In Conversation

British Cinema: Northern Realism vs. Southern Splendour? In Conversation with Tom Jackson

 

billy-elliot-01.jpgEarlier today, I spoke to Tom Jackson about a few British films. Here is the transcript of our recorded conversation:

Tom Draper: Unlike our previous talk ‘Documentary Ethics and Aesthetics’ which looked at how a few contemporary documentaries experiment with the form and methods of documentary practice, today we are going to discuss British fictional cinema of the past twenty years with a focus on content and politics. Although I think we can agree ‘Northern Realism versus Southern Splendour’ is useful way of framing the seven films we’ve come here to talk about, I think it is fair to say that such a one-dimensional interpretation of British cinema as a whole will be undermined throughout the course of the talk, and we will hope to demonstrate that there is a lot more to British cinema than the North/South divide. We’ve chosen a variety of films including Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) and Clio Bernard’s The Selfish Giant (2013) – two unmistakable examples of ‘Northern Realism’ – and the feel-good Pride (Matthew Warcus, 2014) – which arguably places itself between ‘Northern Realism’ and ‘Southern Splendour’. Following our discussion of these films set in the North, we will move on to discuss two of the most obvious examples of ‘Southern Splendour’, Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2004) and Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004) before concluding with Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996) which may or may not undermine our initial argument. So Tom, would you like to begin with Ratcatcher?

Tom Jackson: When I first watched Ratcatcher, I initially thought back to films such as Ken Loach’s Raining Stones (1993) and his others from the 1980s. Yet, I couldn’t put my finger on why I initially made this comparison as Ratcatcher is unambiguously very different to Loach’s work. I did however read an article by David Forrest which was hugely illuminating in this regard. It is about social realism in the films of Shane Meadows and argues that the realism of 1980s Loach has been altered and transformed by the 1990s. Loach characteristically situates himself within a socio-political setting usually during a tumultuous period of British politics and British history, exploring his subject in a heavily didactic way from the left. And as the narrative lines follow a political argument, character development is always secondary to this political through-line. Forrest argues however that we no longer live within this age of British cinema and that British cinema now offers poetic realism. I think it is fair to say that this interest in poetry and the poetic is encapsulated by films such as Ratcatcher and The Selfish Giant. The explicit meaning of these films is a lot more oblique, while the aesthetics, image and landscape are deemed as more important to the filmmaker. And for me, this is what is so interesting about film like Ratcatcher, it situates itself within a very specific social milieu but does not have that same didactic and polemical obsession of a film by Loach.

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TD: I think that is a really good point. It’s clear that Ratcatcher is a Northern Realist film in the sense that it is set in a working class environment (with the Glasgow refuse collector strike of the 1970s lingering perpetually in the background), in its use of dialect and its focus on depicting poverty with realism. Yet, unlike the documentary cinema influenced early Northern Realist films of the early 1960s and the British New Wave, Ramsay has a well-defined cinematic aesthetic which recalls European Art Cinema. Ramsay experiments with long takes, tracking shots and deep and shallow focus always eschewing the documentary-style shaky cam which once defined the realist style. The content of Ratcatcher is one hundred per cent Northern Realist and recalls a long tradition of British films, yet, Ramsay is clearly approaching the genre with a fresh pair of eyes, and we may deem this to reflect her position as a cinematographer herself.

TJ: I would definitely agree with that. Ratcatcher is also connected to European Art Cinema through its use of a child’s perspective, a tradition which goes back to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Italian neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves (1948). Through using the perspective of a child, Lynne Ramsay is given a license to experiment with convention. And there is a similarity here with The Selfish Giant as well. By filming from a kid’s perspective, reality can be distorted while nevertheless appearing real and truthful. The reality a child perceives is so alien to how an adult sees the world and so Ratcatcher feels like a fairy tale, as real but not quite real. And this is also part of the reason why The Selfish Giant has that title, as the title itself is an allusion to an old fairy tale. Would you agree with Forrest in thinking that this new realism is less concerned with politics than filmmakers such as Loach and Mike Leigh?

