ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

After Hope: The Life and Death of a Porno Gang

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Steven Shaviro

Mladen Djordjevic's Life and Death of a Porno Gang (Serbia, 2009) contains explicit representations of sex and violence, including scenes of golden showers, zoophilia, animal slaughter, rape, murder, wartime atrocities, the production of snuff films, and suicide. In its extremity, Porno Gang has a lot in common with its sister film, Srdjan Spasojevic's A Serbian Film (2010), with which it shares a cinematographer (Nemanja Jovanov), as well as the plot premise of porno actors lured into making snuff films. Both of these movies allude, at least implicitly, to the American torture porn franchises of the past decade (the Hostel series and the Saw series). They also bring to mind the controversial but highly visible and critically acclaimed transgressive art cinema of Western Europe and East Asia, including such works as Gaspar No's Irreversible (2002), Pascal Laugiers's Martyrs (2008), Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009, below), Takashi Miike's Audition (2000), and Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy (2002-2005).

However, Life and Death of a Porno Gang stands out among all these films for a number of reasons. It is unique in terms of its style, in terms of its particular geographical and historical location, and in terms of the types of social and economic conditions that it explores. In the first place, Porno Gang rejects both the commercial-genre functionalism of movies like Hostel, and the art-film self-consciousness of directors like No and von Trier. Instead, it adopts an informal, low-budget aesthetic; it has the look and feel of a video documentary. The film is largely shot in natural light, in real locations, with small, handheld video cameras, the same kind of cameras that the characters within the film themselves use. In this way, Porno Gang picks up from Djordjevic's previous film, Made in Serbia (2005), a downbeat documentary about the small size and limited horizons of the Serbian porn industry. Porno Gang retains its predecessors' look and feel, as well as subject matter, even though it is a fictional film, entirely scripted and staged.

Life and Death of a Porno Gang also stands out for the way that it tends to shy away from, and representationally underplay the horrific violence that it nonetheless explicitly depicts. This is its biggest difference from A Serbian Film, which presents its depraved visions with a hallucinatory hyperrealism, often pushed to the point of campy excess. In contrast, Life and Death of a Porno Gang remains largely naturalistic, and is not edited for shock value. Indeed, Djordjevic's editing style is oddly elliptical; it gives us buildups, but it often cuts away before the horror it depicts has had enough time to register in its full intensity. Porno Gang neither dwells on its carnage with long takes and a fixed or slow-moving camera, nor riles up its viewers with rapid, disjunctive montage. Instead, there is a kind of everydayness to its horror. The film records the experiences of its characters in a manner reminiscent sometimes of a first-person video diary, and other times of reality television. The film's most shocking moments emerge from this background of everydayness, and then quickly recede back into it.

Life and Death of a Porno Gang also has a unique social and historical location. The film is set in Serbia, in 2000 and 2001. This is the moment just after the end of the civil wars that ravaged and destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The fighting is over, but the wounds remain: from the wartime atrocities committed by all sides in Croatia and Bosnia between 1991 and 1995, and from the NATO bombings of Serbia in 1999. There's a legacy of destruction and despair, in the form of video recordings, the memories of the combatants and victims, the buildings that have been reduced to rubble, and the grotesque mutations afficting both people and animals in the wake of NATOs use of depleted uranium in its bombs. Yugoslavia is a country that no longer exists; socialism is just a dim memory. And there is really nothing to replace either of these. Serbia, in particular, is isolated from the world; its institutions are bankrupt and scarcely functioning. It's as if the whole country were experiencing the grim hangover from a violent orgy that it can only dimly remember. In giving expression to this sense of exhaustion and depletion, Life and Death of a Porno Gang is an exemplary work of post-socialist, as well as postwar, cinema. The feeling of having come too late, of being post- everything (postmodern, posthuman, posthistorical) is probably a worldwide pathology at this point. But it is felt with a particular acuteness in postwar and post-socialist Serbia, torn as it is between a past of vanishing traditions, and a globalized future that somehow never manages to arrive.

Such is the situation in which we meet the protagonist of Life and Death of a Porno Gang: Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic), an aspiring young director just graduated from film school. The movie opens with Marko facing the camera and introducing himself to us. He presents the movie that we are about to see as his video diary, an autobiographical documentary about a young lmmaker who wants to make a movie. But Marko quickly learns that it isnt easy to raise the money to make a film. His family and friends are indifferent to his efforts; his afuent businessman father refuses to fund his art. Markos ambition strikes us as being overly idealistic, and more than a bit naive. In post-socialist Serbia, art is entirely subordinated to commerce; you can only get money in order to make more money.

