Friday, April 27, 2007

No Shouts, No Calls

No Shouts, No Calls
Too Pure
UK release 30/4/07

Four albums into their career, Brighton four-piece Electrelane are now investigating the murky world of... pop. Having decamped to Berlin for a spot of summertime songwriting, they returned with a, dare I say, jaunty album focusing on love. Yes, the cinematic organ-grinders have gone all gooey and reflective at the same time and it works. There are still moody noodlings and the odd vocal squall but generally, everything is quite clean-sounding and bright.

The one oddity remains Verity Susman's singing. It seems odd for a vocalist to be developing her sound on a group's fourth album but it sounds as if Susman is still not sure about vocals. And considering they started out as an instrumental outfit, perhaps the group isn't either. Whatever the case, Susman sounds as if she is straining to reach high notes, growling on the low ones and generally wavering all over the shop. All quite quirky but it works for her.

Musically, the album is gorgeous. The drums sound chunky and propulsive on tracks like "The Greater Times, "To the East" and "Five". "Between the Wolf and the Dog" is a bit of a Blondie-esque rave-up and "Cut and Run" features ukulele. Lyrically, our heroines are pondering love, love, love. The aforementioined "Cut and Run" sounds like a lament to a first love. "Saturday" sounds like a playground taunt to a lost love and "To the East" sounds gooey but features frankly indistinct lyrics.

Still growing as a band, Electrelane may be a bit hard to follow through their explorations but this one is a grower. and/or

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Away from Her

Poster for Away from Her; photo by Val Phoenixdir Sarah Polley

Adapted by writer/dir Polley from an Alice Munro short story, this Canadian feature stars Julie Christie as Fiona, a woman succumbing to Alzheimer's while Gordon Pinsent co-stars as her husband Grant who is slowly frozen out of her life as the illness takes over.

Set in a wintry Ontario town, the film contrasts the couple's life together in a remote cottage with the clinical setting of Meadowlake, a care home for Alzheimer's patients. The story is told from Grant's point of view, observing her as she forgets who he is once she is admitted to Meadowlake. With his wolfish features, Pinsent is excellent as the doting husband with a hint of raffishness.

Christie is stunning, the camera often holding in close-up on her startling blue eyes. Her character is multi-faceted, unable to recall the way home when she goes out skiing and yet sharp as a tack in reminding her husband of "the things we don't talk about", namely his flings with nubile co-eds during their 44 years of marriage.

This latter scene, which occurs as he drives her to be admitted to Meadowlake, is absolutely key, because it shows the balance of power in their marriage and it also allows her to dictate the terms under which she is admitted. It is her decision to go. During their farewell, she comforts him. Then, she tells him she wants him to make love to her and then leave. Once 30 days have elapsed, she is allowed visitors but when Grant returns she doesn't seem to recognise him. Instead, she has formed an attachment with another patient, Aubrey, displacing Grant, who suspects she may be punishing him for his failings.

This possibility adds an element of mystery to the story, which is complicated by Grant subsequently seeking out Aubrey's wife (a hawkish Olympia Dukakis) and forming a relationship with her. Is this opportunism on his part? Does he want Aubrey and Fiona to stay together so that he can assuage his guilt at cheating on her? The ending leaves this unclear but the film is gripping, charting an unusual love triangle and then quadrangle.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Portobello Film Festival Launch

Programme for Portobello Film Festival; photo by Val PhoenixCobden Club

Oh, dear. I had been looking forward to this evening to launch this year's festival even if it meant a trek to the foreign climes of West London. Nice canal and all but... The Cobden Club is an impressive venue, an old brick working men's club with an unexpectedly posh interior. However... Whose idea was it to site the bar and the screening room in the same space? Within a half hour the noise level from those chatting at the bar was enough to impede and eventually overwhelm the film soundtracks, making it impossible to enjoy the films.

I stayed for half of the four-hour programme of short films and then gave up, so sorry to those I didn't see but take it up with the management.

Standout film of the first two hours was Get Your Tags Out, dir Ben Hilton, which made me laugh out loud. The premise is clever: women treating shopping the way men treat football. So, we had two groups of women staking out their turf and wearing their "colours" and taunting each other in alleyways and shopping malls.