TD: Yes and no. I think in Ratcatcher politics are definitely there in the background if not the foreground. There is the conspicuous poverty of the family and ever-lingering hope that they will relocated to new houses in the outskirts of the town away from the inner city. And although the unfinished houses which James [the twelve-year-old protagonist of the film] visits appear bare and uninviting, there is always this possibility of a better future lingering in the background. Yet, I think you’re right to say that the film does not have an explicit political motive, there is none of the criticism of Thatcherism for example that we find in Our Friends in the North (1996) and Pride. The bin-men are on strike but we don’t know why. The debris and thousands of bin bags function merely as set dressing, as the landscape our protagonist finds himself in.

TJ: I would agree that politics in this film is incidental to the image and to the perspective of the child. Ramsay wants to immerse us in a socio-political landscape without pointing us towards a conclusion or solution in the manner of a Loach film. Loach offers very prescriptive messages, very definitive arguments as clear battlegrounds are drawn in a political and narrative sense. In Ratcatcher, the ambiguity of political meaning is quite refreshing in my opinion.

TD: And what do you make of that early scene where James’ play fight with his friend Ryan in the canal unexpectedly results in Ryan’s death? Throughout the remainder of the film, we can sense James’ inner pain and anguish – which he can’t express – his inability to understand what happened despite feeling guilt for his actions. And arguably it is this guilt which sets him off on his wayward journey to the vacant housing plots outside of town, to the magnificent scene in the middle of the film where he climbs out of a window – the frame – into a stunning field of wheat, a scene which suggests so much about the boy and his hopes and dreams.

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TJ: I think that is definitely the most striking image within the film. And the most important word you’ve used there is ‘suggest’, it doesn’t force a political meaning upon the image. I would argue that New British Realism is about suggestion above all else.

TD: So how would you interpret the scene where the young Margaret Anne is indirectly forced to have sex with a bunch of lads one after the other. Why does she not complain? Is she too scared of the boys or is she so starved of affection that any physical contact – even rape – is sought after or tolerated?

TJ: I would agree with the latter. I think it’s clear that these children do not have any sense of direction and that innocence is seeped away from their lives. There is something really tragic within these scenes and Margret Anne really epitomises the childhood which can’t function within the infertile, urban landscape in which she lives.

TD: One of my favourite moments is where James’ friend Kenny attempts to impress the older lads with his pet mouse. I was here on the edge of my seat hoping that the boys would not hurt the mouse and in the end it is Kenny himself who sends his mouse off to its death, attaching it to a helium balloon and releasing it into the sky. Kenny obviously loves the rat, yet, he sends it off in order to impress the boys (we ultimately see the rat fly towards the moon). And I thought this scene was really poignant, reminding me of being a young naïve child searching for validation.

TJ: And I think you would not see an image like this in an earlier Loach film. It is a magical moment when the rat appears to exit the Earth’s gravitational field, drifting towards the moon and outer space.

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TD: And although the cinematography is so carefully constructed, I like how this surreal image chimes against the realism of the film itself, how it clashes with what we have seen before and will see subsequently. Why is this short ten second image of a rat dangling from a red helium balloon transcending the Earth included?

TJ: For me, it looked like the cover of a children’s book. It is a flash of childhood innocence and naiveté which keeps the film buoyant. Otherwise the whole film would be such a tough watch. In the end, these moments remind you that the characters are children.

TD: And I think that’s a good point to move on to The Selfish Giant.

TJ: Yes, what do you make of the film?

TD: So The Selfish Giant is a film about two thirteen-year-old boys, Arbor and Shifty, who rent a horse and cart from a local scrap-man and set off in search of scrap and copper wire to sell to him and make their fortune. I think this is a fantastic film and follows the traditions of Northern Realism more so than Ratcatcher.