In practice, this means that the only person who is willing to fund Markos lmmaking endeavors is Cane (Srdjan Miletic), the porno king of Belgrade. Cane is happy to hire Marko to shoot porn for him; he doesnt care about subject-matter or quality, but only about quick prots and a quick turnaround. For his part, Marko is thrilled to be shooting porn; it makes him feel like he's doing something dangerous and transgressive. Nonetheless, Marko gets into serious trouble when he brings his nished work to Cane. Markos film is a campy, self-conscious porn/horror hybrid (above), with overtones of political satire. A Serbian peasant fertilizes the soil with his sperm, giving rise to a super-potent form of marijuana. Smokers get an in- credible orgiastic buzz; they want to fuck everyone in sight. But when the supply runs out, the users are transformed into ravenous zombies, straight out of Night of the Living Dead. Cane is infuriated by what he sees as arty and uncommercial, instead of straightforwardly simple and Serbian. He demands that Marko give his money back. Marko, of course, is unable to repay him. Faced with threats and beatings from Cane and his corrupt cop brother Strahinja (Dragan Djordjevic), Marko is forced to go into hiding.

On October 5, 2000, Marko is hiding out in an acquaintance's cellar. He horses around with his friend Vanja (Predrag Damnjanovic); they take turns pretending to fuck an inflatable pig doll. Marko gets drunk, and finally vomits and passes out. It's only when he wakes up the next morning that he finds out what he has missed. For October 5, 2000 is the date on which massive street demonstrations in Belgrade forced the ouster of Serbias tyrant, Slobodan Miloevic. It was a victory for democracy, and for workers, students, and young people generally. But Marko only learns of the event by watching it on TV. And he tells us that he doesnt really care. Nothing for him has changed. Miloevic the one-time Communist Party boss not only led Serbia through all of its disastrous wars, but also dismantled socialism, by transforming it into the crony-gangster capitalism that continues to flourish after his ouster. Marko's enemies, Cane and Strahinja, exemplify the web of corruption and prot-extraction that extends throughout postwar and even post-Miloevic Serbia.

Finally, Marko realizes that he has no choice; in order to escape Canes clutches, he needs to ee Belgrade altogether. And this is where the main action of Life and Death of a Porno Gang properly gets under way. Marko organizes a troupe of porno actors, most of whom are sick and tired of being exploited by Cane. He offers them the chance of going on a road trip together. They paint and decorate an old van in 1960s-hippie style, and spend the summer driving it through the countryside. The idea is to present what they call the first porno cabaret in the Balkans. They move from town to town, putting on little shows for the peasants. These largely consist in live versions of porn/horror scenarios like the ones in Marko's film. A frustrated peasant fucks the sterile earth. Female aliens from the planet Erotikon 6 descend to our world in order to eradicate patriarchy in Serbia. There are mock castrations, and fellatio is performed upon animals. It will be interesting to see how the villagers respond to our sexual provocations, Marko says, directly to the camera. We will educate the Serbs sexually. We will expand their horizons. This is our guerrilla mission.

As Life and Death of a Porno Gang proceeds, we get to know all the members of Markos troupe, and to empathize with their predicaments. They are all out- siders of one sort or another, poeple who feel marginalized by, and excluded from, mainstream society. The hulking and rather sweet Dragan (Bojan Zogovic) is a refugee from small-town provincialism; he acts the role of the peasant who fucks the earth. Ceca (Ivan Djordjevic), the teenaged transvestite, leaves his farm in order to escape his fathers constant beatings; he sucks a horses cock in the show. The HIV-positive gay men, leatherman Johnny (Radivoj Kneevic) and pretty boy Max (Srdjan Jovanovic), join the group because they feel that they have nothing to lose. Markos new girlfriend Una (Ana Acimovic) is an actress who sees no future for herself in the legitimate theater; she serves as the troupes master of ceremonies. Soja (Nataa Miljuand) cant get an acting job because she is full-bodied; but she loves the camera. The strung-out junkie couple Rade (Aleksandar Gligoric) and Darinka (Mariana Arandjelovic) leave their children behind, hoping that they will somehow be able to get straight on the road. Vanja, being a pervy voyeur who only likes to watch, serves as Markos cameraman, video- recording all of the porno gangs adventures.

By focusing on a group of marginalized outsiders who do not conform to social norms, as well as by adopting low production values, Djordjevic hearkens back to the Yugoslav Black Wave of the 1960s and 1970s. This movement was something like the Yugoslav equivalent of other cinematic New Waves of the time (France, Japan, Czechoslovakia). Black Wave directors, like Zivojin Pavlovic, Aleksandar Petrovic, and Zelimir Zilnik, rejected the conventions of high-minded prestige filmmaking, dominant at the time in both East and West. Their overtly pessimistic movies also violently contradicted the Soviet-inspired tradition of socialist realism. Black Wave films exposed the seamy underside of supposedly egalitarian socialist Yugoslavia. They denounced State bureaucracy, social conformism, the persistence of class distinctions, and the ofcial mythology of heroic Partisan struggle.

But with its focus on sexuality, Life and Death of a Porno Gang most explicitly recalls one Black Wave film in particular: Dusan Makavejevs WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971, above). Although Djordjevic doesnt attempt anything on the order of Makavejev's radical intellectual montage, he does pick up on the older lms concern with sexual revolution and its limits. WR mocks both Western/American capitalism, and Soviet-inspired socialism, by playing them off against one another. The film argues that the Yugoslav socialist experiment is hopelessly compromised, not only by the continuing legacy of Stalinism (despite Tito's break with Stalin in 1948), but also by its perpetuation of patriarchy, monogamy, and sexual repression. