Like the gorgeous city that hosts it, the Festival de Donostia-San Sebastián Zinemaldia continues to display a healthy respect for the past, an open-minded appreciation of the present and a nurturing concern for the future. A major highlight of this year’s festival, the 59th, and our primary rationale for attending it, was a complete retrospective of the work of Jacques Demy, including his shorts and TV films. It was introduced by his widow, soul-mate and fellow filmmaker, Agnès Varda, their son, actor-writer-director Mathieu Demy, and Catherine Deneuve, who worked with Demy on four occasions, playing the lead in two of his most memorable films, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). She also starred in one of his most endearingly eccentric L’Événement le plus important depuis que l’homme a marché sur la lune (1973), released in English-language markets as The Slightly Pregnant Man. Such bewilderment did that title cause that this gentle comedy of gender manners even found itself on a double-bill with a Swedish sex film at a Birmingham grindhouse in the mid-‘70s.

The festival also curated a 40-film compilation of American crime movies made between 1990 and 2010, entitled The American Way of Death. They were collectively, and somewhat loosely, also described as examples of latterday film noir. The selections were respectable and mostly the usual suspects – Goodfellas and King of New York (both 1990), Se7En and Heat (both 1995), and so on – but also on offer was Henry Bromell’s little-seen Panic (2000) as well as Texas Killing Fields (2011), a gritty, moody and very unsettling cop thriller directed by Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of the esteemed Michael.

Based on actual events and written by former Drug Enforcement Agency officer Dan Ferrarone, it’s both a police procedural about an investigation of the murder of a young woman and an anguished family drama set on the white-trash fringes of a small town in Texas. The two cops on the case, idealistic Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and hard-bitten Mark (Sam Worthington), are drawn deeper and deeper into the human cesspool and eventually find it nigh on impossible to extricate themselves.

From the opening shots of the killing fields on the outskirts of town, where people stray at their peril, to the final sequence in which the case comes to a close, Mann’s film is dark and dangerous, its reverberations persisting long after the end credits. Bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Jessica Chastain and Chloe Grace Moretz, and featuring a riveting performance by Sheryl Lee (best remembered as the ill-fated Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks), it was shot in Louisiana.

If these two retrospectives weren’t enough to whet the appetite of any self-respecting cineaste fortunate enough to be attending the 10-day festival, a 20-film selection provided an opportunity to reflect on the impact of new media on recent Chinese cinema. Digital Shadows: Last Generation Chinese Film included two early works by Jia Zhangke – In Public, a short he made in 2001, and Unknown Pleasures (2002) – as well as Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (2010).

Accompanying these curated programs were special publications providing a critical framework for each, an undertaking that festivals generally could usefully emulate. Handsome book-length studies in both Spanish and English feature collections of generally insightful essays on Demy’s life and work and on the genre roots of the films shown in The American Way of Death. Bérénice Reynaud’s monograph, Last Generation Chinese Film, is less comprehensive but will serve as a useful reference work for anyone interested in recent trends in Chinese cinema.

Jostling for attention alongside these ventures into the past were the films in the official sections. Several stood out, some destined for wider release, others facing a struggle to be seen beyond the showcases provided by festivals.

Delicately balancing comedy and tragedy, Et maintenant on va ou? (Where Do We Go Now?) is the superbly-judged second feature (after 2009’s Caramel) for 37 year-old Lebanese actor-director Nadine Labaki. Dedicated “to our mothers”, it’s a fable-like tale set in the Middle East about “a lonely town… caught up in a war”. Conflict between Christians and Muslims is happening somewhere else, an uneasy truce able to be maintained because of the town’s isolation. But the outside world can be kept at bay for only so long.

With the film’s tone gradually darkening, the local women’s attempts to bury news bulletins about distant atrocities seem doomed to failure. But their imaginative schemes show how well they know their men and Labaki, who collaborated on the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain (writer of Jacques Audiard’s Oscar-nominated A Prophet), Rodney Al Haddid and Jihad Hojeily, dares to dream of another way with women in the driver’s seat.