I was intrigued by Viva Liberty! (dir Dishad Husain) which started off brilliantly, as nerdy, bespectacled "Woody Ali" (brilliant) finds himself in the clutches of the US authorities after a misunderstanding on an airplane. As a piece of satire, the premise is excellent, but it didn't sustain the initial burst. This film definitely suffered from the background noise, as it was very wordy. Still, I felt it dragged.

The Wheelhouse (dir Sean Garland) was badly hampered by technical problems with the DVD, so I can't really comment on it.

The Tail (dir Andy Shelley) was another clever film satire on discrimination, setting up a small 1950s-type town in which everyone has a tail. What happens when one man loses his?

Dottie: The Little Girl with the Big Voice (dir Dawn Westlake) took a similar theme of not belonging but in animation, and was also quite funny. For some reason it had subtitles, as well, which proved helpful as it screened during a noisy period.

Thoroughly Modern Mili, by the same director, was less successful, a live action satire on US militarism that went on too long and didn't sustain its premise of a French woman working for the US government. This film was substituted for the opener, Teer, which had technical problems and so didn't screen.

Looking forward to the fest but, strangely, no information was given out about it on the night. Most odd.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Lives of Others

Poster for Lives of Others; photo by Val Phoenix
(Das Leben der Anderen)dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

An extraordinarily gripping film looking back to Cold War East Berlin in the '80s and the grip held by the State Security Services, or Stasi, over the population.

In placing a Stasi officer at the centre of the piece, writer/director von Donnersmarck subtly shifts the audience's attitudes toward him, from repulsion to sympathy, as his behaviour changes from blind obedience to flouting his orders.

The officer, Wiesler, a blank-faced man dressed in grey, has been assigned the task of spying on a playwright, Dreyman. The order is politically compromised as a corrupt government official has designs on the playwright's girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Wiesler starts off his surveillance playing by the book but gradually he comes to sympathise with the couple and starts falsifying his reports. It all climaxes in tragedy but the tension is repeatedly ratcheted up as pressure falls on Wiesler from his superiors and the couple are also compromised.

There are some brilliant moments of black comedy within the film. The repulsive official, Hempf, praises Dreyman with the quote, "Writers are engineers of the soul", before a dissident reminds him the author of the quote is Stalin. He is nonplussed.

The idea of The Good Man becomes a motif, as well, with Dreyman referring to a sonata of the same title and then writing a novel of the same name. The film seems to be asking: who is good? who is evil? can people change? what are the responsibilities of artists?

Thought-provoking, politically charged and very handsomely made.

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Festival Roundup

Cheap Gossip Studio at Berlinale; photo by Val Phoenix
Films recently viewed at festivals:

Le Lit Froise
dir Myriam Donasis

French short in which two friends spend an evening drinking and giggling, their bonhomie unexpectedly turning to lust. The bulk of the film concerns the awkward morning after, with frosty silences, awkward chatter and a complete denial of what has happened to change their relationship replacing the earlier drunken exuberance. The unstated emotion is palpable.

dir Chris Spinelli

Very odd experimental short recounting life of lesbian decorator Elsie de Wolfe whose life's work was to "make everything around me beautiful." But rather than a conventional documentary, writer/director Chris Spinelli makes use of strange staged scenarios, voiceovers and addresses to camera to convey de Wolfe's world view. Rather arte and odd.


Ci Qing (Spider Lilies)
dir Zero Chou

Beautifully shot feature film about tattoos, family relationships and trauma set in Taiwan and featuring a lesbian relationship at its heart. The heroine, who is a flirty teenager with a webcam set up in her bedroom, has lost her parents and wants people to remember her. I was a bit bemused by the lack of depth of this character as she seems to be very superficial. By comparison, the woman she pursues, a tattooist called Takeko, is very grave and more nuanced. She even offers a bit of tattoo philosophy: "Male wants power. Female wants love." This was the Teddy award winner.

Generation K Plus Kurzfilm

Blod Sostre
dir Louise ND Friedberg

Here's an oddity from Denmark: a love triangle of seven-year-old girls, as chubby Sidsel finds a rival for the affections of her neighbour and tries to rid herself of her rival. Poor Sidsel--she just wants to be loved but goes about it the wrong way and finds herself humiliated in a very disturbing sado-masochistic scene featuring birthday cake. All in all, a pretty adult film. Hence it was very startling to see it programmed in the kids section.

Tommy the Kid
dir Stuart Clegg

Aussie boy seeks revenge for the theft of his bike in this very funny faux western.

dir Mike Jonathan

Dad makes his daughter a boat for show and tell. Mostly English but no translation of Maori, unfortunately.

More, Strycku, Proc Je Slane?
dir Jan Balej

Delightful Czech animation explaining why the sea is salty and offering a warning against greed and betrayal.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Berlinale Retrospective I: Cheap

Vaginal Davis in the Cheap Gossip Studio at the Berlinale; photo by Val PhoenixAnyone venturing into the atrium of the Filmhaus during the Berlinale would have found him or herself part of a giant art installation. As part of the experimental Forum Expanded strand of the festival, the art collective known as Cheap had turned the space into their Cheap Gossip Studio, adding some light relief to the heavy duty A-R-T going on elsewhere.

Cheap's latest production, with US drag artist Vaginal Davis, is the German fairy tale Max und Moritz, which will premiere in Berlin on 19 April.

The Cheap Gossip Studio, hosted by Davis [see photo above], became the place to be seen for the Berlinale, featuring a circular bar offering Kaffee and Kuchen, various art installations, films and live "Beauty Moments" every evening. Newly arrived in Berlin from Los Angeles and revelling in the atmosphere, Davis offered me a "grand tourina" of the space as well as a helping of his tongue-in-cheek philosophy. The beauty moments, he explained, were key "because we can always look more beautiful. That's very important--beauty. Who cares what you're like on the inside? It's about the outside. That's what counts 'cause that's all anyone sees anyway." A self-proclaimed Sex Repulsive, he made numerous claims for public sex occurring pretty much everywhere in the Studio but I saw no evidence of this.

Though the promised Isabella Rossellini beauty moment failed to appear, others included Miss Pascal offering makeovers and "The Whoracle at Delphi" providing misinformation.

Short films in the space's Rooftop Gallery included Shannon Plumb's lengthy one featuring drag queens attending a fashion show, Marie Losier's of aliens emerging from pots of pasta and Davis's of his friends dancing on a roof. In the Red Gallery Davis had another film featuring him and Cheapie Marc Siegel shrieking over photos taken by the latter's grandfather Sam of various celebs in the '60s and '70s, with Davis suggesting various libelous explanations for their expressions.

Cheap began in 2001 with a co-production performance piece. Its members include Tim Blue; driving force Susanne Sachsse, formerly an actress with the Berliner Ensemble; and Daniel Hendrickson, both of whom are personally involved with Siegel. All very post-modern. They invited Davis and others to collaborate on what the latter describes as a "funky, performancey piece that had these cheap aesthetics, an incorporation of availabism."

Availabism, coined by Kimber Fowler, refers to using what is available to create art and is something Davis has always embraced. "All you need is creativity. I take trash and make sculptures and costumes." The group also shares an admiration for queer experimental filmmaker Jack Smith.

Interestingly, according to Davis, the queer community was a bit suspicious of the group, especially those who knew of Siegel as a gay man. Davis observed, "German sexuality to me is so bizarre. Germans either like to get fisted or cuddling. It's either fisting or cuddling but nothing between that. It's extremes."

He is quite pleased that Sachsse has emerged as a leader within the group. "She puts the projects together. It's so great to have an art collective where it's female-driven... A feminine presence is the main spark to igniting the work and that's really, really rare. Because usually, whether it's straight men or gay men, everything is all about the men. It all becomes about them. The females become kind of tagalong." Sadly, I never got to interview the formidable Frau Sachsse because she was always busy, but I can say she has a crushing handshake.