TJ: It is definitely less dreamlike than Ratcatcher but it still feels like a fairy tale to me. There is also something Dickensian about the film. Every moment is from the perspective of these two kids and the scrap man definitely recalls the traditional villains of Dickens. Whilst the film offers gritty realism, I would argue everything is tinged by a fairy-tale feeling, something magical which is inexplicable. A filmmaker viewing the subject in a realistic sense would probably see the illegal horse racing sequence from an ethical standpoint but Barnard is clearly more interested in how the two boys relate to the horse and the racing scenes emotionally.

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TJ: I think it definitely shares a lot of the content – or the clichés of Northern Realism – with Ratcatcher. It is a film set in the North [Glasgow may be in Scotland yet it arguably counts as the North just as Wales does so in Pride – perhaps we should place the North in quotation marks, as denoting a non-existent place somewhere north of London] within a housing estate, and about working-class children who lead an impoverished but autonomous life. These two lads are allowed to do as they please and go wherever they want. Their parents do not appear to work – one funds his family by pawning their belongings and furniture until there is nowhere left to sit or sleep – or have any form of livelihood. Indeed, it is this failure of their parents (or the council or government) to care for the boys which results in them taking matters in their own hands, to attempt to become the breadwinner, to make their own wage.

TJ: So you would say there is an implicit political message here?

TD: It seems to me that Barnard is showing us that those apparent benefit scroungers who have been so demonised within the media do in fact live in poverty and are not taking the state for a free ride. It does not appear that these characters are getting much help at all from the government.

TJ: So you’re saying that this film depicts a poverty which the mass British media will not allow us to see? They don’t have lavish big screen televisions or spend their money frivolously, they genuinely live in a chronic state of poverty.

TD: Well it at least appears so. Another question could ask why films in the North are always depicted like this? This is of course part of the dominant practice of making films in the North. Are these films trying to show how grim the North is? Or are they looking for sympathy from wealthier audience members whose conscience may be rattled by seeing such abject poverty?

TJ: I think why these types of films are made in the North is because the North is such a hotbed of political conflicts. The deindustrialisation of the Northern economies, the numerous strikes, the poverty of the estates. And this is good material for film. This is conflict, drama readymade for the cinema. There is also the tradition of filmmaking in the North that goes back to the 1950s and 60s, to the British New Wave and even the poetic documentaries of Grierson in the 1930s, not everything revolves around the 1980s and Thatcherism. What do you think?

TD: On the one hand, as a Northerner, I want to champion the North, to see it as a beautiful place, to demonstrate to people in the South that this ‘Grim North’ is merely a stereotype which has little bearing on reality. That there is a lot more to the North than council estates, post-industrial wastelands, cultural deserts and high unemployment. And you hardly ever see this in British cinema. Instead we are regularly shown the worst of the North, images which perpetuate a certain type of narrative. On the other hand, I believe that these stories of poverty should be told by the British film industry and need to be told. I am therefore torn between these two poles. Perhaps what we need are more films set in the North, films which show the variety of experience as it actually exists.

TJ: I think that’s a really interesting perspective. Most of the best British directors of the current moment are however working in the North – Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Clio Bernard – so there is already an active scene. Northern locations are the focal point of the best that is happening in British cinema. But I think you’re right in the sense British cinema offers us a reason to celebrate as well as condemn.

TD: Wuthering Heights (2011) [Andrea Arnold’s third film] may offer us a route in here. The film places its emphasis on the location, the landscape and geography of Yorkshire, offering us hundreds of beautiful images over the course of the film, while contrasting these with the poverty of some of the characters (but not all). This may be an example of a Northern film trying to show off the beauty of the landscape but also alluding to the dreadful political realities of the region. Of course the film is set in the 19th century and is an adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic, so is perhaps less relevant than one would think. I think however what I’m trying to get at here is that I would like to see a film which unifies the two issues I alluded to earlier.

