Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst.

Curiously, the two best are also the least Jewish. I guess they were so good they had to be added anyway.

A Swim Little Fish Swim
Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, and the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his frustrated wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.


So what makes this a Jewish film? In one extended sequence, Leeward and his family go to his parent’s home for Shabbat.

A- Comedy Warriors
Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.


And what makes this one a Jewish film? One of the five is a religious Jew. Also, although this is never discussed in the film, standup comedy is essentially a Jewish art honed in the Catskills. But that’s a bit of a stretch.

I’m glad to say that I don’t have to answer that question for the remaining three films.

B God’s Slave
A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.


C+ Anywhere Else
A graduate student in Berlin–stuck in academic and emotional crises–returns to her crazy Jewish family in Israel. Her German boyfriend soon follows. That sounds like a comedy, but it plays here as straight drama. That would be fine, except that too many of the characters are merely skin deep. There are, fortunately, exceptions. The lead character has moments of realistic angst. Her brother is a truly original, unpredictable joker with something eating him inside.  Her boyfriend, presumably raised to deplore his country’s Nazi past, finds the militarization of Israeli life frightening and disorienting. But you have to put that up against the stereotypical Jewish mother, the clueless father, and the angry sister who couldn’t keep her husband home. For too much of its runtime, Anywhere Else feels like a paint-by-the-numbers drama.


C The Village of Peace
On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.


Note: I altered this article on July 23, corrected the time that The Village of Peace will play at the Castro on August 1.

This Year’s SF Jewish Film Fest Coming in July

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival claims to be the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the world. And at 34, it may also be the oldest film festival geared to a particular ethnicity.

Since I am personally of that ethnicity, this festival catches my attention more than the others. Which explains why I’m not writing a similar article on the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco (although I’d do that too if I had the time).

Unfortunately, I was fighting a cold Tuesday (still am), so I missed the press conference. But I have various press releases in front of me, so I’ll try to give you an overview.

The Festival runs from July 24 through August 10 at various locations around the Bay Area. For instance, it runs in San Francisco from opening night to August 3rd, but plays Berkeley August 1 – 7. Other venues are in Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael–eight theaters in all.

It will screen 49 features, more than half of them documentaries, as well as 18 shorts.

This year, the Freedom of Expression Award goes to actor (and, according to the press release, activist) Theodore Bikel. His award ceremony will include a screening of a new documentary, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem.

Another of those documentaries, The Green Prince, opens the festival. It’s the story of a Palestinian fighter who is captured by the Israeli government and turned into a spy. From what I gather, it’s pretty much from the Israeli point of view, but I haven’t seen it so I’m not sure.

This year, there’s a spotlight on one of Judaism’s finest traditions: comedy. This includes two documentaries on the art of making people laugh: Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story and Comedy Warriors. Among the comic features is an Israeli military farce called Zero Motivation.

In fact, there seems to be an unofficial focus on the Israeli military. God’s Slave is a thriller involving an Islamic terrorist and a Mossad agent in Buenos Aires.

I’m hoping to preview some of these films before the Festival opens. Stay tuned.

I Wake Up Dreaming about Silents: Bay Area May Film Festivals

Taking some time off of the San Francisco International Film Festival, I thought I’d tell you about three other festivals opening in May.

I Wake Up Dreaming

May 16 – 25

Noir City isn’t the only local festival to concentrate on the dark side of cinema. The Roxie‘s I Wake Up Dreaming series offers its own selection of 30 noir movies (and “noir-ish” ones according to the press announcement) from 1932 to 1965. The films all come from the Warner Archive.

I’ve only seen two movies on this list, Ladies They Talk About and Al Capone, and have heard of one other, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. But that’s how it should be. I like surprises. [Note: When I first wrote this post, I'd forgotten that I'd seen Ladies They Talk About. I corrected this paragraph on May 18.]

All of the films will be projected digitally, which would be fine with me if they were off of a DCP or a Blu-ray. Unfortunately, they’ll be DVDs–not the optimal format for a theater screen. On the other hand, the Roxie has a small screen, so they should look okay.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

May 29 – June 1

The biggest Bay Area silent movie event of the year moves from mid-July to late May  this year. But some things don’t change. It looks like another great four-day weekend of movies and live music at the Castro.