Taking a lesson from the book of an earlier generation of Iranian filmmakers, Wang Xiaoshuai’s moving 11 Flowers deploys a child’s eye-view of the world in order to tell its story about the last days of the Cultural Revolution. Set in South West China in 1975 and drawing on his own experiences of growing up as the son of intellectuals exiled to the countryside as part of Mao’s “Third Front movement”, Wang expands on an incident from his childhood concerning a fugitive from the law and a stolen shirt, his 11 year-old protagonist (Liu Wenqing) sharing his name.

Wang was concerned in the festival press conference to explain that his chief interest here was with the plight of Chinese citizens forced to adjust to an unfamiliar way of life. “I even started a documentary on the subject so that my parents and their friends could tell us how and why they lived (in the province of Guihou),” he said. But the political thrust of his film is unmistakable, as much concerned with universal questions pertaining to the present as to the past. Young Wang’s coming-of-age is marked by his decision to take a stand, to abandon the childlike impulse to follow the leader and to make his own way in the world.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delightful I Wish also introduces its world through the eyes of the young, two brothers separated after their parents’ divorce, Koichi (Koki Maeda) remaining with his mother (Nen Otsuka) in Kagoshima, a city shrouded by volcanic ash, his younger sibling, Ryanosuke (Oshiro Maeda), moving with his rock guitarist father (Joe Odagiri) to faraway Fukuoka.

Embracing their youthful yearnings, Kore-eda follows their efforts to reunite their family, fuelled by a rumour linked to the opening of a new bullet-train line. Koichi has heard that, if you yell a wish at the precise moment two trains hurtle past each other on the track for the first time, that wish will come true. So the boys and a group of friends head off to make their dreams a reality, Kore-eda situating their aspirations in a human chain that binds children and adults together, regardless of their circumstances.

The irresistible Maedas are real-life brothers who perform together as a comic act. Like Liu Wenqing, Wang’s young lead who appeared at the media conference for 11 Flowers, they were in winning form when their turn came to meet the press. In both cases, the directors looked on supportively and provided encouraging whispers as their young charges spoke most eloquently for themselves.

Branching out from its focus on features and documentaries, the festival also showed Kore-eda’s splendid The Days After, his strikingly measured, 51-minute contribution to the four-part fantasy TV series, Kaidan – Horror Classics. Based on a novel by Saisei Muro, it’s another tale about parents and their offspring, but one of a very different order.

In British writer-director Steve McQueen’s Shame, Michael Fassbender gives the same kind of gruelling performance that distinguished McQueen’s feature debut, Hunger (2008). Here, he’s a high flyer, a Manhattan business executive named Brandon, ostensibly a free man, but trapped by a yearning he can’t control, a slave to his sex drive. A world unto himself, seemingly incapable of intimacy, he looks to be beyond rescue. Just as McQueen adapted Hunger’s style to the pervasive grunge of Belfast’s notorious Maze prison, he encloses Brandon within the soulless gloss of his NYC surroundings, all shiny surfaces, high-rise glamour and glittering nightlife.

The chief reference point for the character is Christian Bale’s well-groomed nightmare in American Psycho (2000), Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel, except that Brandon turns his violence inwards. Matters come to a head when his sister (Carey Mulligan) turns up unexpectedly, taking up residence in his chic apartment and upsetting the balance of his carefully-organised existence.

One of the most impressive feature debuts in years is Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) finds herself torn between two worlds and unable to fit comfortably into either. One is a cult in the Catskills, whose leader (John Hawkes) is a brutal sexual predator with a soft-spoken way, at least until someone upsets him. The other is the home of her well-off, middle-class sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy), which looks out over a peaceful lake and becomes Martha’s haven when she flees the cult. At least at first.

She finds herself constantly shadowed by her past, Durkin’s canny editing strategies repeatedly leaving us initially uncertain about exactly where she is. The effect is deeply unsettling and the powerful ending is as haunting as it is affecting.

