocolate Films’ 1000 Londoners shorts in front of every Nomad screening this summer as part of a project we got some funding for (I am so happy about this) and now are also doing a couple of projects with them at the Lexi over the coming year too. I feel like every meeting we have with them, we think of other things we want to do. It’s a good synergy and exciting for our audiences too, I hope.

The Nomad shows films in some amazing places. How do you go about working with these venues? 

A lot of the venues where we screen are sensitive sites. Brompton Cemetery,  one of our favourite venues (and fastest selling!) is a good example of this. Firstly, we absolutely don’t let people wander among the graves! Obviously you have the creepy atmosphere from the fact that it’s a graveyard, and the graves are there in the backdrop - also the incredible Victorian architecture, but we also have to respect the fact that it’s still a working cemetery. Also the site is Grade 1 listed and one of the most beautiful working cemeteries in the country. We provide The Royal Parks who are our partner there, with really detailed installation, and health and safety plans. Paperwork! Our Tech Lead, Neil, will go for a site visit (usually several site visits, if it’s a new or complicated set-up) and discuss any concerns and specifications with the venue –and also of course figure out how to get the best sound and image possible in that space.

For the programming, obviously the venue lends itself to horror. Whilst we do programme darker titles there – this year, The Birds / Night of the Hunter / Psycho – the Royal Parks ask us to steer clear of pure horror, and to avoid anything with a supernatural theme. So it’s a bit of a challenge they've set us there but, to be honest, I think perfectly fair enough. Peoples’ relatives are there and it's important to be respectful.

This year I’m really looking forward Mulholland Drive at the Royal Academy, tying in with their Hockney exhibition. We had a lot of discussion with the team at the Royal Academy about our programme there, which was really exciting, and they’re staying open especially for the Nomad audience. Also, we’re showing A Street Car Named Desire at Brown Hart Gardens, which is this secluded raised terrace right in the middle of town. This will be an absolute gem of a screening but it’s a really small capacity. We work with the Grosvenor Estate for a lot of our Central London screenings (as The Grosvenor Film Festival) and they’ve opened up some really amazing spaces for us which are usually closed to the public.

A large part of the work of programming a pop-up cinema that roams to as many venues as Nomad is the back and forth with our partners at the venues over film choice. The absolute pleasure is when you screen a film that really suits the place. We showed Koyaanisqatsi a couple of years ago at Hyde Park lido, next to the water, with the city as a back drop, it was stunning. This year we’re screening Orlando at the Royal Maritime museum – so a really nice link to the Thames, and we’re next to The Queen's House – which has been a sort of pleasure house for queens and their consorts over the centuries. Really hoping people come out for that one!

Orlando Sally Potter
Sally Potter's Orlando will be making its way to Greenwich's The Queen's House thanks to The Nomad

What are the highlights of working at The Lexi?

The highlights of the Lexi programming are always the Q & As. Enabling our local community to have a dialogue with the filmmakers behind the films everyone is talking about feels like a really special thing. We do loads of panel discussions but one that really stands out for me is Asif Kapadia’s Q & A for Amy, last year. Of course we had a totally packed cinema, it was a great panel (hosted by Carin who does all our Q & As!) and being a local-ish doc, everyone had an opinion. The last time Asif had come for Senna. so it was really great to have him back again at the Lexi.

Then we had a space come up at the last minute at the Royal Academy courtyard (one of our headline venues), and Altitude granted us the non-theatrical rights early, so Asif came and did a Q & A there, too. In a totally different setting of course but under the stars in Central London, with a live jazz band - it felt like a real celebration. And a nice crossover between the Lexi and Nomad.

At the Lexi we’ve also had a long relationship with Film Club and Into Film. Personally I’m almost never happier than when we have a cinema full of young people. Next week we have our first Into Film screening as part of the Nomad programme - 220 children watching Song of the Sea at St Marks, Mayfair. I’m hoping that’s a relationship that will grow and we can open up more of our pop-up cinema spaces to children. Kate Pelen, Creative Director of the Nomad says 'Forging creative partnerships with like-minded people, from venues, to musicians, to filmmakers, is a real highlight of the project. There are so many potentially fruitful collaborative opportunities in the air: we just need to find the time to explore them all!'

One more highlight…. Ian and Hilary from Sacred Spirits supply all our gin and vodka – and it’s distilled in their garden, in Highbury! They come now and then and do tastings and ply us with too much gin and that feels like a really good relationship. Our customers love it. Their gin is bloody lovely. Zoe stocks our bar with as many local suppliers as possible so although the bar is tiny, the menu is really eclectic and carefully chosen.

Read more about The Lexi and its charity work here. To find out more about The Nomad's peregrinations this summer, click here.

Cannes 2016: Duncan's blog

Posted Thursday 19 May 2016 by Duncan Carson in Festival Reports, General

Neruda
Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, one of Duncan's top picks from Cannes

The start of Cannes 2016 felt dominated by the airing of long-gestating controversies. The announcement of the Official Competition line up was greeted with accusations of overfamiliarity, with prime position given once again to the auteurist Légion d'honneur: the Dardennes, Olivier Assayas, Bruno Dumont, Ken Loach and Pedro Almodóvar to name a handful. Plus ça change might have been the reaction in any other year, but with healthy debates circling the Oscars and other major awards, why should a festival that can make a legitimate claim to defining film culture not be taken to task on what amounts to greatness, who gets to speak and why? 