A lifelong resident of Los Angeles before his recent move to Berlin, Davis sees the German capital emerging as a destination for artists. He has already seen an influx from New York. His own move was prompted by spiralling rents in his hometown. As he explains, "If you don't have cheap rent if you're an artist, you can't do your work 'cause all your time is being spent trying to have a roof over your head. Berlin has got a tradition of [being] bohemian and funkiness." He expects to stay in Berlin for the foreseeable future and travel around Europe to do installations and spread his message of "trying to motivate others to be as comfortable as possible within themselves".

Cheap's version of Max und Moritz transforms it into a girl gang with one boy. Davis, who plays Witwe Bolte, cackles and exclaims that "the boy is their bitch!" Cheap's production of Max und Moritz premieres in Berlin on April 19th at Theater an der Parkaue. It will also play in Hamburg and Graz.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Unilever Series: Karsten Höller

Karsten Höller installation at the Tate Modern; Karsten HöllerTate Modern

A bit late with this one as it closes on 15 April but it's well worth a visit if you get the chance and can stomach the queues.

A friend and I visited on Friday evening, late night at the Tate, and so appropriate for those who work weekdays or are seeking an alternative to the usual drink-and-puke Friday evening. I arrived first to get a spot in the queue and reached the front well before he arrived and so had to start over again. Once we were both on-site (it's not possible to pick up tickets for anyone not in the queue--very annoying), we were each able to get a ticket for slides on Level 3 and Level 5. As the numbers suggest, these are progressively higher up, daunting for those with a fear of heights, which both of us have.

With plenty of time on our hands (even showing up at 18:00 may not get you a booking before 20:00. Ours were for 20:30 and 21:00/21:30, respectively), we took advantage of the lovely weather to sit by the Thames drinking and chatting and watching people stroll along the shore line at low tide until it got too cold and we returned to the warmth of the Tate.

Availing ourselves of the permanent exhibitions we moved up level by level and by Level 5 we could hear the shrieks of people using the slides, adding an aura of anticipation/anxiety to the proceedings. With hours to wait, we had built up quite a lot of nerves by the time we visited the Level 3 slide. Looking down into the vast Turbine Hall below, it seemed quite a drop.

Although the slides have several turns, it is still a daunting prospect. Once you have collected your slider (a long piece of linen like an apron to sit on and to trap your feet), you position yourself at the entrance to the tube and wait to be given the signal, much like a luger or downhill skier. I was sweaty with nerves by this time and once I let go I was quickly sucked down the tube, jolting the whole way. I emerged some, I guess, 30 seconds later, quite shaken up and with legs like jelly.

Now imagine the same experience but two floors up on level 5. By now my mate and I had visited the cafe for some liquid courage. As a teetotaler, mine was a hot chocolate but nevertheless, we were both still goading each other. He had said he almost bit his tongue on the first go-round. "I bet it would look really cool if I got a picture of you with your tongue bleeding," I offered helpfully. "I hear people who don't wear elbow protectors have had their limbs severed," he commented, as I waited to go on, sans elbow protectors.

Down I went, and the experience was multiplied, but I was rather preoccupied with trying to get my camera to work so that I could record the movement. Sadly, the on button just wouldn't work and so I emerged, almost sliding off the rails, and trying to get my shaky legs to work again at the other side. I just got the camera on as my friend emerged, tongue intact. We had done it and neither of us had screamed.

In truth, the slides are quite enjoyable to watch, as well. The structures fit well within the Turbine Hall, making use of its impressive height and their gleaming silver and glass spirals echo the former industrial function of the building as a power house. While I still hold a fondness for Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project (2004), I would say this is the best interactive use of the Hall since the Tate Modern opened.

And as for the meaning? Well, Höller is quoted as saying he wants to explore both the spectacle and inner spectacle of sliding, of watching people perform this ritual and performing it yourself. In that, he has succeeded. And, as the queues attest, people of all ages seem drawn to this idea.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Filmmakers Ash Christian and Lisa Gornick at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; photo by Val PhoenixThe Authorial Voice

Ticktock Lullaby
Fat Girls

Two films by writer/director/star triple threats premiered at the festival with Lisa Gornick's feature and the debut by 21-year-old Ash Christian. By chance, the two filmmakers ran into each other outside the screening of the latter [see photo] and chatted re: the perils of directing oneself. Both confessed to being control freaks. There is a touch of the Woody Allen about this approach, with a strong authorial voice appearing in both which can polarise opinion. One person's quirkiness is another's self-indulgence.