Even though one of its screenings was substantially marred by subtitle problems – one of the many screening problems that seem to beset film festivals everywhere – Justin Kurzel’s debut, the uncompromising Snowtown, is equally good. The only Australian film screened at the festival, it also allows its audience no safe place from which to watch what occurs. Based on the notorious South Australian case of the 1990s that has become known as “the bodies in the barrels murders”, it filters events through the point-of-view of 16 year-old Jamie Vlassakis (played by newcomer Lucas Pittaway).

Like the 17 year-old Josh (James Frecheville) in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, with which Snowtown has much in common, Jamie is a young man in moral danger from the first time he appears. In both films, what ensues is as much a story of the struggle for the protagonist’s soul as it is an account of the crimes that litter the plot. Set in a rundown suburban neighbourhood north of Adelaide, the film plunges us into a tragedy in the making, the kind of communal disempowerment – social, economic, spiritual – that can turn a human heart to stone. Much of the violence occurs offscreen, so we’re spared the graphic details other filmmakers might have exploited. But the unfolding moral drama is no less unsettling for this.

Along the same lines, Oren Moverman casts us adrift without anchor in Rampart, which draws on a real-life police scandal of the late 1990s. Set in 1999, it’s Moverman’s second feature (after 2009’s The Messenger), co-written by James Ellroy and another of those brutal, hard-edged Ellroy stories about LA cops plunging over the edge. When veteran cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) spells out the rules in the opening sequence to a female rookie on probation, she’s left in no doubt about how the game is played at the Rampart division of the LAPD. “Illegal is just a sick bird,” he quips. “Everything you learned at the Academy is bullshit.”

Brown runs his personal life more or less along the same lines and it’s clearly only a matter of time before he’s forced to live with the human consequences of crossing the line. An embodiment of the dark side of the individualist ethos at the heart of American culture, he’s on a collision course with his superiors (Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube) and with the women who’ve been foolish enough to make space for him in their lives (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon and Robin Wright). Committed performances and the rampaging hand-held camera make Rampart as unsettling as it is compelling.

We missed the unexpected winner of the festival’s Golden Shell for Best Film, Catalan director Isaki Lacuesta’s fifth feature, Los pasos dobles (The Double Steps), the first Spanish film to win the award since Fernando Leon’s Los lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun, 2002). However, there were no surprises when it came to the Audience Award winner: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which is totally and utterly irresistible and will more than likely find you wanting to dance your way out of the cinema as the curtains close on the final credits.

On paper, it mightn’t look especially promising: a silent movie, in black and white, about a star of the silent screen who finds himself unwanted as the cinema turns to sound. But, set in Hollywood and superbly emulating the style of a silent movie, Hazanavicius’s film is smart, funny and touching, drawing knowingly on a host of films that have gone before, among them Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born and the Fred and Ginger oeuvre. It’s even bold enough to use Bernard Herrmann’s overpowering Wagneresque score for Vertigo throughout the penultimate sequence. Featuring an international cast including Jean Dujardin in the lead, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell, it makes for a good outsider tip come Oscar-time.

Also likely to garner plenty of mainstream attention is writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s Intouchables, the festival’s closing night film. Although the screening at San Sebastián was its world premiere, the film was curiously excluded from competition there, something the filmmakers politely shrugged away during their press conference.

Based on a true story, it stars François Cluzet as a Paris millionaire who’s been left quadriplegic after an accident and the charismatic Omar Sy as the immigrant with a shady past who ends up as his carer. According to Toledano, the real-life characters on whom their film is based only agreed to having a film made about them if it was a comedy. And Intouchables has kept its end of the deal.

The film also works as well as it does because of the intense physicality the two leads bring to their performances, Toledano and Nakache making adroit use of the contrast between Sy’s graceful, exuberant mobility and Cluzet’s vivid facial expressiveness as well as of the obvious racial and class differences between their characters. Essentially, this is a platonic love story about two men coming out of their shells in ways neither could have managed without the other.

Tying in with the current revivals of Terence Rattigan’s work on London’s West End stages in honour of the late playwright’s one hundredth birthday,(1) Terence Davies’ adaptation of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is a powerful melodrama that peels away the characters’ very British decorum to expose the pain it inflicts on them. Opening in London in 1950, it moves back and forth in time in its depiction of the plight of a woman (Rachel Weisz) who has left her upper-class husband (Simon Russell-Beale) for her lover (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot with a drinking problem, only to find him planning to abandon her.

