Character-driven storytelling with a purpose

Documentarians are ideal preservationists

March 28th, 2015 by Owner

Documentarians carry much responsibility as creators. They are often one or two person bands. As business managers, fundraisers, marketing gurus, adventurers and agents for change, they are not finished with the final cut of each film. On the contrary, they have just begun. They must know how to navigate film festivals and distribution. They must engage their works with communities and demonstrate impact. They are required to keep up with new technology and information with rapidly changing mediums and modernized platforms while continuing to garner audiences through traditional venues. In a world where it seems there are more non-fiction narratives out there than ever, there are also fewer storytellers making a full-time living as documentarians. That means that in addition to doing all this, many filmmakers are also performing side jobs, in and out of the field, in order to bring their stories to life. Of course if you are one of these people, I’m preaching to the choir.

I bring this up because with all the above in mind, it is a lot to ask of independent filmmakers to become archivists of their own work over their lifetime. A task that requires, yet again, more funding, and yet again, more upkeep with the ever evolving (or devolving – your choice) technology that is involved in our industry. Not only that, but storytellers are being told to start this process now, if they haven’t already. Yes, it can feel overwhelming, but as is with the rest of our profession, it is challenging but achievable.

As someone who works in documentary, I have supported many struggling and talented filmmakers in a variety of roles, who churn out amazing stories through blood, sweat and tears. I too have toiled with some reward and disappointment with my own projects. With all the obsession, sacrifice and money that’s put into these productions, which can take years to make, would someone as smart and activist oriented as documentarians, allow their beautiful work to disappear over time?

LASMADREScroppedI ask only because I believe non-fiction filmmakers are the ideal (and necessary) candidates to become preservationists of their own work, as well as their community’s, because of their natural activist instincts (pictured left: Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, 1985, preserved by Women’s Film Preservation Fund).

I propose to you documentary filmmakers out there to add “preservationist” to your portfolio of skills because:

• We can see from the beginning of the documentary form how historically and culturally relevant these works are too look back on decades later. In some cases these stories, points of view, insights and subjects otherwise may not have been captured.

• Your body of work over your lifetime will become your personal legacy as well as part of a collective documentary heritage of your generation, generations to come and society at large, but only if it’s around in the future.

• You are a non-corporate entity that tells stories often otherwise untold. Do you really want our moving image history to be all Disney and network, big business news?

• Your movies can generate income for years to come. There are limitless possibilities for continued distribution, but only if your master elements are alive and well, accessible and maintained (both your work and it’s playback equipment).

• That extra material on the cutting room floor, might be of additional historical and monetary value. Weren’t you just wondering how you’ll fund your next project? Your previous movie can be your future revenue in addition to your new production.

Behind the veilThere are many other reasons. These are just a few, but good to keep in mind because the hard work is ahead. If you agree but are unsure how to begin the process, you might start with these steps:

• Find out where your previous project’s original elements are. Don’t assume you know. Confirm this whether you recall that they are under your bed, in your mother’s closet, at an archive, or at your former business partner’s office.

• Examine those elements, whether analog or digital, they ALL need to be archived properly. Confirm what they are and what condition they are in.

• Talk to your resources (they exist! See bottom of this page for a short list, but there are more. Do your research). It is important for your elements to be properly stored and managed.

• Create a preservation plan just as you would create a production plan. Include funding sources just as you would when researching for your production and post production grants.

• When beginning a new production’s budget, include an archive line item. Don’t hate me. You’ll be thankful later. Do your research just like you would any other expense and add it in there. This will save time and money later.

• Get to know preservation best practices with the same vigor you put toward learning how to shoot, edit or strategize your outreach.

• Get to know and build a relationship with an archive. Find out if your alma mater has a media archive and library that accepts alumni work, have you screened your film at a museum that houses an archive? Consider your existing resources to start out with. If they can’t be your archive, they might help you find one that will.

• Advocate for audiovisual preservation best practices to become part of the curriculum in film schools and addressed at film festivals, conferences and other industry events. Help makes this the norm, rather than an oddity.