My responses to these two were certainly polarised. I warmed to Fat Girls' outsider triumphs over adversity portrayal of small-town America, while Tick Tock Lullaby left me cold as I waited for something to happen. Its tale of a self-obsessed lesbian couple trying to have a baby exhausted my patience when after 20 minutes the couple (played by Gornick and Raquel Cassidy) were still agonising over whether to go ahead. Some would be charmed by Gornick's interior monologues and recurring cartoons to depict her inner turmoil. I was annoyed.

Fat Girls featured a motley crew of geeky fat gay boy, fat straight girl and Cuban refugee all stranded in a dead-end Texas town full of rednecks and closet cases. The director takes the lead role of Rodney, called Chub by his devout Christian mother, who lusts after the cool English kid at school and gives secret blow jobs to the football captain in the closet. Much of it is played for laughs and the experience of being the uncool kid at school probably resonates with many people. It did for me. The film, shot on mini DV, is certainly rough around the edges, with unbeautiful cinematography and a few lapses in pace. However, Christian certainly has made his mark and the characters will apparently be reappearing in a new series for MTV.

Good Doc/Bad Doc

The Railroad All-Stars
Mirror Mirror

More sublime to ridiculousness in two feature-length documentaries. Railroad All-Stars is an astounding piece of film-making from Spanish director Chema Rodriguez, about a football team formed by prostitutes in Guatemala City to highlight the discrimination facing them. Rodriguez has a sympathetic eye and her camera always seems to be on hand when something eventful happens, which it does often, as they are kicked out of their league, argue among themselves and personal relationships deteriorate among the team. So many big personalities are on hand that it is difficult to follow sometimes and my only complaint was that the names were only shown onscreen once rather than repeated during the 90 minutes.

Among the teammates are Vilma and Lupe, who break up and reunite at least once during the story. Team captain Valeria visits her gang member boyfriend in jail. Mercy has left behind her children in El Salvador and Carol is being abused by her male partner. The team coach is the flamingly gay Kimberly, who has his own story, too. Rodriguez has a bounty of material and yet constructs a clear narrative as the team goes on a national tour and then heads for a match in El Salvador. I found myself rooting for them in their matches and willing them to succeed. Sadly, there is no Hollywood ending for these women as a coda informs us of what happened once the cameras stopped rolling. Life for sex workers is bleak and they are no exceptions.

Mirror Mirror, by contrast, takes a fascinating subject, the poly-gendered Wotever Club in London, and manages to make it extremely dull by using an interactive approach in which the subjects, including the club promoter Ingo and some of the performers, were invited to give their feedback on Zemirah Moffat's film as it was being made. This results in some of the most self-conscious, over analysed and processed filmmaking I've seen. All the life is squeezed out of this film and it drags badly. Patrick Stewart lookalike Lazlo Pearlman offers some unintentional comedy when he says he finds the project highly intellectual. Moffat says at one point in her voiceover that she finds that the characters are becoming aspects of her desire. But there is precious little desire on show.

Also viewed:

Itty Bitty Titty Committee

Finally, a Riot Grrrl film, if only 15 years late.

With Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Le Tigre and Sleater Kinney on the soundtrack and a plotline featuring an underground radical feminist group, it's not your usual fare. Baby dyke Anna hooks up with the feminist activist group CiA for actions, while falling for the alluring leader Sadie at the same time. But, there's a problem... Plenty of dyke drama ensues.

The cameos by famous dykes like Guin Turner, Jenny Shimizu and Daniela Sea are a bit inside joke, but it is a solid and enjoyable piece of work cleverly juxtaposing politics and comedy. And certainly, the arguments, the political bickering and the passion ring true. Almost like Dykes to Watch Out For come to life.