As the past comes pouring in on her, Davies charts the characters’ struggle to keep the darkness at bay. His balancing of sympathies between all of them is exemplary in its humanism, the style he brings to the film is very Sirkian, the imagery is dreamlike, at times suggesting a faded photograph, the score is full-on – drawing extensively on Samuel Barber’s beautiful Opus 14 concerto for violin and orchestra – and the eventual move to a kind of transcendence is deeply moving. Rattigan’s play was previously adapted to film in 1955 under the direction of Anatole Litvak with a screenplay by Rattigan and a cast led by Vivien Leigh, Kenneth More and Eric Portman.

Based on a short story by Irish writer George Moore, first published in 1927, Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs concerns itself with characters pretending to be something, or someone, they’re not. As in many of Garcia’s other films (from Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her in 2000 to Mother and Child in 2010), the focus is on women’s efforts to find their way in a world divided by class and seemingly conspiring to marginalise them.

Set in and around Morrison’s Hotel in Victorian-era Dublin, this evocatively gentle film sets its reclusive title character’s experiences against the circumstances of others who appear to be perfectly comfortable with their lot. Working as a butler at the hotel, Alfred (Glenn Close) is well-liked, but terrified that others will uncover his secret: that he is actually a she. But then, when she’s forced to share her room with a visitor, the gregarious Hubert (Janet McTeer), she becomes fascinated by how her new friend refuses to play by the rules. Also starring Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson and the ubiquitous Mia Wasikowska (the Australian actress whom Garcia “discovered” after she sent him an audition tape and whom he brought to the US for a featured part as a patient in his HBO TV series, In Treatment), the film is written by Glenn Close, Irish novelist John Banville and script consultant Gabriella Prekop.

After the screening, an eloquent Close, who was in San Sebastián to accept the festival’s prestigious Donastia Award as well as to promote the film, explained that Alfred has been important to her for a long time. She first played him on the Broadway stage in a 1982 production and began work on bringing his story to the big-screen more than a decade ago, in collaboration with István Szabó.

For his part at the press conference, where he was cast very much as a supporting player to Close, Garcia was asked about his preoccupation with women’s roles and his sensitive depictions of female characters. Happy to allow Close to bathe in the spotlight, he neatly parried the question, quipping, “If only my wife was here to hear this.”

The gala opening night spot was given to Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s very efficient horror film, Intruders, which stars Clive Owen and Dutch actress Carice van Houten and for much of its running time is both an engrossing thriller and an impressively knowing meditation on the workings of the genre. Two children, a boy in Madrid and a girl living not far from London, are haunted by a common nightmare to do with a monster they come to know as Hollowface. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, the girl (Ella Purnell) tells her psychiatrist (Kerry Fox), “I know Hollowface doesn’t exist. He just thinks he does.”

At the same time as the two children and their parents try to deal with the crisis in their midst, Fresnadillo winds their stories together and ponders the nature of their fears, to do with the monster that’s always there, that’s inside all of us, holds us in its grip and won’t let go. Always at the heart of the matter, the film suggests, is the fact of our mortality and the view of death as the complete erasure of identity, Hollowface serving as an embodiment of this ultimate terror. Only in its closing stages, as the film’s plot sorts itself out in a relatively pedestrian fashion, does the tension slacken.

The festival’s jury award (2) went to actor-writer-director Julie Delpy’s hugely enjoyable, semi-autobiographical Le Skylab. Largely told in flashback and set in July 1979, in and around a country house near the seaside resort town of Saint-Malo in France’s north-west, it pivots on a family gathering. Parents and their offspring have come together for the weekend to celebrate the birthday of grandma Amandine (Bernadette Lafont), events being mostly filtered through the eyes of 11 year-old Albertine (Lou Alverez, played as an adult in the bookending present-tense scenes by Karin Viard).

