It was the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (2005) who believed that in the wake of accumulated misery caused by the banal evil of a dictatorship, human and ethical thought must be clarified. The education of future generations should begin at the tail end of such bitter experiences from the 20th century, ranging from the Shoah to the residue of totalitarian regimes.
During these past 25 years of Albania’s post-dictatorship transition, the earlier Communist regime (1944-1990) has been referred to mostly in negative or self-serving political terms. Several misconceptions need to be addressed from the start. First, the absence of human rights and freedom, state violence, concentration camps, and prisons is a given. Second, the dictatorship has been represented and dismissed as economically backward without context of what had come before. Therefore, politics and economics became the most important issues under the post-communist democratic way of criticism. This strange democracy was built by defining freedom merely as the right to speak and laugh, the freedom to buy and consume, the freedom of movement, and so on. We can say that the new political regime was based on a simple divide between the evil that had occurred for the past half-century replaced by a so-called freedom of denouncing the past while ignoring the challenging complications and contradictions of the present. But this Albanian conception of democracy and freedom is not new and does not merely belong to the heady days of the 1990s. In the late 1940s, the fledgling Communist regime was highly focused on notions of democratization and modernization, emancipation and freedom comparing the advantages of their regime to the previous half-century. This continued from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the 1960s. In relation to the Republican and Monarchist regimes of the 1920s or 1930s, under Communism more people had access to education, political institutions, labor, goods etc. However, what is lost in the process of understanding the continuum of Albanian modernization from the 1930s to the 1990s is the possibility to reflect and clarify in terms of ethics, less in political and economic terms. What were the social conditions that made the foundation of a dictatorship possible and how to react or behave when potentially confronted with a similar regime in the future?
The discrediting of previously-held norms, mores and sensibilities, the break down of morality, the birth of brutal behaviors and the systematic extermination with their mechanic perversity, are still problems that we must examine further in relation to this Eastern European country’s recent history. For this purpose, I think that Albanian cinema production under the Communist regime serves as the best source in order to analyze several kinds of human development under tyranny: mores, norms, sensibilities, behaviors, feelings, affects, socio-psychological structures, individualization and so on. Thus, in this article, I aim to analyze Albanian social conditions during the 1980s and how these changes were reflected in the movies, a key point to reading and comprehending the societal shift of the 1990s.
One of my conclusions is that the era’s state-sponsored motion pictures of Albania provide evidence of a great and hidden knowledge of codes and symbols that go beyond images which, on the surface, merely seem to be propaganda. This kind of genealogical and archeological approach to cinema is inspired by the works of Michel Foucault. This analysis of the films made during this era began with my book The Society of Cinema, an interpretative socio-political reading of Albanian moving images in the 20th century, divided into three volumes: The Old Regime and the People’s War (2012) dealing with communist representations of pre-liberation history, The Reform. The Duty. The Consciousness (2013) focusing on representations of post-liberation history up to the 1970s, and the forthcoming volume The New Albania which explores films from the regime’s final decade. The main title of these volumes has a triple meaning: the society of cinema as a social and professional unit (screenwriters, directors of photography, composers, actors, directors etc.) who carefully controlled the way these images were disseminated; cinema as an incarnation of Socialist reality and as an investigation of the results of this Socialist reality in relation with its cinematic representation. This study has several layers of analyses (philosophical, sociological, anthropological, economic, political and psychological), founded on a genealogical and historical approach. Utilizing the study of cinema production helps us come to terms with the development of socio-political structures, mentalities and sensibilities, both on an individual and collective level. Thus we discover three important dimensions that are analyzed frame by frame: the reasoning and sensibilities of those who produced these artistic works (films, documentaries, animation etc.); understanding their impact on how a specific kind of society was fabricated; the reflection of rationalities and sensibilities on the collective process of modernization. Here, cinema production is used not simply as a mirror of society but as a breathing human being that can be analyzed under different perspectives, as we interpret literature, paintings or other artistic data of the past, to understand across them, the society that gave birth to its own forms of representation. A similar research and methodology was undertaken in the 1930s by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, which is best exemplified by his western civilization process theory.
