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The Arts

The New Generation of Russian Film
In todays Russian film industry, its the mastodons of the past versus the wave of the future.
By Alex Osipovich

The Russian film industry had a near-death experience in the 1990s. But now, thanks to a handful of innovative, critically acclaimed projects - including "The Return," "Bumer," "Koktebel," "The Cuckoo," and "Black Ice" - the corpse of Russian film is showing signs of life. So why isnt everybody happy?

Among directors who cut their teeth in the Soviet era, theres a definite longing for the Good Old Days of state-sponsored, Soviet film. (And if the popularity of old-fashioned Soviet movies on TV is any indication, many viewers, especially older ones, share this nostalgia.) In the words of Alexander Pozdnyakov, a St. Petersburg film critic and PR manager for the Lenfilm movie studio, these are "mastodons of the past" who are firmly entrenched in the Russian film establishment. "They sit and wait for handouts from Goskino [the Soviet-era film agency] to make boring films that nobody wants to watch," says Pozdnyakov. "These people need to sit down and write their memoirs."

Of course, theres no denying that the Soviet era was good for certain well-connected filmmakers. Perhaps the best example was Sergei Bondarchuk, whose 1968 adaptation of "War and Peace" took six years to film and nearly bankrupted the Soviet government. During the filming, 100,000 soldiers from the Soviet Army were mobilized to re-enact the battle of Borodino. The resulting film was a remarkable achievement, if only for its length - it was nearly ten hours long.

Burnt By The Nineties

With the collapse of the USSR, government funding dried up and the Russian film industry underwent a catastrophic drop in production. At the same time, theaters emptied out as Russia was flooded with Hollywood B movies and cheap, pirated videos. With a few exceptions - such as the Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun" by director Nikita Mikhalkov, and the Chechen war drama "Prisoner of the Caucasus" - Russian films of the 1990s were low-quality productions that barely attracted any viewers.

In the few films that were produced in this period, the dominant aesthetic was a dark, morbid sensibility that earned the derogatory title of chernukha, or "blackness." In chernukha, directors tried to outdo one another in creating progressively bleaker portraits of Russian life. The result was an endless parade of toothless alcoholics, ignorant wife-beaters, and Stalinist thugs. Although the genre was initially hailed as a symbol of post-Soviet freedom, viewers and critics alike came to despise the stomach-churning, relentlessly negative films.

There were also projects that tried to be more "commercial." But many of these were actually money-laundering schemes, initiated by wealthy New Russians who cast their wives and girlfriends in the leading roles. Shady financial practices are still common in the Russian film industry. In one recent production (according to an actor who wished to remain nameless) the camera crew took ten rolls of film hostage in order to make sure they received their paychecks.

Lately, however, the industry has gained a more solid footing, driven by a small uptick in government funding, and by independent producers who are often affiliated with Russias TV networks. The St. Petersburg studio Lenfilm produced only one film in 1996; now it produces about five films and 30 TV serials a year. And slowly but surely, Russian audiences are returning to movie theaters. In fact, theaters can boast some of the most impressive growth statistics in the Russian economy. After the 1998 financial crisis, annual ticket sales were about $7 million; in 2003, the same figure was $190 million. Moscow is now full of American-style multiplexes, with comfortable seats, Dolby sound, and popcorn.

Meanwhile, the old state-sponsored film machinery continues to tick, cranking out the occasional big-budget flick. A recent example of this was "A Rider Named Death," released in April. The films director, Karen Shakhnazarov - who also happens to be the general director of Mosfilm, the sprawling movie studio in western Moscow - attracted a great deal of attention when he invited Vladimir Putin to tour the "Rider" set. But despite this blitz of presidential PR, audiences stayed away from the film. They may have been deterred by the fact that "Rider," to put it bluntly, wasnt very good. Billed as a "historical thriller" about terrorists in pre-Revolutionary Moscow, it was too slow-moving to be a thriller, and not expansive enough to succeed as a historical epic. "Rider" will probably continue playing in Moscow theaters all summer long - but the only place its headed is box-office death.

A Stroll into The 21st Century

Compare this to "The Stroll," released in 2003. Shot on digital video with a handheld camera, "The Stroll" was the antithesis of ponderous, big-budget productions like "Rider." Its story was simple, following a love triangle between three young Russians as they walked through the streets of St. Petersburg. The films director, Alexei Uchitel, had made documentaries for two decades before switching to features in the mid-1990s. He was also known for clashing with the Russian film establishment. When it was announced that "The Stroll" would open the Moscow International Film Festival last year, many critics savaged the decision. In their eyes, Uchitels crime was that he had made a film about nothing. "The Stroll" was scandalous because it didnt seem to contain a Big Idea; it was attacked for being frivolous, poorly made, and even un-Russian. 

But once "The Stroll" came out in theatres, audiences flocked to it. Viewers were attracted to its realistic dialogue and believable characters; the film earned a respectable $700,000, showing on 50 screens throughout Russia. To many observers, its success came as a complete surprise. "Initially people thought it would just be a festival film, with no hope for a widespread release," says film promoter Andrei Bobylyov. "But it turned out that it wasnt just an art-house film. It was actually a film that was eaten up by viewers - especially contemporary youth."

Indeed, youth might be the defining characteristic of the new wave of Russian film. Consider the success of "Bumer," directed by 27-year-old Pyotr Buslov. "Bumer" combined several genres - the Quentin Tarantino-ish gangster flick, the classic road movie, and the Dostoevskian psychological drama - to create a unique portrait of life in contemporary Russia. Its simple story, about four gangsters who flee Moscow in a stolen BMW, touched on a number of profound themes: loyalty, redemption, the decay of the intelligentsia and the despair of provincial life. Boosted by a hip soundtrack from St. Petersburg rocker Sergei Shnurov, "Bumer" earned $1.5 million at the box office, a colossal amount by Russian standards.

But it was another 2003 film, "The Return," which became the iconic symbol of the rebirth of Russian film. Like "Bumer," it was made by a first-time director, Andrei Zvyagintsev. "The Return" dominated headlines in the Russian press because of its triumph at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Golden Lion award for Best Film, and because of the tragic death of its 15-year-old lead actor, Vladimir Garin. Audiences in Venice were blown away by the films gorgeous cinematography and its stunning, disturbing conclusion.

What did these two films have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out. Both "Bumer" and "The Return" were made by first-time directors. Neither one was a Moscow native; Buslov came from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, while Zvyagintsev came from Novosibirsk. (For the Moscow-centric world of Russian film, they might as well have come from Pluto.) Likewise, both films were cast with largely unknown actors. And finally, but perhaps most significantly, both films were independently financed - they received their funding from 100% private sources.

By working within a new set of rules, Russias young directors and producers are forging a new film industry for the 21st century. They have rejected the obsolete, bigger-is-better ethos of the Soviet era, but they have also moved beyond the crushing nihilism of chernukha. For the first time in history, Russias filmmakers can express themselves without the burden of ideological baggage.

Yelena Stishova, a film critic for the journal Iskusstvo Kino, is optimistic about the future of Russian film. "I always felt that Russian film would be reborn when a new generation came to prominence that was free from the thinking of the Brezhnev era," she says. "The filmmakers of the middle and older generation are still at work, but they are captives of the old thinking. These new people they are internally more free. They can think without falling into the cliches and stereotypes of the past."

Behind the Scenes at Mosfilm
By Michele A. Berdy

For decades Mosfilm has been synonymous with the Soviet film industry. It was founded soon after the Bolsheviks came to power when two pre-Revolutionary film studios belonging to the movie magnates Khanzhonkov and Yermoliev were nationalized (read "expropriated"). A few name changes and governmental restructurings later, the studios became Mosfilm and put out their first film in 1924.  Since then the studio has produced more than 2,500 films, four of which received Oscars for Best Foreign Film (War and Peace, Moscow Doesnt Believe in Tears, Dersu Uzala, and Burnt by the Sun). 

In the wake of the Soviet Unions dissolution, drastic cuts in state funding, the chaos of the domestic film distribution system, and viewers taste for foreign blockbusters sent the studio into a tailspin. Indeed, much of the huge property - over 34 hectares of land near the Moscow River on Sparrow Hills - looks a bit worse for the wear. However, under the management of film director Karen Shakhnazarov, the studio has survived by renting space to small production companies, providing production services to the advertising industry, and producing television series.  And it seems to be turning the corner to more profitable times, especially now that there is more demand among Russian viewers for domestically produced films. A recent visit by President Putin bodes well for future investment; in part, it will allow Mosfilm to build a modern film center that will house theaters, a cafe - and the priceless museum collection. 

If you cant wait until 2006 to see the collection, you can spend a few hours to see some of the highlights today. If you are a fan of Soviet films, if you love antiques (especially antique cars), or if you are curious about how they filmed that huge chicken in the cottage in the film The Chicken Ryaba - sign up for the tour now.

The two-hour tour, led by a Mosfilm museum staff member, starts with a general history of the studio and a glimpse of a few of the costumes and props from their huge collection - which, with over a million costumes, is the largest in Europe. Here you can ooh and ahh over luxurious costumes from War and Peace, Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession, Romeo and Juliet, and Siberiada (a few of the films represented). In addition to costumes designed and sewn by the studios masters, many of the elegant 19th century gowns are the real thing, which were altered to fit the actors.


WHERE: 1 Mosfilmovskaya ul. Take Trolley 34 from Kiev Station. By car: from the center, drive down New Arbat, cross over the Moscow River by the White House, make a sharp right after the bridge to turn right on the embankment. Take the embankment road past the Third Ring Road, up the hill (keeping to the right). Youll pass the studio on your left; turn around at the stop light with a left-turn arrow.

WHEN AND HOW MUCH:  Tours can be arranged for Russian-speaking groups of 20-50 at 170 rubles per person (for Russians) and 250 rubles per person (foreigners) by calling 143-9599. Since they do not allow tourists to view and interrupt filming, tours are usually organized on the weekends. For non-Russian speakers, translated tours of four or more can be arranged by Patriarshy Dom for $20 each (plus the ruble entry fee). Call 795-0927.  

LANGUAGE FACTOR:  All signs, notes and descriptions are in Russian. Great for language lovers curious about film slang; tough for basic speakers.

KID FACTOR:  If your children are expecting Universal Studios, they might be disappointed.  If they are school-aged and get off on old cars or models, theyll love it.

The best part of the tour is a visit to an outdoor set: three streets of Old Moscow at the end of the 19th century built for the recent feature film A Horseman called Death.  Here not only do you get to enjoy the behind-the-scenes magic of movie making (tapping on the bronze lamp post to discover its plastic, looking in the door of the Womens Hat Salon to see ply-board supports) - you get to enjoy a brief walk around Old Moscow, paved in rough-cut stones and lined with dozens of delightfully old fashioned businesses.

The third part of the tour is a small display of old Soviet film equipment - cameras that weighed several tons and made so much noise they had to be housed in sound-proofed boxing - and wonders of the make up department.  After that - a display of models used in special effects (miniature Kremlins, trains, boats and planes) including an entire Russian village and tiny to-scale model cottage that a trained chicken invaded in The Chicken Ryaba. The tour ends with Mosfilms celebrated collection of transportation: over 80 antique cars, trucks, motorcycles, 19th century carriages and carts.  Here you can see a 1938 Buick, a 1913 Rolls Royce (the most expensive car in the collection), and even the pre-Revolutionary bicycles that Lenin and Krupskaya rode on in the film Lenin in Paris.  Most of the collection is made up of real antiques, lovingly restored to running order, but a few are clever reconstructions. 

Throughout the tour, the guide pulls the curtain back on film production, explaining how everything is made (and what its called - fun for language fans) as well as how scenes were filmed. Its particularly delightful if you know the movies: when you remember the "Moscow is burning" scene from Bondarchuks War and Peace, and then see the dollhouse mansions that were used to shoot it. But even if you dont remember or never saw the films, its fascinating to see how some simple materials in expert hands and a few tricks with the camera make magic on the big screen.  


26th Moscow International Film Festival

June 18-27

In the whirlwind of June cultural festivals in Russia, the one event that is a must for cinema lovers is the Moscow International Film Festival. Russias oldest, most prestigious and internationally-recognized competitive film festival, MIFF was founded in 1935, with Soviet cinema icon Sergei Eisenstein as jury president.  It was held every two years 1959-1999 and became an annual event starting in 2000. The festival awards gold and silver prizes in various categories, which since 1989 have been called the Gold and Silver St. George Medals, after Moscows patron saint.

Best of all for non-polyglot film lovers is that the MIFF offers a varied international program of films shown with English subtitles.  For someone who isnt fluent in Russian or other languages, its a rare chance to see some of the latest in Russian and international cinema before the films are released to local theaters without English translation.

The Russian segment of this years festival numbers some 30 feature films, 23 animated films and 10 documentaries. Among the most anticipated of the features are "About Love," based on Anton Chekhovs works, directed by Sergei Solovyov.  Another film worth seeing is the family ensemble piece from Valery Todorovsky called "My Half-brother Frankenstein," starring Leonid Yarmolnik and Yelena Yakovleva. Todorovsky is one of the most talented Russian filmmakers working today, best known for "Land of the Deaf" with Chulpan Khamatova and Maxim Sukhanov and "The Lover," with Oleg Yankovsky. The screenwriter of "The Lover," Gennady Ostrovsky, also wrote the current script.

Other highlights in the Russian program are a retrospective of Russian 1920s silent films by Yakov Protazanov, starring such theater notables as Mikhail Chekhov and Vsevolod Meyerhold, and a festival first:  a series of unfinished films. This last section features "The River," a drama from Alexei Balabov (director of "Brother" and "War") set in 19th-century Yakutia.  The film, which is almost ethnographic in its meticulous portrayal of Yakutian life, was left uncompleted when the films lead actress was killed in a road accident. The program also will show "Agnus Dei," a World War II drama with Oleg Yankovsky and Oleg Basiliashvili, which was begun by the renowned Lenfilm director Semyon Aranovich, who died in 1996 at age 57 before the film could be completed.

This years foreign film program was unconfirmed at press time, but it is known that British Director Alan Parker (director of "Midnight Express," "Pink Floyd: The Wall," "Angel Heart" and most recently, "The Life of David Gale") will be the main competitions jury president.

At issue this year is where the MIFF festival center will be held. In years past, it was at the Manezh, which was destroyed by fire on March 14.  The Manezh was ideal because of its central location and spaciousness, which allowed ample room for both program information and central ticket sales.  The festival organizers are hard-pressed to find another venue as good.  As of this writing, Dom Kino, the Russian Union of Cinematographers screening facility at 13 Vasilyevskaya Ulitsa, is being considered.

The 26th Moscow International Film Festival takes place June 18-27 at various central Moscow cinemas. Check the bilingual Russian-English MIFF website,, or call 917 2486 for the latest program information.

The Making of Koktebel
An insiders portrait of the directing duo behind "Roads to Koktebel".
By Kirill Galetski

The current Russian cinema renaissance is fueled in part by the few young filmmakers who are finding a new film language for Russian cinema. Native Muscovites Alexei Popogrebsky and Boris Khlebnikov, both 31, are developing their own cinematic lexicon. Influenced by the themes and rhythms of such world-renowned directors as Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, whose work they came to appreciate through retrospectives at Muzei Kino, the duo moved slowly toward creating their own idiom. With the recent success of their joint directing debut  (or "Roads to Koktebel" as it is known in English), Popogrebsky and Khlebnikov have again drawn attention to Russia as a country that makes thoughtful artistic films.

"Roads to Koktebel" is a contemplative road movie that follows an unemployed engineer and his 11-year old son on a journey to the Crimean coastal town of Koktebel and, hopefully, a better life than their hand-to-mouth existence. Throughout the journey, the boy resolutely pursues the goal of getting there, while the father becomes distracted by his old scourge alcohol and the attentions of a woman who bails them out of tough spots. The film is testament to the world of broken families and absent or absent-minded parents, where children are forced to grow up on their own. The life-affirming bond between father and son endures, however tenuous. The film is an intelligent, thoughtful and quietly moving voyage.

The film had its world premiere at last years Moscow Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. The film then went to Karlovy Vary, a spa town in the Czech Republic and the site of one of Eastern Europes most prestigious film festivals, where it garnered the Philip Morris prize.

Popogrebsky and Khlebnikov did not initially pursue careers in film, even though aspects of their lives were indirectly connected to filmmaking. Popogrebsky, son of screenwriter Pyotr Popogrebsky, graduated from Moscow State University with a graduate degree in Psychology. After two years of Biology at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute (MGPI), Khlebnikov entered the All-Russia State Institute of Cinematography to study screenwriting and film criticism. The two men met at the beginning of the 1990s through friends. Using second-hand filmmaking equipment that they purchased with money from Popogrebskys salary as a translator, the duo shot a 20-minute, lightning-paced documentary in 1997 titled "Mimokhod," which featured random shots of phenomena on the streets of Moscow that the two directors found intriguing, juxtaposed with on on-camera interviews with three girls. The film didnt see much exposure beyond their circle of friends.

"We showed Mimokhod to our friends, and they laughed at all the pathos-filled moments and were puzzled by all the moments that were supposed to be funny," recalls Khlebnikov.

The screenplay for "Roads to Koktebel" was five years in the making, and it wasnt a continuous process. It was mostly a series of ideas that the two men bandied about in conversation for the fun of it.  After searching for funding, the directors finally got backing from Goskino, the government body that funds Russian film projects. A year and a half later, they began shooting the film.

"Everything was somehow organic," adds Popogrebsky. "The Goskino money came through a bit later than we expected, but this gave us time to plan the entire film in detail."

"When working together, everything was mostly spontaneous and we saw eye-to-eye. The only thing we argued over was from what direction the character should walk on screen, since Im left handed and Alexei is right-handed. Our cameraman was usually the referee on that one," said Khlebnikov.

Their next projects will be done separately because each has his own screenplay idea that formed before and during the filming of "Roads to Koktebel."

"I cant say anything about our future [collaboration], but right now were going to work separately, because we both have our own stories to tell," said Popogrebsky.


Moscow Dvd Markets
By Kirill Galetski

When buying DVDs in Moscow, it is almost inevitable that you will end up buying at least some pirate copies, since the market is dominated by pirated DVDs. A good rule of thumb to follow when you buy pirated DVDs is to always first check each DVD with the seller for original-language soundtracks and the subtitles that you want. Never trust what the DVD liner says - in many cases, the information is wrong. Some sellers do not have facilities to show DVDs for a check, in which case you may want to bring a portable DVD player with you to check or your laptop with a DVD-ROM drive.

There a quite a few places in Moscow to buy DVDs and all of them vary wildly in terms of quality. Here are three recommendations:


One of the largest video markets in the city. Its the site of numerous anti-piracy crackdowns, but still going strong. Sells many legit DVD releases; however, after token police inspections that typically come in the morning, some sellers break out their pirated wares. Not a very good place in terms of selection for pirated DVDs, but better for finding elusive titles in fully licensed copies. Pretty much all the sellers have DVD players and TVs where you can check before you buy. Prices: from 100 rubles each for DVDs without cases to 700 rubles or more for licensed titles. Metro Bargrationovskaya. Cross the street to side where the open-air market is, go past it to the large building bearing electronics ads.

Tsaritsino Radio Market

Apart from being a good place for mobile phone, computer equipment, and software bargains, Tsaritsino has one of the best selections of DVDs in Moscow, with hundreds of titles. Most, but not all of the vendors have facilities to check DVDs.  Price: 130 rubles each. Metro Tsaritsino. Near the Tsaritsino train station. Turn left as you come out of the metro station hallway with the kiosks and go down the long corridor to the end. Once outside, turn left and go down the driveway toward the street. At the street, turn right and go under the two railroad bridges. After the bridges, the market is on the right.

Komsomolskaya Kiosks

Not very good in terms of selection, but unbeatable prices. More and more DVD vendors seem to be opening here, so the selection may improve with time. Very few vendors with facilities to check DVDs. Price: 100 rubles each. M: Komsomolskaya. The group of kiosks is right in front of you as you exit the metro, between the Leningradsky and Yaroslavsky train stations.

The Russian Film Council

The Russian Film Council, or Ruscico for short, offers a range of re-mastered editions of classic Russian films on DVD with subtitles in English and 10 other languages, high-quality transfers and sound mixes from the best sources available, supplementary materials. Most importantly for you cosmopolitan film lovers, these discs can be played on any DVD player worldwide. The Film Councils titles are available through its online store, at

Top Ten
Lenin once remarked that, "cinema is for us the most important of the arts." Of course, he was referring to the propaganda potential of the new art form. But throughout the Soviet era the soulful side of directors, screenwriters, and actors managed to shine through, producing a set of timeless movies that yield somthing new upon every repeat viewing. Here is our list of the 10 cinematic milestones that every self-respecting lover of Russian culture should see.
By Kirill Galetski



Battleship Potemkin 
( , 1925) Despite the Soviet propaganda, a powerful film that continues to amaze even after all these years, deftly sparking the viewers sense of moral outrage. Dont miss the "Steps of Odessa" scene, which looks so real people thought it actually happened - it didnt. Charlie Chaplins favorite movie.


Andrei Rublyov
( , 1966) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. A chronicle of a 15th-century icon painter, Russias greatest, whose universal concerns of finding meaning and conviction in life transcend the historical moment.


(, 1979) Also directed by Tarkovsky, the cynical Writer and the pragmatic Scientist are guided by the soulful Stalker through a Zone peppered with invisible traps to the Room, where allegedly all wishes are fulfilled. Boris and Andrei Sturgatskys novella "Roadside Picnic" undergoes a transformation from hardcore sci-fi to Tarkovskys unique, eerily beautiful, soul-searching, allegorical film with abundant insight into the Russian psyche.


(, 1967) Directed by Alexander Askoldov. Nonna Mordyukova plays a stern female commissar during the occupation of Ukraine in the years after the Revolution. She gets pregnant after an illicit encounter and is sent to live in the home of a Jewish family. A beautiful tale of people from different backgrounds who manage to live in harmony amid war and chaos.


(, 1972) This film is the flip side of 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that explores inner space. Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis plays Kris Kelvin, a level-headed psychologist forced to deal with his past when the alien environment of the planet Solaris conjures up a corporeal copy of his dead wife. Loosely based on the novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, it may be the most challenging and emotionally charged futuristic drama of all time. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1972.


The Cranes are Flying
( , 1957) Directed by Georgian Mikheil Kalatozishvili, this film won the 1958 Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film details the love affair of two young Muscovites, Boris (Alexei Batalov) and  Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova). The title refers to the bird flight the couple witnesses at the peak of their happiness together. Samoylova set a new standard in film acting with her passionate performance.


Alexander Nevsky
( , 1938) Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Stalwart Nikolai Cherkassov portrays Alexander Nevsky, the 13th-century Russian prince who formed an army and repelled an invasion by German Teutonic Knights. After the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Stalin reportedly ordered Alexander Nevsky to be shown in every movie theater in the Soviet Union to incite the masses against the invasion. The Battle on Ice remains one of the most spectacular battle scenes ever filmed. Sergei Prokofievs rousing score is a work of art unto itself.


Ballad of a Soldier
( , 1959) Directed by Grigory Chukhrai. A good half (if not more) of Russian films deal with what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, or World War II. Few are so profound and universal as Chukhrais simple tale about a young soldier, Alyosha, who has only 48 hours of furlough to travel home to his mother. Exquisitely crafted, well-paced, and deeply moving in its demonstration of the bonds of love and family.


Come and See
( , 1985)  Directed by Elem Klimov. A harrowing look at the 1942 German invasion of Belarus and one of the strongest anti-war statements ever. Alexei Kravchenko plays a 12-year old boy who joins the partisans, loses his family, and witnesses the slaughter of innocents. Made for the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II, the film won the top prize at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival.


Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
( , 1980) Directed by Vladimir Menshov. Three young women from the country come to Moscow in search of a better life in the late 1950s and we follow their lives over the next 20 years. The film won the 1981 Foreign Film Oscar, and thus received much more exposure than most Soviet films; offered Westerners a glimpse of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain in the Brezhnev era.

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