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TJ: Ratcatcher and The Selfish Giant are in fact beautiful but in a cinematic or poetic sense. What they depict may not seem beautiful but there is a real poetry and lyricism to the images. They are ugly in one sense but intensely beautiful in an other.

TD: You could argue that Clio Barnard’s The Arbor also functions like that. It could have easily been included in our last talk on experimental documentaries, through its combination of talking heads and reconstructed scenes. Barnard juxtaposes recorded interviews by the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar’s friends and family with reconstructed scenes played by actors. These actors mouth the words on the soundtrack, adding gestures and facial expressions to the performance of the interviews. There is thus a tension between what is real and what is performed and although the film deals with some very depressing issues, there is something beautiful about the whole thing as well as something strange and unnatural.

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TJ: And that really sums up this ugly/beautiful binary which arguably defines Northern Realist cinema.

TD: OK, so let’s move on to Pride which seems to me to be an undercover ‘Southern Splendour’ film with a Northern Realist surface. It is a film about London-based UK gay activists who decide to support Welsh miners in the strike of 1984-1985 and see themselves just as oppressed by Thatcherism as the miners and wish to show their solidarity. Class antagonism and homophobia are built heavily into the narrative. Welsh, masculine, working class men are here shown to initially revile gay people and the whole film’s project is to play out the miner’s reconciliation with the people they once condemned. Indeed, this film replays the struggle against adversity that we see amongst many Northern realist films. Backward attitudes need to be altered and by the film’s close they more or less are. In the end, the film instructs us to pat ourselves on the back to consider how far we’ve come.

TJ: I found a really pertinent quote when I was doing research for this. Paul Marris writes of contemporary British films set in the 1980s: ‘they can afford their retrospective feel-good humour and warmth because the battles have been fought and hard choices made’. And I think this sums up the cynicism you have with the ability of British cinema to look back on its history from a safe distance of twenty or thirty years. But the film is tough in some respects, the AIDS crisis is a latent threat, there’s a lot of homophobia, yet, there are many moving moments in the Welsh social club, with Bill Nighy’s character turning out to be gay and other sentimental touches. I can imagine also that the miners would initially be much more hostile than represented in the film. Do these films do a disservice to history?

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TD: I don’t think the film wants to appear to be the definitive representation of the Miner’s Strike and the gay community’s decision to support the Welsh miners. I think it wants to be a feel-good, warm, uplifting film which has quasi-political content, ticks all the boxes but also makes it very accessible for its audience. And who better to include in a film like this than Bill Nighy – that star of the most obvious examples of ‘Southern Splendour’ cinema that we will turn to later – someone who is familiar to most audiences. There is a tendency within Northern Realist films to include local or unknown actors – maybe sprinkled with a dash of Julie Andrews – who probably will never star in a film again. In Pride stars are made from fringe actors, while big names and familiar faces are brought to Wales to show off their real acting chops. I think in some respects I like what Pride is trying to achieve, yet, I feel it distinctly lets itself down in subscribing to the clichés of British feel-good comedy cinema.

TJ: I think it makes us feel good that we can dust our hands off and say ‘OK, that was thirty years ago, that was a little bit shit but we’re fine now, homophobia is a thing of the past’. There is something dangerous about having this uplifting momentum and isn’t this something we can say about Billy Elliot as well? Great Billy triumphs, great this movement in London triumphs but the community in County Durham is devastated and the Welsh miners will have lost their jobs and their livelihoods.

TD: Exactly. Billy Elliot is set in the fictional town of Everington clearly a cover for Easington, County Durham which is still the most economically deprived town in the United Kingdom and has the largest percentage of long term illness and unemployment in the country. What we forget in this film is that for every special kid who escapes the town to the brighter shores of the South East, thousands lost their jobs and are still suffering within this community. Indeed, what I dislike about the film is its resolution. In Billy Elliot only the talented, ‘special’, one in a thousand individual can seek a better life outside this parochial North Eastern community. If anything this film works to reinforce the Thatcherism it apparently seeks to criticise. Of course, I have a major soft spot for anything shot in the North East – or featuring North Eastern characters – and I must say I do like Billy Elliot, minus the sentimental and slushy moments and his Dad’s character arc, and I am glad it was made.