By the 1980s following the break with China and a subsequent period of isolation, the cinema of Albania underwent a radical transformation. The subject matter diversifies from earlier representations of reform and integration, to nationalistic explorations of the National Renaissance of the 19th century to pessimistic films dealing with pressing moral, economic and social issues. Along with the numbers of working cinema theaters, the number of directors and actors has multiplied as has the output of films produced. The sentiment of love is no longer represented as emancipated love, with the smashing of old taboos or romance blossoming amid factories and collectives. The initial optimistic era of the 1950s and 1960s is almost missing from the Albanian cinema of the 1980s. Along with this notable change, we glimpse how the ethic of optimism and spirit of euphoria have begun to dissipate giving way to a closer understanding of the internal dynamics between men and women and their families. From an artistic point of view, the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s sheds the kind of stylistic techniques unique to the 1960s. The cinema of this time is stripped down in terms of aesthetics but becomes more complicated in terms of objective representation. The period of epic historical subjects draws to a close near the mid-1970s, with the exception of The Second November (Nëntori i Dytë, V.Gjika, 1982), a film that should be considered as the Albanian equivalent of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in it’s larger-than-life conflation of fact and fiction; a mythological rendering of history that had startling resonance in the wake of the Kosovo conflict at the end of the 1990s. From 1980 onwards, Albanian cinema enters a minimalist phase oriented more towards a micro-sociological examination of everyday life, combined with a psychological perspective; removed from any idea of ideological reform or the reconstruction of society.
This important period marks the beginning of tremendous social transition bookended by the break in 1978 with China signaling a heightened period of isolation and the death of strongman Enver Hoxha in 1985. The first defining example of this period is In Our Home (Në shtëpinë tonë, Dhimitër Anagnosti, 1979), a neo-realistic family chronicle that lends equal importance to the daily dramas of both young and old. This same shift occurs in Viktor Gjika’s In Every Season (Në çdo stinë, 1980), a romantic tale set among university students in the Albanian capital. While Anagnosti and Gjika are pivotal in re-directing the thematics of cinema, both directors are relegated to marginal roles by the end of the 1980s. The works and themes of Dhimitër Anagnosti are fairly anachronistic, shying away from portraying wider historical events as Gjika does. In the cinema of Viktor Gjika, we discover a whole panorama of Albanian modernity, from the turn of the century yearning for independence to the 1930s monarchist era, the Second World War struggle against the Germans and Italians, post-war socialist emancipation and finally the ephemeral In Every Season which could be argued signals the start of a 1980s Albanian new wave.
Something happens before Gjika and Anagnosti’s seminal films are produced. Albania during the 1970s has stagnated in terms of social change. The country is the most isolated in the Eastern Bloc, the cult of Enver Hoxha is at its height. Yet without the support of a foreign superpower, the economy is sinking while the population continues to grow. Society has become more diverse as a consequence of the rise of industry, literacy and urbanization. The added result is a growing conflict between the proletariat working classes versus bureaucrats and intellectuals who refuse to relinquish their hold on power. The 1960s, an era of ideological optimism, are disappearing and replaced by an emerging moral order more in line with the deep societal shifts of the 1980s. We are confronted with a loss of long-held aspirations and expectations that had marked the previous three and a half decades of the regime. These political strategies, and by extension the arts, aimed at managing the rising dissatisfaction especially among intellectuals at the end of the 1970s, while also curbing any hopes of further emancipation or social progress. In the 1980s, the central figure in Albanian cinema is no longer a working class hero but the professional bureaucrat, the apparatchik, who wields control in institutions and must take responsibility for its successes as well as failures.
In Every Season is a film about youthful emotions of love and passion. I consider this film as the warmest and sweetest representation of romantic love from the Communist era buoyed by Alexsander Peci’s lush score. Inside the story we find entrenched ideological elements that try to prevent the development of a romance between two young students, Zana and Bardhyl. The supporting characters that surround these young lovers play a dual role, to maintain political correctness while defining the limits of love, expressing the notion that ultimately love resists politics and the alienation of this period. Is it possible for a new kind of fully Albanian love, asks Gjika? Yes, in every season it is possible to love and to be loved. Gjika posits that Love and the State cannot create a dialectical/dichotomous relationship, even the presumed idea of pure and emotional love against reason. In Gjika’s vision, emotion and reason merge into a tenuous, shaky truce with one another.