It starts Thursday night with the movie that made Rudolph Valentino a star, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is not, quite frankly, a great film, but it is a pretty good one. And Valentino’s first scene is one of the great star-making moments of all time.

Three days later, it ends with Buster Keaton’s The Navigator. While this isn’t my favorite Keaton by a long shot, it’s a lot of fun and has some fantastic sequences. I haven’t seen it theatrically in a very long time.

As usual, Friday morning brings us this year’s Amazing Tales From the Archives. This time, Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the BFI National Archive, will screen some early nature films, Dan Streible of Orphan Film Symposium (I haven’t heard of it, either) will teach us more about Fred Ott’s Sneeze than we ever thought we’d know. And Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will discuss Charlie Chaplin’s use of special effects.

Other films that look very exciting here include two Soviet pictures–a space adventure and a comedy–and an early noir by Yasujiro Ozu (yes, you read that right). There’s also an adaptation of one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of Four. And Serge Bromberg will show us a Treasure Trove of work, including a recently discovered version of Buster Keaton’s “The Blacksmith.”

The musicians include Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Stephen Horne, the Donald Sosin Ensemble, and a group I never heard of called the Silent Movie Music Company.

Green Film Festival

May 29 – June 4

I tend to put film festivals into three categories: general (SFIFF, Mill Valley), identity (Jewish, Frameline, Mostly British), and genre (Silent, Noir City, DocFest). But this is something different: a didactic festival. It exists to teach a lesson and turn us inter activists.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. We need more activists fighting for the planet’s future.

For the most part, Green will screen documentaries. But they’re also showing a 40-year-anniversary screening of Chinatown.

Even the Green Film Festival dips its beak into noir.

SFIFF Preview, Part II

I’ve previewed another three films that will screen at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival (for my first set of three, see SFIFF Preview). Curiously, the best two of them, by far, are about the young sons of impoverished, widowed mothers.

This is the end of my previews. The next films I see for the Festival I’ll see at the Festival.

A Happiness
This anthropological documentary puts you into a society you probably don’t know–a remote, mountainous portion of Bhutan–and shows you how it’s changing with the times. And it does this almost entirely through the viewpoint of a young boy. Peyangki wants to go to school, but his widowed mother can’t afford it, and sends him instead to a small nearby monastery–with the intent that he will become a monk. He studies Buddhism, but he also plays, burns excess energy, makes friends, and acts like the utterly adorable child he is. Meanwhile, electricity–and with it TV and the Internet–are coming to town, where they will change everything. Director/photographer Thomas Balmès’ camera makes few obvious comments, and generally sits back and observes a way of life in transition. Touching, visually beautiful, with a slow, stately pace that matches the subject matter. A real gem.


Happiness will play at the Kabuki Sunday, April 27 at 12:15 and Wednesday, April 30 at 1:00. It will screen at the Pacific Film Archive  Friday, May 2 at 6:30.

A- Bad Hair
Ten-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) bewilders, confuses, and worries his widowed mother (Samantha Castillo). Not only is he mischievous and occasionally thoughtless–hardly surprising for a boy that age. He also hates his curly hair, does everything he can to straighten it, and behaves in ways that don’t measure up to his mother’s ideas about masculinity. Meanwhile, Mom–horrified that she may have a gay son–struggles to get her job back and makes ends meet with little or no money. Both Lange and Castillo give great performances in this unique drama about poverty, race, and homophobia.


Bad Hair plays at the Kabuki  on Thursday, May 1 at 9:15; at the New People Cinema Sunday, May 4 at 6:15, and  the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday, May 7, at 6:30.

D- The Militant
Meet Ariel (Felipe Dieste) is unquestionably the most boring student radical that ever went on strike–although, to be fair, his comrades in this movie aren’t exactly fascinating, either.  In the course of this slow and dull film, he leaves an occupied college to attend his father’s funeral, deals with his father’s estate, joins another group of radicals, goes on a hunger strike with some meat packers, and works as a cowboy because his father owned cows. He also has a disability, which no one ever mentions, even when there are legitimate safety concerns. Unbearably dull, with little to say.


If you still want to see it, The Militant plays at the New People Cinema Saturday, April 26; at the Kabuki on Sunday, April 27 at 3:15; and at the Pacific Film Archive Thursday, May 1 at 8:50.