With the robust and aspirational report prepared by Directors UK and Stephen Follows on the shocking lack of female directors in UK feature filmmaking in mind, I was glad to have the chance to see two of the slim number of titles directed by women at Cannes. Neither Money Monster (directed by Jodie Foster and playing Out of Competition) nor In Bed with Victoria (the opening film for Critics’ Week, directed by Justine Triet) proved irrefutable evidence against naysayers of the need for a quota system. Yet they were both films that succeeded and failed by their own merits, just like any others debuting on the Riviera; the chance to have the same creative opportunities is what’s really at stake.  

My approach in trying to select from the bewildering array of options is a high risk, high reward game of eschewing what is likely to receive a UK release (adieu then Monsieur Loach and Mademoiselle Arnold, and see you in London) and hoping to find a new favourite filmmaker. As ever with Cannes, you feel as though you missed some of the best films regardless of how many great ones you end up feasting upon (I’m eagerly anticipating the release of Toni Erdmann and Train to Busan’s sale this side of the pond!), but here’s three that I thought stood out. 

The Student Russia
Prophet and acolyte: The Student makes a direct assault on Russia's focus on religious morality

The Student

Kirill Serebrennikov's The Student (or as its much more evocative French title has it, Le Disciple) which screened in Un Certain Regard, is a Russian story of youth in revolt. Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) is not driven off the tracks by drugs or sex, as his mother suspects, but by evangelical fervour. Endlessly quoting Bible passages, denouncing evolution, gay rights and the moral turpitude of the bikini, he’s a superbly brooding figure of motiveless malignancy. It’s an intense, claustrophobic film. We’re trapped for the duration with the unswerving certainty of Venya, as he’s both attacked by his Jewish-born atheist biology teacher and abetted by school authorities who tacitly endorse his extreme views.

Although adapted from a stage play, the best scenes in the film have an intensity that carries over from these origins and ties them to visuals that make the most of the film’s strong symbolism. Audiences who were willing to take the trip with Ukraine’s The Tribe or Leviathan will enjoy this film’s blackly comic mix of teenage angst and pointed satire. 

Neruda

Pablo Larraín’s latest was by far the safest bet I made in my viewing choices during my stay in Cannes. His No and The Club are highlights of the last decade, both formally compelling and morally probing. Neruda, his would-be biopic of the Chilean poet-politician, is no exception and sees him return to a national scale canvas after the brilliantly uncomfortable chamber piece The Club.

Larraín was never likely to make a conventional biopic, carving lapidary truths and cementing pivotal moments with reassuring aesthetics. Instead, this is a brilliantly ambiguous, insidious portrait of an often venal and hypocritical figure. Larraín's skill is to draw him as someone who nevertheless simultaneously deserves his heroic status as a vital figure in Chile’s struggle.

1948: Pablo Neruda finds himself on the wrong side of an anti-communist drive and is forced into hiding. The details of this exile are delivered in heavy narration by Gael García Bernal. Bernal is brilliant as a detective who is part-antagonist, part-acolyte, for Luis Gnecco’s Pablo Neruda. Both actors bring considerable charm to their mutual pursuit, a beautifully shot dance in which it’s uncertain who is chasing whom.

It’s an incredibly satisfying film, and it’s gratifying to see a director with this breadth and scale of talents using them in a sustained, light and morally ambivalent way, rather than equating epic scale with certainty and pomp. The final scenes, played against the jaw-dropping scenery of the snowy Andes, are equal parts answer and question to the searching questions asked by Larraín throughout. Here’s hoping that audiences scared by The Club’s grim subject will embrace this when Network release it across the channel.

After Love
Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Khan star as a former couple suffering financial woes in Joachim Lafosse's After Love

After Love (L’Economie du Couple)

The approach of the seventh feature by director Joachim Lafosse would have been appropriate for a first time filmmaker. Confined almost entirely to one location and with a small handful of characters, it’s the sort of small canvas filmmaking that makes a boon of economic necessity. But it’s unlikely you’d find a newcomer able to draw out the specifics of this intimate story with the skill and ambiguity that Lafosse demonstrates here.

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Boris (Cédric Khan) are a couple in a vicious cycle of confinement: they seemingly both want their relationship to end, but are forced by finances to remain in the same (gallingly beautiful) flat that they have shared for the last fifteen years, along with their twin daughters. Plot-wise, it’s nothing more than a sketch, but After Love’s scene-by-scene attention to detail is where its genius plays out. There's a central dinner party scene that is as excruciating as it is realistic; a wonderful microcosm of the simmering mix of love and hate that has kept this couple in the relationship holding pattern they find themselves in.

Rarely has a film shown so well the way that money matters become a proxy for emotional battles, but it’s also the rare art house film that shows that finance is a cause of friction in and of itself. We’re used to seeing excess and poverty on screen, but After Love is proof that small-scale money troubles have their own drama when handled with this level of studied intimacy. Audiences that were willing to take the journey of Two Days, One Night or Measure of a Man will find this a refreshingly genuine depiction of scenes from a marriage.    

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