Gjika makes the case In Every Season that there exists a communication crisis between the two characters for which, finding the right path is certainly difficult, especially since they are threatened by the looming politics of the time and their peers who try to intrude into their personal affairs. Their two differing characters, Zana, the young woman, is an extroverted volleyball player, while the male student, Bardhyl, is an introverted musician. They live in distinctly separate realities but this does not prevent the possibility of romance blossoming between the couple. Their first tenuous steps toward each other are interrupted by public alarm – sign of a possible aerial attack by imagined imperialist enemies; by their fellow students and colleagues; the meddling of Bardhyl’s playboy friend and the daily reality of being students who must fill their leisure time with factory work or military maneuvers. But this couple of the future is indifferent toward these obstacles always keeping a certain cool distance from those around them. Some of their friends try to be politically correct in terms of speech and dialogue, in keeping with the proper ideological criteria of the era. Yet these voices always remain in the background while the two lovers maintain indifference to this steady bombardment of propaganda slogans and negativity.
Relying on an intellectual approach, Gjika’s central concern is the idealistic possibility of a new love far removed from ideology. Bardhyl and Zana worry about their love, emotions, feelings and all the thrilling tension produced within that context. This complex representation of romance constitutes two elements: the new reality of everyday life (also new mentalities and psychological/affective structures), and avulsion with the working class representation of the 1960s and 1970s. But this film’s impact is fleeting compared to later dramatic portrayals, in which love is drawn from more melodramatic elements such as corruption, treason or moral taboos.
In Every Season also reflects the social necessity of detaching from Chinese cultural influence following the 1978 split. This is why the two main characters struggle with their common feelings, alienated from the past. They do not turn their backs on mass society or refuse conflicts with others; it is their love that creates this safe distance. Theirs is not a dialectical love, but a desire for personal autonomy. We should not have illusions about their apolitical position or the purity of the embattled couple’s ideals. Gjika’s clear-eyed film presents two realities, one formal and one detached; this autonomous neutral reality forms an alternative way of political thought. We can find the old and the new but there is no great tension between them. The contradictions exist but they constantly try to find harmonious agreement with the societal changes that come from Albania’s withdrawal from the rest of the world. The State can no longer prohibit certain human needs much less fulfill them, thus the conflict between the rigid state apparatus and everyday life lessens during the 1980s.
Zana and Bardhyl are pioneers in a changing human and ontological condition yet remain trapped in the foundation that created this landscape. Through their love, Gjika tries to reveal this tense, restrictive atmosphere to his audience. The lovers are living a kind of absurdity as they come up against this alienation—we can find some similarities with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) in Gjika’s film. This newfound autonomy is represented also in their way of thinking, discussing and arguing about their feelings in order to give them definition—the very first time there is sustained dialogue and reflection about love in Albanian cinema. This is yet another reason to confirm that Gjika has presented us with an entire social modification; an important shift in Albania from a feudal/primitive community (Gemeinschaft) to a modern society still beset by an entrenched feudalism at the core of its norms, mores, manners and sensibilities. Social and national habits have changed and they are represented as such during the cinema of the 1980’s. Certain taboos have disappeared while others still remain under political pressure. Because of these fractures and differentiated structures, resentment and rancor becomes present and has more autonomy to fulfill some spaces that are now likely favorable to certain behaviors previously considered forbidden. In fact, the creation of alternative spaces of behavior (following the thought of Erving Goffman, 1990) belongs to a previous phase of society in which some acts, thoughts and behaviors were more hidden and articulated in the background.
This curtain of censorship is diminishing from both cinema and social reality. So while the cinema represents these changes, cinema itself is changing to reflect alternate types of human relations, which serve as a window or a mirror to the simmering disquiet in Albanian society.