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TJ: So, it’s more aligned with a film like Pride or Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1966)? That comical, mass-market look at problematic times in British history. It’s interesting that you brought up this notion of escape, that the only way out of the grim North is to escape to the South. And I would agree that this is a repeated narrative arc of many of the films set in the North.

TD: In many respects, the talented, skilled or intelligent Northerner will end up in London in real life. The opportunities in the North – and especially the North East – are so poor compared to the South East that many will end up pulled into London’s black hole. You could say that these films are directly representing a political problem.

TJ: Are these films then guilty of perpetuating rather than suggesting ways of rectifying this political reality?

TD: Definitely. There are never any solutions.

TJ: What about films which are geographically southern but make use of the Northern Realist aesthetic? I’m thinking about films such as Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997) which is set in Deptford, a particularly deprived area of South London. It’s about working class people, is incredibly gritty and not particularly optimistic at any point. This film demonstrates that Northern Realism is an aesthetic mode which isn’t tied to geography and is brought to the South in films like this. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) is another example of Northern realism on a London council estate.

nil by mouth

TD: I think it can definitely be transposed to the South. But my point is that ‘Southern Splendour’ cannot be brought to the North. Although there are many affluent areas in the North – Harrogate, Sheffield Hallam, Jesmond in Newcastle etc. – I don’t think there are any films which offer just this side of Northern life. In London and the South East, there are many possibilities open to filmmakers: gangster films, urban films, science fiction films (V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005), Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) for example), musicals, Ealing comedies, upper class dramas, arthouse films (such as Blow-up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)). Whereas in the North I would argue that there are on the whole two dominant styles: the arthouse Northern Realist film and the nostalgic/comedic Northern Realist film.

TJ: An interesting point raised in the Forrest article is that one of the reasons New British Realist films are less specifically political, polemic and didactic than the Loach films of the 1980s is because we do not have that oppositional milieu in contemporary British politics. The disintegration of hard-line Labour values under Blair and New Labour have blurred the battle-lines and resulted in the absence of aggressively political filmmaking. With the rise of far-right populism in the UK, coupled with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the more socially conscious Left, do you think there is now a space for a return to a Loach-like filmmaking?

TD: I really do think that’s a great question. And my answer is that I would hope so. Hopefully filmmakers will be inspired to make radical and highly political films once again. And I think it’s now about time to move to the South and explore the affluent worlds of Love Actually and Closer.

TJ: So Love Actually has clearly become enshrined as this holiday classic, is set in London and focuses on nine different relationships. But I think there has been a backlash – especially over the last Christmas period – within the mainstream media in regard to its gender politics and how it is sloppily made in many ways.

TD: I think it is the most blatant example of ‘Southern Splendour’. The characters in the film have no worries whatsoever other than finding love or rekindling old romantic relationships. In Love Actually, everyone is comfortable or very well off, even the Prime Minister is free to dance around search for love and not make any difficult decisions. There is not one genuine realistic moment in the whole film – apart from the scenes between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson which did in fact offer something real. And I think the film itself reflects aging rockstar Billy Mack’s Christmas number one hit (played by Bill Nighy) ‘Love is All Around Us’. Love Actually is a cheap product which can be brought out every year, something which says nothing new and is in the end completely vacuous. Is the film making fun of itself with its mocking of Billy Mack?

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TJ: I think that’s giving it too much credit.

TD: Or does Richard Curtis not see this?

TJ: I think it is the furthest British filmmaking has got from the realism of the films we mentioned earlier. It is as far away from anything which is potentially relatable in geography, character or narrative to those films. It is a poor film. And London is aggressively white, which we know is not representative of the city. Chiwetl Ejiofor is one of the few black characters in the film. In Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999) there is no reference to the troubled history of racial tension in the area and the schism between the affluent and the poor. Here Curtis offers us a story about an upper middle class bloke who owns a travel book shop and falls in love with an American film star. Love Actually is like Notting Hill in that it glosses over any realistic representation of what London actually is. And I think you’re right, it’s a perfect example of ‘Southern Splendour’.