Works are disintegrating in canisters, boxes, tape cases and on hard drives, as I write this blog. The sooner we get serious and active about this the better.

Okay, so that’s quite a few actions steps. As someone who is ardent about preservation, and in particular about documentary, I can attest that it’s similar to filmmaking- fascinating and frustrating. It can pay off, however, if you see it through. Logically, the more you understand it, the easier it becomes.

To begin, or continue this conversation, check out the International Documentary Association’s (IDA) and DOCNYC’s Documentary Preservation Summit, 3/31 – 4/1/15 at the IFC Center in New York. Here you can listen to panels, ask questions and contribute to an important discussion with your colleagues. The major players in the doc world will be there, from filmmakers (Barbara Kopple, Pennebaker, Sandra Shulberg) to organizations (The D-Word, those listed above and more.)

One characteristic that no one in documentary is short on is passion. Bring it all to the summit. (Pictured above: Behind the Veil, 1972, Preserved by WFPF).

Some resources: Al Larvick Conservation FundAssociation of Moving Image Archivists; Film Foundation; IndieCollect; Kickstarter Archives initiative; National Film Preservation Foundation; Women’s Film Preservation Fund.


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Women Writing the Language of Cinema

February 9th, 2015 by Owner

A week into the Women’s Film Preservation Fund’s (WFPF) Carte Blanche series at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), brings to mind how much has been accomplished by the Fund, as well as us how much work there is yet to be done.  I’ve been on the WFPF committee for just around 5 years now and continue to be amazed by the women behind the Fund and all that’s been achieved to save these works for future generations. And although WFPF screens most everything it has a hand in preserving, it is a rare opportunity to see so many of these films in an expansive series like this.

As the title of the series, Carte Blanche: Women’s Film Preservation Fund, Women Writing the Language of Cinema, suggests, the focus is on the women who have contributed to cinema’s heritage, and given a strong female voice to its history. It is also WFPF’s 20th anniversary celebration. (Promo Produced by Barbara Moss & cut by Suzanne Pancrazi)

With over 30 films already screened (most works preserved by WFPF) and another 5 days left in the series, almost every genre in film and many eras are represented, from silents, to animation, experimental, documentary, and even sex exploitation, the vast selections inhabit a most fascinating melting pot of creative vision. In my mind, what this series reinforces is how women have excelled in this craft, even if not always encouraged, and are natural storytellers.

SusanSeidelmanOpening night brought Desperately Seeking Susan, a 1985 film by Susan Seidelman, (pictured here introducing her film) to a full house, despite the challenging weather. Shot in New York City, much of the crew, including Seidelman, were New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) members (NYWIFT is the organization which co-founded WFPF in conjunction with MoMA in 1995).

Seidelman reminisced on her time directing Desperately Seeking Susan and named many soon-to-be well known actors featured in her film, including one or two that are now household names. She also spoke eloquently about film preservation and its importance. She referred to a print she owned of her indy, Smithereens, which unbeknownst to her was, as she put it, “pickled” from poor storage and from this experience advocated for filmmakers to be aware of the importance of preservation. Desperately Seeking Susan, however, was in great shape and its vibrant colors and great performances have stood the test of time, while the retro fashions and old school tracks were terrific fun.

DanStreible2Thursday’s program, Orphan Preservation Stories, offered an interesting variety of works from 1916 to 2005. WFPF Co-Chair, Ina Archer presented, with Moving Image Archiving & Preservation (MIAP) Associate Professor/Director and Orphan Film Symposium leader, Dan Streible, (pictured) along with other presenters including, Kim Tarr, Madeline Schwartzman, Carmel Curtis, Julia Kim (pictured below), Candace Ming and Kara Van Malssen.