Other films of the 1980s
In Every Season is an anomaly, a seemingly minor subject for a director used to tackling broader historical themes like Viktor Gjika. What drew him to this topic? Gjika was forty-three years old at the time of the making of this film. Two years later he will direct the most important epic achievement of Albanian cinema to that time, The Second November, his last major fiction effort. The enquiry of In Every Season should be examined in relation to the overriding concern of the 1980’s: the idea of what have we become. This question requires a new interpretation of history in which, the process that produced modern Albanian society is linked from the National Independence movement (1878-1912) directly to the 1980’s. This is why the modern romantic drama of In Every Season can be viewed as a prelude of sorts to the weighty themes of The Second November. They have a common search for independence, both in national-political terms and in personal ones. But In Every Season’s optimistic flowering of love will degenerate into perversion and decadence in later screen portrayals of romantic relationships of the 1980s, most especially in four films: The Good Man (Njeriu i mirë, Kristaq Mitro, Ibrahim Muça, 1982); Shadows That Remain Behind (Hije që mbeten pas, Esat Musliu, 1984); Be True To Your Name (Duaje emrin tënd, Mitro and Muça, 1984); It Comes A Day (Dhe vjen një ditë, Vladimir Prifti, 1986). These films propose a society in which the affects of love vanish when they come up against personal interests, corruption and immorality. In these later films, romantic love becomes equated with intrigue and scheming as a form of social and professional promotion. This representation of poetic and apolitical love, indifferent to social class, becomes a strategic device to compensate for the inequality of change. The overall split of social classes in the 1980s has becomes an increasingly complex and contradictory struggle between desire, need and expectation and it is reflected in the cinema of this period as a fight between the individual and existing social and political obstacles. This increasingly bleak universe is removed from existing moral values or creeds, the calm before the storm. The Albanian films of the 1980s reflect a pessimistic belief about what the future will bring. In effect, the disintegration of the rigid Communist structure begins during this time.
In Kristaq Mitro’s and Ibrahim Mucaj’s The Good Man, we see the growing love between an urban woman and a rural man temporarily blocked by the woman’s brother who wants her to marry a man of a higher class. In Esat Musliu’s Kafkaesque Shadows That Remain Behind, the situation is more complex. The love between an unmarried couple is threatened by dark forces. The prospective husband, who is also a judge, discovers that his father-in-law is part of a criminal plot to sell state goods for profit. His fiancé is also implicated in the conspiracy. The film details a virtually unheard of phenomenon of illegal activity developed within the ruling Communist party but with a subtle difference: it is the working classes who are stealing basic goods while the bureaucrats are stealing money in order to assure promotion and higher status, perhaps to insure prime positions in the oncoming transition. In the conclusion of Shadows That Remain Behind, the fiancé from the guilty family even offers a bribe to the young idealistic judge. The break-up of this couple is accompanied by a deep and bitter funeral march. This rendering of love, as an occurrence rife with danger and tragedy, occurs more frequently in Albanian cinema during the second half of the 1980s.
This startling era of change is represented in other levels of life apart from love and emotions. This is the case of The Comrades (Shokët, Kujtim Çashku, 1982), a story that takes place in the vast Chinese-built steel plant in the central Albanian town of Elbasan. A young engineer is trying to experiment with new methods of production but is faced with the outdated mentality of rigid bureaucratic structures. The film represents many elements previously unknown in Albanian cinema. First, the dissonant musical score composed by Hajg Zaharjan. This soundtrack is presented in a distinct style, almost minimalistic and concrete that recalls the experimental works of Pierre Schaeffer, Steve Reich and John Cage. The music is interlaced with sounds from the industrial process, Moog synthesizers and even elements of ambient music. This score is a direct reversal from the rich, orchestral classical music found in Albanian cinema of the 1960’s. It is the end of the triumphant influence of Tchaikovsky found in Viktor Gjika’s The Confrontation (Përballimi, 1976) or the Wagner underscore found in Dhimitër Anagnosti’s Silent Duel (Duel i heshtur, 1967). It is a break with the classical rationality of the early years of Communist reform and reconstruction and the dawn of an uneasy era mirrored in a shift towards more complex elements of sound, sensitive to the details of this minute reality. The lush Socialist assurance of comforting strings and piano is replaced by this atonal uncertain future. The musical soundtrack scores of the late Albanian cinema of the 1980s are enriched by organ, autumn and melancholy, an aural reflection of the desolate alienation of the individual constricted by a selfish world.