TD: The film has this tremendous cast which you would hope to see in a great ensemble film. But unlike Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) or Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), the cast are not given anything real to work with. Instead the film tries to sell itself to the American market through these stereotypes of Englishness and awkwardness which I assume Curtis hopes American audiences will gobble up as quickly as the American girls in the film devour Colin’s accent. The cast is incredible but they are wasted. There are many of the major stars of contemporary British cinema. There’s Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Martin Freeman, Kris Marshall, Keira Knightley, Chiwetl Ejiofor, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Rowan Atkinson.

TJ: I don’t really like Richard Curtis but I would say Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) was a fun and well written comedy drama. But films like Love Actually and Notting Hill do such a disservice to the cinematic geography of the UK and the rich diversity of London. There is no sense of multiculturalism in any of these films.

TD: What do you make of the Prime Minister and his intern? Is the fact that Prime Minister is in a film like this and has connections to the supposedly ordinary characters in the film demonstrate how far away this film is from the rest of the UK and the experiences of most of the British public?

TJ: Yes, definitely. Ironically by showing the inner workings of 10 Downing Street, there is a complete depoliticisation of British cinema. There is merely that very hammy allusion to the special relationship between the Prime Minister and Billy Bob Thornton’s President. But ultimately the film has nothing to say about British politics.

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TD: Exactly. Although Closer is definitely – at least in my opinion – an example of ‘Southern Splendour’ at its finest, I don’t have anywhere near as much criticism for it as I do for Love Actually. Closer is at least half decent, if not a little theatrical. What struck me however was that the whole film’s quality rested in its dialogue. Clearly adapted from a play, the film focuses on the language of four hyper-articulate middle class professionals who can’t decide whether they want each other or someone else.

TJ: I thought it was more subversive than Love Actually. I think that the grey, austere geography of London represented in the film matched its cold, clinical approach to romance, love and sex. It was more forbidding and I found it much more refreshing than Love Actually.

TD: I would agree with that. There are few films that are on the same level as that one. But they do go to all these flashy art galleries, they have grand apartments and jobs which offer at least some sort of fulfilment (and if they do not acquire satisfaction from their jobs they at least obtain some from the money they earn).

TJ: This film really reminded me of European Art films of the 1960s. They all have enough money in order to fund long sojourns into themselves and each other. Unlike the characters Northern Realist films who worry about their livelihoods, these characters have time for self-reflection and introspection. As money is never a worry, they put their energy into troubling themselves over infidelity and manipulating one another. I would argue that Closer is filmed in a way that the affluent settings do appear as more sterile and uninviting than Love Actually.

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TD: I think that’s a really good point. I don’t think the film goes the full length of criticising the bourgeoisie as much as we see in the films of Buñuel or Antonioni but I would agree there is something a little bit subversive in Closer. And moving swiftly on to Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, what do you think of this film Tom, I know this is one of your favourites?

TJ: Well the performances are amazing across the board, ranging from Timothy Spall to Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Phyllis Logan. But where would you say the film lies in terms of its filmmaking and spectrum of Northern Realism versus Southern Splendour?

TD: Well I think Mike Leigh’s films share a lot with Northern Realist cinema. Cynthia’s (Brenda Blethyn) terraced house has a toilet outside, hosts a dilapidated greenhouse and could easily be found in the North. Within some of his other films including High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1990), you could easily make the argument that a section of the cinematic North has been transported to London. I really do like Mike Leigh’s films.

TJ: In the end we return to the point you made earlier. Films set in the South can have it all, they can work in the realist mode if they so desire. Whether we will one day see Southern Splendour transported to North is a question however which remains unanswered.

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