Excerpts from orphaned films My Lady of the Lilacs, Raisin’ Cotton, Barnard College Film Collection, The Movie Queen film series: The Movie Queen and The Movie Queen of BelfastMona’s Candle Light and the Helen Hill Home Movies were screened and discussed, as well as put into context for why these kinds of works are considered orphaned and why they are relevant. Orphans such as the well known Helen Hill Home Movies might be obvious choices for preservation in that Helen Hill was a significant voice in experimental film and community MyLadyoftheLilacsactivism, but works such as The Movie Queen films might appear less so to some. The Movie Queen films were produced in small towns where the townspeople were the stars and the local businesses, the sponsors. They were often screened, unedited, for the communities where they were shot and acted as a big local event with ticket sales and sometimes accompanied by live entertainment. Although these are considered “amateur” productions, and may not appear important on the surface, they document cultural history and are really pretty delightful to watch. As Archer pointed out on Thursday, the Movie Queen film credits, running more than 10 minutes in length, included details from the extras, down to the model of the cars featured, seem to remind us all that literally everyone is important.

1008Thursday evening showcased surrealism in film with the beautiful, Homage to Magritte (1975) (pictured) by Anita Thacher and When Pigs Fly (1993) by Sara Driver. Both filmmakers were in attendance and Driver spoke about the ratio of German women filmmakers to American. Not so surprisingly, and unfortunately, the numbers were not in our favor.

CrimTonight’s program will honor WFPF co-founder and filmmaker, Barbara Moss with a MoMA’s Modern Mondays event. The screening of  the documentary,  A Crime To Fit The Punishment (1982) will be followed by a discussion with co-directors Barbara Moss and Stephen Mack, along with Narrator, Lee Grant and Associate Curator of MoMA Film, Anne Morra. The evening will celebrate Barbara and her accomplishments, but will also celebrate the Women’s Film Preservation Fund’s 20 years, and counting, of preserving women’s legacy in cinema. Hope to see you there.

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Pioneering Women

November 1st, 2014 by Owner

In spite of the drizzle and drop in temperature, the faithful turned out for The Real Indies: A Closer Look at Orphan Films program, which appropriately opened last night, on Halloween, with Spider Baby (1968), and began today’s screenings with their Pioneering Women segment at 10AM this morning. Pioneering Women boasted a fascinating selection of films made by and about women, accompanied with presentation and discussion.

asbgHeather Linville (Academy Film Archive) presented a beautiful series of clips made by the explorer Aloha Wanderwell Baker. The documentarian, known in her day as ‘the world’s most widely travelled girl’ recorded her adventures by car, over four continents. The footage, shot primarily in the 1920’s, is incredible and Wanderwell, apparently standing at around 6 feet in height, is a gorgeous fearless force, easily identifiable whenever she appears in her recordings. Linville saved some of the best for last, showing a short excerpt of her early travel footage accompanied by audio of Wanderwell from the 1990’s, when she met with an archivist to watch 6 hours of her material together, recalling in great detail the circumstances of the reels. Linville wrapped up the presentation with clips of Wanderwell visiting with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Susan Lazarus of Women’s Film Preservation Fund, introduced the Newsreel collective production of Make Out (1970, 5 mins) conceived by Geri Ashur. The script was created from a consciousness raising group, where they talked about what it was like to make-out in a car, through a young woman’s perspective. Make Out was preserved by a grant from the Women’s Film Preservation Fund in 2011 with in-kind services provided by Cineric.

PioneeringWomenA panel of filmmakers and preservationists, moderated by Antonia Lant (NYU Cinema Studies), followed these first two presentations with a discussion around preservation of women’s film work (seated left to right: Connie Field, Lisa Crafts, Antonia Lant, Susan Lazarus and Heather Linville). Lant brought up two main periods in film history where women had a strong hold in filmmaking – the silent era and the women’s movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Crafts said that for independent animators and for other independent filmmakers, coincided this golden age of independent film and the women’s movement. So there were hundreds and thousands of women making work. Whether that is part of the canon that’s studied, Crafts thought that really depended on the individual who’s teaching, but highlighted the importance of these types of films getting out to schools, so each generation can see that there were lots of strong, amazing and interesting women making work. Linville pointed out that from a preservation standpoint, these two heights for female filmmakers have their own difficulties with the elements in which they were shot on. In the silent era films were shot on nitrate film stock, which is highly flammable and in the 60’s and 70’s the material ended up being unstable and prone to quicker deterioration, whether it be color fading or audio deterioration from being recorded onto magnetic elements, or a variety of other issues. Linville added that with the silent era in particular, there are even fewer women’s films to preserve today. That we’ve often hear statistics from this period in general, such as 80 to 85% of silent era films are already lost. Linville said she’d be curious to know what the percentage of that are films made women. To reiterate Crafts talking point about education, Lazarus said the reason the Women’s Film Preservation Fund was founded in general was to show that women were involved in filmmaking from the beginning of the medium and  these works not only need to be preserved, but also shown and become part of a syllabus.