With golden sunlight shining through the trees, everyone gathers around the meal-table set up on the lawn to catch-up, gossip, argue, remember and worry about the state of the world. In particular, Albertine’s mother (Delpy) is fearful that NASA’s space station, Skylab, aloft at the time but reportedly earthbound, is going to fall on them, a concern she’s managed to pass on to her daughter. “We might all be dead tomorrow,” the young girl tells a mostly unresponsive gathering of crabs when the family heads off for a day at the beach.

For Delpy’s film, the perceived threat of Skylab serves as an evocative reminder of the sense of transience that hangs over the reunion and all of the participants. When it eventually comes to earth, in Australia, there’s momentary relief before they all go back to their everyday lives, until next time. Le Skylab is poignant in its depiction of the passage of time, but it’s also tough-minded and funny. The sequence in which the younger generation heads off to a local dance and the eldest of their number (Vincent Lacoste) struts his Mr Cool routine is a treat. But while the family festivities might be bathed in a nostalgic glow, it’s one that begins to lose its lustre long before the weekend is over.

Just as Terence Davies had looked justifiably bewildered a day earlier when several pontificating (Spanish-speaking) members of the gathered media accused The Deep Blue Sea of being “an exercise in nostalgia” – which would make it what? A celebration of repression and British class manners? – Delpy justifiably bristled when a bombastic journalist directed the same charge against Le Skylab.

Actor-writer-director Mathieu Demy’s Americano suggests that he’s not only the child of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, but also the spiritual heir to their artistic sensibilities. His feature debut is a sequel of sorts to Varda’s 1981 drama, Documenteur, but it’s also as far from the kind of sequel Hollywood churns out as it’s possible to get. In the earlier film, he played eight year-old Martin Cooper, whose mother has fled France to Los Angeles to start a new life. Americano’s flashback scenes to his childhood, shot in standard ratio in contrast to the widescreen used for the present tense, come from Varda’s film.

Now Martin is a troubled young man, living with his girlfriend (Chiara Mastroianni) in Paris, reluctant to talk to her about his past, when he’s drawn back to LA – and into dangerous emotional terrain – by news of his mother’s death. On learning that she had wanted to leave her apartment to a woman who’d befriended her, named Lola (!), he goes in search of her, driving an attention-grabbing stolen red Mustang 66 and ending up in Tijuana at the Americano bar, where Lola (Selma Hayek) works as a stripper. She comes to represent for him a connection to the past he’s been repressing.

As in the links built between many of his father’s films – from Lola (1961) to Model Shop (1969), also set in LA, via Les Parapluies de Cherbourg – the fictional world of Americano connects with Varda’s in Documenteur. It’s as if the new film is providing us with a chance to catch up with what its characters have been doing while the cameras weren’t around, discovering in their continuing restlessness and dissatisfactions a metaphor for the forces that drive us all.

In Los Marziano, very strange happenings are making life uncomfortable for golfers on the picturesque course inside the Buenos Aires gated retirement home where well-off Luis Marziano (Arturo Puig) lives with his wife (Mercedes Moran). Someone’s been digging large holes near the greens, concealing them and turning them into traps for the unwary. Many have fallen foul of the sabotage and Luis, a man who likes life to be orderly and to have things his own way, becomes increasingly obsessed about catching the culprits.

Directed by Ana Katz, who also co-wrote the screenplay with her brother Daniel, the film also focuses on Luis’s relationship with his brother, Juan (Guillermo Francella), whom he hasn’t seen for years and regards as a ne’er-do-well. The pair find themselves on a collision course when the insolvent Juan, who’s also suffering from an undiagnosed ailment, expresses his intention to attend a family party arranged for his estranged daughter.

Both brothers are equally unsympathetic and, while Katz’s film about the disaster-prone Marziano clan follows a predictable enough trajectory towards their reconciliation, one of its most pleasing qualities is its strategic refusal to provide any easy resolutions to the problems they’re both dealing with. Instead of a conventional happy ending, Los Marziano insists that sometimes loose ends are a routine part of everyday life.