As with The Perfect Ones (see LLGFF II), the feel is very early nineties. Really, just the group's website and mention of the Iraq war place it in the late noughties, rather than the early nineties. I wonder if the screenwriters had the idea years ago and just gave it a slight tweak to bring it up to date.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad

Detail from Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad; photo by Val PhoenixJennifer and Kevin McCoy
Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad
BFI Southbank
Until 28 May 2007

This installation in the new foyer of the NFT is delightful and clever. The four sets in the Gallery, the Traffic series, use miniatures to depict important moments from the couple's lives incorporating moments from cinema. But by using tiny video cameras, live footage of the moving miniatures is screened on the gallery wall as well as within the sets. Must be seen to be believed.


Exterior of Southbank Centre; photo by Val PhoenixRadical Desire

This was the big femme shindig, with a programme of short films, a live performances and a lively Q&A/argument at the end. Something for everyone, then.

The night kicked off 30 minutes late, thanks to the previous programme over-running. Bird Club on Film performed a rather scrappy and under-rehearsed skit, culminating in some jokey porn accompanied by them singing "Birds on Film" to the tune of "Girls on Film". Not really sure what this added to the evening.

The films, as picked by the unnamed curator, spanned the sublime to the ridiculous. Dara Birnbaum's fabulous re-rendering of Wonder Woman, Technology/Tranformation: Wonder Woman, from 1978, was a crowd pleaser, with Lynda Carter's every appearance loudly applauded.

Dames was a witty lesbian reworking of film noir, by Maureen Devanik Butterfield, in which the two "dames" decided they really didn't need their gangster boyfriends.

Love Struck, by Susan Ali, was laugh-out-loud funny, as Cupid's accuracy let him down, requiring one of his targets to take matters into her own hands.

Debris, by Justin Kelly, left me utterly bemused. No idea what was going on there.

Meeting of Two Queens, from Cecilia Barriga, was another classic, a 1991 collage of clips of the marvellous Marlene and Greta, reclaimed to create a new meaning.

Two newies finished off the programme. I Want to Be a Secretary started off intriguingly enough with a naive secretary starting off her first week at work, keen to make a good impression. However, the story-telling techniques: archive footage and voiceover, really did not sustain the 12 minutes of the story. I found myself a bit restless before it ended on a very odd note, with Dusty Springfield singing over a montage of secretaries.

The most popular film was the world premiere Fem, by Inge Blackman. Several of the women in it were at the screening and cheered loudly during and after the screening. This film also generated the lively discussion at the end, as femmes applauded its celebration of them. The film was a butch appreciation of femmes and set them up in glossy settings as fantasy objects/subjects.

Not finding myself anywhere on the femme-butch spectrum, I remained immune to the thrill that much of the audience seemed to find in this. I don't share the view that femmes don't see themselves depicted onscreen or receive appreciation in the mainstream or the lesbian world. The film programme itself showed that and those films span 30 years. I was also uneasy at the curator repeatedly declaring how wonderful it was to see "beautiful women" onscreen as if femmedom was the only way a woman could appear beautiful. Nobody questioned this statement.

However, the post-film discussion quickly degenerated into a competition as to who is more oppressed, a bit of a pointless exercise. Blackman spoke of wanting to celebrate women who work in the community and of lesbians giving ourselves permission to look at women. Good points well made.

Queer in Your Ear?

More looking in this music video programme of queer and queer-friendly artists ranging from up and coming indie types Promo Funk and Grizzly Bear to the pop fluff of Kylie and Scissor Sisters. It's a pity the gender ration was so skewed with only two or three queer women in 16 videos. Nonetheless, my favourites included "Pass This On" by The Knife as much for the song as for the video featuring Sweden's leading drag queen. Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" was included presumably because it features two female-featured robots getting jiggy. However, since both of them are Bjork, this is more a case of self love rather than same-sex love, surely.

Gossip's video for "Standing in the Way of Control" isn't up to much, is it? Still, it's great to see Beth strutting her stuff. The standout, however, by a long way was Peaches' "Downtown", which managed to encompass gender play, S/M, glamourous settings and an absolutely filthy song. She also dons butch and femme drag to have sex with herself. But didn't Annie Lennox do this about 20 years ago?

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