rosie-01The feature screened after this panel, also part of the Pioneering Women program was the Academy Film Archive preserved documentary, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980), by Connie Fields. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1996. The film brings to life, the real stories behind Rosie the Riveter, told by the actual Rosie’s selected from many interviews Connie Fields conducted in her research for the film, the documentary effectively juxtaposes these women’s experiences against the propaganda archival material of the day. Available on DVD through Clarity Films.

The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films was co-presented by The Academy, New York University and The Orphan Film Symposium.

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Reflections on Getting Real

October 11th, 2014 by Owner

About a week following the IDA Getting Real, Documentary Film Conference 2014, I find myself continuing to reflect on a fairly charged experience. From the first session GETTING REAL About the Doc Career, to the last I attended, From Distribution to Sustainability: Four Doc Filmmaker Case Studies, frank participation by both panelists and audience, was what made this conference a much needed call to action for filmmakers and the industry at large.

IMG_3892Thom Powers moderated the doc careers panel and opened by saying that when his students ask about sustainable professional lives as documentary filmmakers, he tells them that if he asked 50 doc filmmakers how they make a living, there would be 50 different answers. That pretty much was right on the money, as all panelists (huge panel) make their careers sustainable by balancing media making with other related work, such as teaching, commercial, work-for-hire as DP or editor, advertising, research, etc. Most love what they do, both filmmaking and otherwise, but all talked about sacrifice. Whether it was juggling a personal life/family by only working at odd hours and living off less sleep (i.e. Nina Gilden Seavey, a terrific panelist at multiple sessions) or accepting that a project will take much longer since it’s impossible to work on it full time, it was confirmed that the life of an independent filmmaker isn’t easy. Granted that it never really was, but once upon a time existed a clearer and realistic career path that was much less complicated.

Panelist Tina DiFeliciantonio is part of the newly formed Independent Documentary Sustainability Task Force, which is gathering data for a quantitative analysis of the industry. The Task Force is looking at how the music industry adjusted to the drastic change in their industry. Maybe independent filmmakers can learn from what musicians have already dealt with. DiFeliciantonio boldly pointed out what she called the elephant in the room, and that is, we participate in our own exploitation by exploiting those who work for us. Hard to hear, and easier said than done in terms of fixing the issues, when budgets are beyond thin, but how can we create a living wage for ourselves when we’re not paying one to our colleagues?

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Post brings the usual questions, and some new ones

September 20th, 2014 by Owner

John-Margo3It’s that time in a production’s life when primary photography has been completed and it’s time to devote almost all one’s hours toward the edit. Beginning post production is exciting, but also daunting. Hopefully footage has been brought into the project and logged, and interviews transcribed as the shoots have taken place. Hopefully the spreadsheets and budgets are updated, you’ve been reviewing footage as you’ve shot, and gotten into some cutting already. These are ‘hopefully’ scenarios, however, as more often than not (in my experience), these tasks are ideally done during the shooting phase, but sometimes they are just partially completed by the real edit time.