No festival worth its salt these days could be without a new film from veteran documentarian, Frederick Wiseman. This year, Crazy Horse fitted the bill at San Sebastián, a kind of companion piece to his earlier La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009), inasmuch as it’s set in Paris – at the (apparently) famous nude cabaret saloon on Avenue George V – and takes us behind the scenes to look at how its shows are put together.

Once again, despite the sensationalist subject matter, Wiseman maintains his characteristically droll, fly-on-the-wall style, keeping his distance during the shoot and allowing his point of view to emerge mainly though the editing. Here, he explained after the screening, the raw material amounted to around 150 hours of material shot over 10 weeks. The finished film is made up of footage of the stage shows – all featuring extensive nudity, some visually playful, even pleasingly artful in their lighting and design – and behind-the-scenes coverage of the dancers, the artistic designers and the business managers at work.

It quickly becomes evident that this is, first and foremost, a business operation designed very much with its audience in mind, even if some of those involved have more than bottom lines in mind. The performers all seem to be having fun at rehearsals and backstage in their dressing-rooms, even if the auditioning of a line of the eager young things looking for work is a painful indication of what a meat market this place is. And the creators of the musical numbers take their work very seriously, even if the tensions between them are sometimes palpable. The scenes in which Ali outlines his colleague Philippe’s limitations – apparently, he’s “too democratic” – and Philippe becomes increasingly irritated by Ali’s manner are inadvertently hilarious.

Martin Scorsese’s latest foray into the world of pop culture is much more hands-on. George Harrison: Living in the Material World is an illuminating and affecting three-and-a-half hour documentary about “the Beatle who changed the most”. Along with previously-unseen concert footage and home movies, Scorsese deploys a goldmine of archival and original interview material – with the film’s producer Olivia Harrison eloquent in a leading role, while Paul, Ringo, Phil Spector, Erics Clapton and Idle, and many others serve as impressive support acts – persuasively presenting Harrison as a man living in the material world but increasingly concerned with the spiritual side of his existence. There are places, it appears, that Scorsese dares not probe too deeply: in order to acquire some of the rare material on display, compromises needed to be made, questions needed not to be asked. But Living in the Material World is rock-documentary at full blast and demands attention. It certainly captured ours.

The festival’s major disappointment (for us, at least) was Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, his third concert film with the veteran Canadian rock singer (after the superb Neil Young: Heart of Gold in 2006, and Neil Young Trunk Show in 2009). Given pride of place on the big screen at the festival’s main venue at the Kursaal Centre and supported by the great sound system there, it tiptoes aimlessly around its subject – Young’s concert earlier this year at Toronto’s Massey Hall, showcasing old songs as well as material from his 2010 album, Le Noise – and mistakes trickster visuals for innovation. Spending much of its time distracting us from what Young does best, it ends up an awful mess (and we’re not only admirers of Young, even if he gets a bit whiny at times, but also of Demme).

Equally dismaying was Paul W.S. Anderson’s featherweight 3D Alexandre Dumas adaptation, The Three Musketeers, the kind of film that has no place on any self-respecting festival’s schedule but somehow managed to insinuate itself into this one. The same goes for the “exclusive sneak peek” at early footage from the forthcoming Hollywood animation, Puss in Boots, perhaps rendered irresistible to the programmers because the film’s voice-lead, local favourite Antonio Banderas, made himself available as a promotional presence.

San Sebastián Film Festival
16-24 September 2011
website: http://www.sansebastianfestival.com/in/


  1. Worth noting is the September release of the five-disc BBC box set, The Terence Rattigan Collection, which includes Karel Reisz’s 1994 stage production of The Deep Blue Sea, with Penelope Wilton, Colin Firth and Ian Holm, as well as Adventure Story (1961) with Sean Connery and French Without Tears (1976) with Michael Gambon.
  2. The festival’s jury comprised actress Frances McDormand (chairwoman), writer-director Guillermo Arriaga, actress Bai Ling, director Alex de la Iglesia (whose most recent film, A Sad Trumpet Ballad, screened in the festival program), writer-director Bent Hamer, cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux and actress Sophie Okonedo.

About The Author

Tom Ryan is the film writer for The Sunday Age. Debi Enker is a TV critic and feature writer for The Age.

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