Çashku’s The Comrades presents a different take on the previously explored contradiction between industry and naturalistic impressionism. The meditative state of Çashku’s vision is stirred by metallurgy; atoms, electrons and the smelting processes. The Mendeleev chemical table becomes a musical chart creating dissonant sounds that become the concrete matter underscoring these industrial sequences serving as a direct contradiction to the idyllic scenes that take place far from the factory. This dichotomy has been portrayed before by Gjika in his 1978 General Gramophone, with its explicit conflict between industry and tradition. Here, the question raised by Çashku is directed towards the future not a reckoning with the past. The experimental music score produces a surrealistic ideal of work that seems founded in elements of futurism.
Apart from sound strategies, we see images and nuances in Çashku’s The Comrades that produce a science fiction reality. The overall color scheme of the film oscillates between fiery orange, purple and reddish hues, accompanied with the stressful modern reality of telephones and remote controls, giving the illusion that humans are perhaps soon to be sent to Mars. There is an analogy with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) that could explain the ideological distance of the Romanian-educated Çashku with the outdated Soviet cinema influences of the 1950s. The Albanian proletarian reality of the 1980’s has advanced immeasurably from the first years of the regime. The outdated plough-driven model has been supplanted by a modern and complex metallurgic plant. The on-screen hero is no longer the doomed martyr of Viktor Gjika or Dhimiter Anagnosti but a keen and confident engineer. This protagonist is ostensibly laboring to uncover new horizons amid this abstract landscape, which, in fact, disguises a general poverty, tardiness and rising health care concerns among workers that festered in silence during the regime. The use of science fiction elements in cinema is surprising, considering that the genre had been classified as extremely problematic by the dictates of Albanian Socialist Realism. In The Comrades, we do not have the classic tension between man and nature but man against machine with the final goal of total domination. The general sensation one gets from this use of the science fiction form produces an apocalyptic feeling of impending industrial disaster. This expression of an unconscious fear is perhaps a reflection about the overall symbolic death of a particular social class. This symbolic death as a movie subject will also precipitate the death of Albanian Communist cinema itself.
This new anxiety is especially apparent in three other films that portray illness, suffering, agony and the medical/psychological battle against death. The Spring Didn’t Came Alone (Pranvera s’erdhi vetëm, Piro Milkani, 1988), The Train Departs at 6:55 (Treni niset në 7 pa 5, Spartak Pecani, 1988) and The Circle of Memory (Rrethi i kujtesës, Esat Musliu, 1987). In the first two films, a woman discovers by accident that she is suffering from cancer. Both films conclude with the requisite happy ending but raise interesting questions in their artistic representation of illness and death. We should first draw certain distinctions regarding this kind of representation related with a specific social group that has been civilized during the dictatorship. In the middle or higher social classes, sexual or death taboos cannot be easily released, thus they are somehow deprived from a concrete and complex thinking or feeling about death. Their psychological structures are still compact and rudimentary; the individual is much more dominated by society and social solidarity giving less space for an individual behavior seen as quite specific and different. The psychotic/melancholic thinking about suicide or death is found more easily in those social groups where the psycho-social structures are more diverse, the cultivated individuals express highly distinctive traits compared to other members of the popular classes; a social group more connected with cinema, literature etc. So, their psychological disorders are a failure in terms of social hierarchy and prestige and are thus represented as a fear of death, which can be also translated as a fear of the future, fear of change or existing in a different world demanding change. In Albanian films made toward the end of the Communist era of the late 1980s the subject of death or illness is replaced by an impossible love; a melancholic uneasy universe is fabricated that shies away from questioning the reasons for this terror. In these later films, we find an isolated individual, lost and abandoned by society, adrift in this strange and absurd reality.
It is interesting to see that the very first forms of weakness and discomfort are present in 1980s cinema before realizing their complete fruition during the 1990s. Intellectual groups will be more and more marginalized in the post-Communist era, visible in motion pictures generally divided in two genres: films that represent the Communist past versus those that present the socio-economic challenges of 1990s transition into ‘democracy’. In both cases, Albanian cinema faced a tremendous problem (less technical or economical): What kind of films can be made in the midst of a traumatic experience that is not so far in the past as we are led to believe? Albanian filmmakers were unable to grasp the notion that the dictatorship belonged to the past, as a museum object, without raising questions about their lingering effects on the present. Many films from the Communist era were all too easily dismissed. Yet many of these films, particularly those of the late 1980s, tackled relevant issues and themes still valid today. True, in stylistic terms, the films have little value. But in sociological terms, Albanians are still grappling with many themes found in the films of the Communist era, concerns missing from the majority of post-Communist Albanian films. Cinema may help more than any other form of communication to bridge this lack of understanding between man and reality.