In my case, most of the above is complete, but not all, and although I’ve watched the footage after each shoot, I now need to sit down and review everything again beforeJohn_Jane_TimesSquare digging in for the long editing haul. It can be tedious, but also exciting when gems you didn’t realize (or remembered) existed in the footage materialize, even though you were there when it was recorded. Seemingly unimportant comments, behaviors or imagery can suddenly reveal themselves as insightful and telling. These are the essential moments for any sort of storytelling, big or small. After all, when it comes to most nonfiction narratives, post is when the story is crafted. Although this phase is my favorite, and I’ve been on enough productions now to know the nuts and bolts of how to tackle it, there are new questions on the horizon. For instance, once this story is complete, there are a number of traditional ways of getting it out into the world, but also a few new choices which are as confusing as they are thrilling to consider. New venues, new models, new avenues for impact – there are a lot of decisions to be made and each one seems to be on a case-by-case basis. What is one’s story most suited for?

This particular project will be a short, but never-the-less, it required scanning many-a still images (over 1,000) and shooting many hours of happenings. In my case (any many other filmmakers) this is done in tandem with other documentary and commercial freelance jobs, and therefore takes twice as long to finish. The project has yet to go through various phases and versions with feedback, recuts and consultations. As the post production phase begins, thoughts about the end plan (and budget) continue to change and morph as I consider the footage I have and the story I believe will come of it.

LQ_Luncheon2014With the landscape of documentary distribution in such flux (more opportunity in many ways, yet more competition), who knows what distribution will look like next year, or even 6 to 8 months from now. Documentary storytellers are on the rise, but with the market saturated with content, how will smaller projects, such as this one, get seen? How will it be monetized and how will its lifespan be maximized? These are questions I’m still kicking around, even at this point in the production, and one that will of course inform the end cut.

The International Documentary Association will put on their annual conference in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and will be addressing some of these questions for mid-career documentary media makers. The Documentary Film Conference 2014, Getting Real three day event boasts keynote speakers Morgan Spurlock, Tabitha Jackson, Cara Mertes, Dawn Porter and Lucy Walker (notice the ratio of women to men. Thank you, IDA!). Panels includes Getting Real About The Doc Career, Let’s Make This Perfectly Clear (on digital distribution), When Impact Meets Distribution, Creative Money Balance: A Hands-on Workshop on Career Sustainability and Personal Finance, From Distribution to Sustainability: Four Doc Filmmaker Case Studies. Also included are forums, screenings and case studies. With the state of documentary growing in leaps and bounds, but documentary making as a viable, full time sustainable career at risk, the Getting Real 2014 should prove to be an informative one. See you there.

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Documentary Fundamentals’ Shooting & Directing

May 17th, 2014 by Owner

This spring the Brooklyn based resource for all things documentary, UnionDocs, offers its second round of Documentary Fundamentals. The six part series gives filmmakers a step-by step, how-to for tackling the art form. From practical application to creative, Fundamentals brings experts in the field into a conversational panel setting for a jam packed house.

Last night’s third installment, Documentary Shooting & Directing, was hosted by UnionDocs’ partner AbelCine at its Greenwich St. studio. The three person panel consisted of Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie And The Boxer), Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Call Me Kuchu). Each presented clips and/or trailers of their work to illustrate various approaches to shooting and directing.

Cutie-+-the-Boxer_sized-620x348Zachary Heinzerling spoke about non-verbal storytelling, where the visuals tell audiences what is happening and not just the dialogue, or even instead of. His example from Cutie And The Boxer was a dinner scene, where the husband and wife’s behavior during a meal reveals insights into their relationship as much as what they’re talking about. This kind of relaxed intimacy is something earned, however. Each speaker addressed the importance of fostering trust between filmmaker and subject. Heinzerling’s emphasized the idea of collaboration between himself and the people he’s filming. He tries to spend a lot of time with his documentary characters in advance to bring an ease to his presence. Even then people are hyper aware of the camera at first, he said, and want to know what’s going on. He makes it clear that he feels all aspects of their lives are of equal importance. This is something new to me as most of my experience is in post-production. I am green to shooting and directing and have recently discovered how much people skills it requires. I’ve found some subjects get caught up in wanting to know details, such as why something as mundane as making their bed or walking to work needs to be shot. I think that is about trust, and building it takes time and patience on the part of everyone involved. If the relationship isn’t developed, the subject may never open up, forget about the camera’s presence, or even believe that if it’s being recorded, it could be relevant or imporant. [Read more →]