SFIFF Preview

So far, I’ve managed to preview three films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them.

A Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy
I believe this is the first feature film adapted from a real-life Twitter feed. The title character (Patcha Poonpiriya) is a disturbed and spontaneous high-school senior. She and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) live and study in a small boarding imageschool situated in what looks like an abandoned factory. Initially, they have the usual problems of late teenage years–romantic and sexual yearnings, revolting against authority, and doing stupid things on drugs. The first half is quite funny, in a sardonic, mild-chuckle kind of way. But the story takes some very dark turns in the second half, and becomes appropriately serious. Oddly, with its CRT computer monitors, dot matrix printers, and film-based still cameras, the picture appears to be set in the 1990s. And yet, Mary’s tweets appear onscreen throughout.

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy will play at the New People Cinema Friday, May 2 at 2:00 and Sunday, May 4 at 3:00. It will play at the Kabuki Tuesday, May 6 at 9:00. To my knowledge, it will not otherwise get an American release.

B Young & Beautiful
As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old girl going from virgin to high-priced hooker to fully-developed character takes a major turn at the halfway point, suddenly imagebecoming a film worth watching. After all, a film about a teenager losing her virginity doesn’t mean much if the character isn’t interesting. Then, suddenly she’s a prostitute. We watch her have sex is old, rich men over and over, but we can’t figure out why (she doesn’t need the money). Then her mother finds out. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters.It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

Young & Beautiful plays at the Kabuki, Monday, April 28 at 9:30 and Thursday, May 1, at 3:45. The film’s regular theatrical run starts May 9.

C+ When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism
This extremely low-key exercise about a film director and an actress has the matter-of-fact look and feel of early Jim Jarmusch–with the camera just sitting there and recording what’s going on in front of it. I don’t believe imagethere’s a single cut within a scene. And most of those one-shot scenes use a completely static camera. Sometimes a scene ends, and the camera stays on, facing a wall or parking space for several seconds for no apparent reason. Slowly, and seemingly almost by accident, you get to know a bit about these two. But you don’t get to know much about them. And besides, they just don’t seem all that interesting.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism screens at the New People Cinema, Friday, April 25 at 3:45; at the Kabuki, Saturday, April 26 at 6:30, and at the Pacific Film Archive, Monday, April 28, at 8:30. It will likely have a theatrical run after the Festival, but I don’t know when.

Film, Digital, and the Current Castro Calendar

Early every month, I visit the Castro‘s Playlist page to see which classics they’re showing digitally rather than on film. 

And no, I don’t do this to get angry. I love film, but I also love DCP (the digital standard that’s replaced film in theaters). It’s more a matter of curiosity.

As I understand it, the Castro’s management usually screens classics on film if it’s available. But I’m sure there are exceptions. For one thing, DCP cuts shipping costs significantly. If a classic has undergone a major digital restoration, DCP will always look superior. It often looks superior even without the restoration, but not always.

Purists who disagree with me will be glad to know that 35mm has the upper-hand on the current calendar–at least if we ignore new films. But not by much. Over the course of April and early May, the Castro will screen 19 35mm prints, and only 14 DCPs of older movies.

A few noteworthy selections:

The Red Shoes (April 10, DCP): This ballet melodrama uses the 3-strip Technicolor format better than any other film I’ve seen, so you want to see it with the best image quality. It was recently restored digitally, so I feel safe to say that DCP is the right choice.

Groundhog Day (April 11, 35mm): I know for a fact that there’s a DCP for this title. I’m guessing that the Castro had both options and picked 35mm.

Ben-Hur (April 13, DCP): This 1959 epic was originally shown in a special, anamorphic 70mm format. Since it’s unlikely to be shown that way again, DCP is the best choice. However, this is the sort of movie that makes me wish that the Castro had a 4K digital projector–which does better for large-format films.

Sorcerer (April 17, DCP): This remake of The Wages of Fear has just been restored. Of course it’s now digital.

Johnny Guitar (April 23, DCP): I’m really glad they’ve bothered to digitize this gem, which deserves to be better known. I hope they did a good job.

Emperor of the North (April 27, 35mm): I haven’t seen this film, but the Castro is promising an archival print. I’ll generally  take that over a DCP.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (May 3, DCP): This was shot in the same very wide, large-film format as Ben-Hur, and should ideally be projected the same way. Some years back, United Artists struck an anamorphic 70mm print, and the Castro screened it, using special projection lenses supplied for the engagement. However, that wasn’t the complete movie. The original cut has now been digitally restored, and is thus on DCP. For what it’s worth, I loved this movie when I was ten; I can’t stand it now.

This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival Announced

It feels like winter has finally arrived, but according to the calendar, it’s aready spring. And that means this years’ San Francisco International Film Festival is only weeks away. The Film Society has been releasing bits of news for weeks, but Tuesday morning, they held the big press conference, and then the entire schedule went live on the Internet.

The festival opens Thursday, April 24, and closes Friday, May 9. Over those 16 days, the Festival will screen 168 films, including 103 features (74 narratives, 29 documentaries). The films will be in 40 languages. There will be five US premieres, five North American premieres, and three world premieres (and yes, that’s a total of 13, not five).

The festival opens with The Two Faces of January, which new Executive Director Noah Cowan described at the press conference as a “rip-roaring thriller.” Since it’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), it could very likely be that.


Awards are always a big part of the festival. Richard Linklater, who made big splashes at SFIFF the last two years with Bernie and Before Midnight, wins this year’s Founder’s Directing Award. Since I’ve yet to see a film of his I didn’t like, I can’t complain. The ceremony honoring him will include a screening of his new film, Boyhood, a narrative feature that he made on-and-off over a 12-year period, allowing his protagonist to age from six to 18.

The Kanbar Award for screenwriting this year goes to Stephen Gaghan. I’ve only seen two of his films–Traffic and Syriana (which he also directed)–and was disappointed with both of them. The event honoring Gaghan will include a screening of Syriana.

By the way, both Linklater and Gaghan are now writer-directors. At the press conference, I asked how the programmers decided which one to honor as a writer and which as a director. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen admitted that that decision can be tricky, but pointed out that Gaghan made a reputation for himself as a screenwriter and then started directing, while Linklater burst into the film scene as an independent writer-director. (For what it’s worth, the first director to receive that award, Akira Kurosawa, was an established screenwriter before he became a director.)

This year’s Mel Novikoff Award, given to those who have "enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema," goes to writer and critic David Thomson. In addition to talking and answering questions, Thomson will screen my all-time favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve.


Speaking of classics, the festival has two silent film nights, both with unusual musical accompaniment. The first of these, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, has Thao Nguyen and her band, the Get Down Stay Down, accompanying various silent shorts, including Chaplin’s wonderful "The Pawnshop," Slavko Vorkapich’s "Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra," newsreels, and I’m not sure what else.

However, I’ll probably skip the second silent film night, Stephin Merritt with The Unknown. I like The Unknown, one of  Tod Browning’s best Lon Chaney vehicles. Unfortunately, I heard Merritt’s horrible accompaniment for  the silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 2010. I have no desire to see him massacre another silent film.

By the way, when the usual film-vs.-digital question came up at the press conference, Cowan guessed that The Unknown and "The Pawnshop" will be the only programs in the festival projected in 35mm. (Another program, whose name I didn’t catch, will be in 16mm, with two projectors running simultaneously at different speeds.) Rosen told us that they had a choice of screening The Lady Eve on film or digitally, but the digital version looked better. "It’s a digital restoration." I’m fine with that, although I know that many are not.

Here’s something promising among the documentaries: Agnès Varda: From Here To There. I’ve only recently come to appreciate Varda–the queen of the French New Wave. I’m sure she’d be as famous as Godard and Truffaut if she’d been born with a penis. In this French TV miniseries, she travels the world and interviews interesting people. But at 225 minutes, it’s a major time commitment. 


The festival will close with the family drama Alex of Venice, about an environmental lawyer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) struggling after her husband leaves her. According to the website and the press conference, Don Johnson gives an excellent performance as her aging actor father (possibly not a major stretch).

The Castro in April

I just checked the Castro‘s Coming Soon page to see what’s playing in April. The information is limited, but it has some intriguing offerings.

Sing-Along Beauty and the Beast: For a split second, I thought this might be Jean Cocteau’s post-war masterpiece, which would be odd since that one isn’t a musical. On the other hand, Philip Glass wrote an opera designed to accompany the movie, so perhaps the audience is expected to sing along with that. Or, far more likely, it’s the Disney version.

Harold Ramis Tribute: Over two days, you can see Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation (I assume that’s the National Lampoon movie), Stripes, and Animal House. Of course, I could see Groundhog Day over and over again.

Palm Sunday spectacular: On April 13, you can see Ben-Hur, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Resurrection. I have no idea which movie called "Resurrection" they’re showing, but I doubt it’s Alien: Resurrection or Tupac: Resurrection. Whatever version it will be, putting Ben-Hur on a triple bill will test anyone’s faith.

Sorcerer: I’ve never seen this remake of Wages  of Fear, but I’ve heard good things about it. I understand it’s recently undergone a major restoration.

Upcoming Festivals: Subtitled Noir and Subtitled German

We think of film noir as a very American genre…which is kind of weird. After all, the very word noir should remind us that the French recognized a unique style and gave it a name.

So I’m happy to tell you that in its12th installment, Noir City goes international. There will be films from Spain, Norway, Argentina , Japan, and (of course) France. And for those who don’t like subtitles, you’ll even find movies from Britain and the USA.

To get things started off properly, the opening night double bill includes The Third Man, universally considered one of the greatest films of all time. And an international one. It’s a British picture, made with American money and with an American star (Joseph Cotten), and shot on location in Vienna. The other half of the bill is Journey Into Fear, also starring Cotten. Orson Welles made important contributions to both opening movies.

Germany looks at its shameful past (talk about noir) in The Murderers Are Among Us and Berlin Express . There will be three films from Argentina. The French films include the always fun Pépé Le Moko and the great Wages of Fear. Even my all-time favorite auteur, Akira Kurosawa, gets a double bill, with Drunken Angel  (Toshiro Mifune ‘s break-out role) and Stray Dog.

Drunken Angel

Among the American films, you’ll find new restorations of Too Late For Tears  and The Hitch-Hiker. The later was directed by Ida Lupino. Best remembered as an actress, she was one of very few women who got to direct during the Hollywood studio era. And since studio-era Hollywood could stand for any place in the world, the festival will close with a triple bill of three American films set in the far east: Singapore, Macao, and The Shanghai Gesture.

But before Noir City opens, Berlin & Beyond will treat us to a glimpse of the current state of German-language cinema. These aren’t all German films; some are from Austria, Switzerland, and even one from India. But they all have one thing in common: If you don’t understand German, you’re going to be reading subtitles.

I haven’t seen any of these films, but some of the more interesting titles include Breaking Horizons, which won the Best German Language Feature Film award at the Zürich Film Festival, Gold, set in the Alaskan gold rush, and the documentary Sound of Heimat – Germany Sings, about German folk music.


Berlin & Beyond will play five days at the Castro, then move to the Goethe-Institut for the last two days.

The Bay Area needs another film festival like it needs…

Like a herd of zombies hungry for human flesh, the 10th Annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival will take over the Balboa on November 29 and not let go until December 5. Then it will move to the New People Cinema, where it will continue to devour brains until the 19th.

We think of film festivals as events that celebrate the most serious, artistic, and high-minded aspects of the cinematic arts–a place where we may find the next Bergman. But Hole in the Head is an entirely different beast, and I use that word intentionally.  For three weeks, it will exhibit the best (or in some cases, arguably the worst) in new independent horror, sci-fi and fantasy films.

With a few classics get shown, as well. The festival will screen Jaws–a great film in my opinion–and Kubrick’s  The Shining. They’re showing both in 35mm, and making a big deal about it. Actually, they’ve got two Shining events, the other being The Shining Forwards and Backwards, which apparently is exactly what the name implies.

You haven’t heard of most of the films to be screened. At least I haven’t. Starting with the opening night picture, All Cheerleaders Die, the titles are, in nothing else, evocative. They include Bath Salt Zombies, Cannon Fodder, Lola Rock’n’Rolla’s Lez-ploitation, The Cohasset Snuff Film, Midnight Snack, Septic Man, Cannibal Diner, Slew Hampshire, So, Now I’m a ZombieThe G-String Horror Demon Cut, The Town That Christmas Forgot, and the title that probably promises more than it delivers, Pinup Dolls on Ice.

And just to reassure you that the festival is family friendly, there will be a matinee of Saturday Morning Cartoons; children admitted free.


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