Since the late 1970s, Albanian cinema experienced an inability to meet head-on the enormous changes occurring in society. During the 1980s, the cinema and dominant ideology was forced to face the beginning of a massive social, economic and political transformation. Thus, many of the films from the late Communist era proposed a simple morality limited by merely denouncing issues in a superficial manner, a tone that will continue well into the 1990s. Here we find filmmaking with a broad journalistic approach that embraced the naive perception of media as a tool of unlimited freedom, when in reality larger political forces were taking control of the medium. The cinema of the 1990s failed to express the nuances of this takeover, instead losing itself in false recriminations of the dictatorship. Albanian cinema lost a tremendous opportunity in the 1990s to define itself, instead becoming a hostage to the past, as filmmakers and actors raced to find their position within emerging elite groups. Post-communist cinema is marked by a tendency toward easy moralizing; an impotent finger-pointing falling short of criticizing the dominant power structure that had taken hold in Albania. Much cinema of the late 1980s and the 1990s signals the start of long period of decadence and confusion. This era is expressed by a general social panic, as individuals struggled to comprehend their role within the higher cultural classes. In other words, Albania cinema was unwilling to ethically approach the past and its own role in the fabrication of the Socialist myth.
I conclude this paper with a third film from the 1980s dealing with illness and fear of death, The Circle of Memory. An amnesiac Albanian woman, a victim of Nazi mind-control experimentation, returns to her Socialist homeland after two decades abroad. The Albanian public has long considered this film as almost a horror movie but this vision of perverse Nazi experimentation on human memory concludes with a dire warning that Western countries are currently utilizing similar experiments. The Circle of Memory could be seen as an alter ego of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1970) but with a key difference. Here, the subject is a woman who has suffered medical memory therapy by a group of Nazi doctors. Their goal is to erase her memory data related to the distant past. This character confesses these horrible and brutal experiences in the form of flashbacks as a kindly Socialist doctor labors to reconstruct her experiences and memory. We see the Albanian medical team analyzing her condition – the very first time in Albanian cinema that psychiatrists appear on-screen. In front of us we have two different bio-political procedures, a harmful Nazi method of death and oblivion versus a healing Socialist practice based in the sociology of collective memory. In order to rebuild her damaged psyche, the Albanian medical team pushes the traumatized woman to relive her suffering to bring about recovery. Yet this amnesiac intensely fears recalling the fragments of her painful past. To bring about a cure, confidence and trust are fostered by a warm friendship between her and a male doctor from the medical team. In fact, we discover that the woman’s troubles are less related from a warped memory or deep trauma and more with her incapacity to speak of and come to terms with her previous experiences. This could be viewed as a symbolic possibility that Albania has begun to comprehend the great silence imposed on victims and crimes committed during the Communist regime, a void of silence that continues even two decades on. The suffering of Hoxha’s Communist time is often used by the current political parties as a hammer against each other rather than commit serious research to detailed study of the causes and actions of the regimes policies.
It is impossible to reproduce an exact copy of a memory. This, however, was attempted during the Communist regime (the constant retouching of official photographs is an example) with the goal that the copy has more value than the original. Analyzing these past experiences and memories becomes a necessary examination of the process that mutilated the original. Remaking memory is a gradual annihilation, a whirlpool in a circle of memory. Today Albania suffers from a sophisticated type of amnesia in which discourse is fragmented into easy narratives that fit the political agendas of both right and left. In many ways, Albania’s reckoning with its half-century of dictatorship and cinema is mirrored in the struggle faced by the amnesiac woman in The Memory Circle. Only though a nuanced understanding of Communist modes of cinematic representation, rather than their facile dismissal as an instrument of propaganda, can we begin to understand Albania’s complex and fractured development of the past two decades. It is this silence that ultimately harms memory and it is vital to undertake research to better realize the present visible within our cinematic past.
Adorno, Theodor. (2005). Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life. London: Verso.
Goffman, Erving. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.
Julian Bejko © 2016
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