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Multi-platform Storytelling at Women Make Movies

April 12th, 2014 by Owner

There is still a level of uncertainty in regard to new media, but it seems more related to understanding the term, than anything else. One point many agree on, however, is that it’s only going to continue to grow, and for media makers this means opportunity. For independent artists, it opens up possibilities at a time when theatrical venues for the non-blockbuster  (and even for mainstream films in some cases) are shrinking.IMG_2672

This past Wednesday night Women Make Movies, a nonprofit feminist media arts organization, hosted From Idea to Implementation: Multi-platform Storytelling with Theresa Loong. The workshop, led by Loong (multi-media artist, founder  of FORM360), explored examples of successful new media stories in both documentary and fiction, as well as new online platforms and resources.

The evening began with Loong asking her audience to introduce themselves and offer a brief description as to what brought them to the workshop. Most were there as documentary filmmakers and a few were in stages of a new media project. Some were just there to learn more about the subject. As one audience member said, ad agencies have been doing this for years. Independent filmmakers have caught on to the potential of multi-platform storytelling more recently.

Loong talked about how she approaches her projects. She collects artifacts, such as music, photos, diaries, finds the setting and the place, and then starts asking questions. She begins with a basic story idea and then looks at the cultural context. Henry Jenkins was brought up several times. Loong quotes him as saying that each medium makes its own unique contribution to the story. This felt like an important point. New media is not just an added venue for the same story put up on a theater screen or watch from Apple TV, but it offers specific ways to consume and interact with stories that are different than passive watching. It’s smart to consider how each story might lend itself to these different arenas, such as whether the audience member will be their own character within the story, or what additional information would be interesting via Easter eggs. [Read more →]

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Documentary Fundraising Trailers

March 29th, 2014 by Owner

This past Wednesday night the New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) hosted a to capacity panel, Bait Your Hook: Create Your Best Documentary Sample and Trailer. The evening boasted filmmakers and funders, moderated by Marcia Rock. Each panelist not only showed examples of their successfully funded trailers, and discussed what elements they felt were important, but also spent the last half of the night, evaluating audience member trailers.

IMG_2646Filmmaker and The D-Word Founder, Doug Block began the event by speaking about his new film, 112 Weddings (Opening night at Full Frame this year will be shown to a sold out, 1,000 seat theater crowd!). Screening his 4 minute trailer, shown at the HotDocs 2012 pitching forum, Block addressed key elements contained in the piece that created a successful trailer. This particular example was shorter than what he would normally submit for funding, since the hot seat at HotDocs gives each pitch a very short amount of time. He normally considers a fundraising sample or trailer to be between 8 and 10 minutes in length. Block said the trailer should find a balance in showing and telling the viewer what the film is about without giving away too much. When beginning a fundraising trailer, Block said he takes a practical approach by not hiring an editor, who would take time and money to review all the footage. Instead he works on it himself since he is most familiar with what he has. This exercise also helps him find and refine the story, much as grant writing helps filmmakers clarify what their story is.

Editor and filmmaker, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon of Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, 2009, showed a promotional trailer from Documented, and talked about the importance of a viewer’s experience of being invited to be a part of it, rather than hitting someone over the head with the social issue angle. If it’s a social issue piece, the issue will come out organically in the story. Another great point, which I have found challenging, is that often filmmakers try to fit in too much in order to show funders all they have. Sometimes it’s best to focus on a few moments that really matter than to try to squish in all the different kinds of footage or scenes that has been shot, even if all of it is awesome. [Read more →]

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Lessons in new media documentary

February 18th, 2014 by Owner

Hollow’s Elaine McMillion and team talk participatory video, sound and visual design and more in this part II of two part Hallow: Our Lessons Learned, moderated by Opeyemi Olukemi of Tribeca Film Institute. (See Part I, Research, building audience, pre-production)

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Judy Chaikin talks Director/Editor Relationships

January 13th, 2014 by Owner

A great interview clip by Film Courage with The Girls in the Band director, Judy Chaikin, on how she worked with editor, Edward Osei-Gyimah.

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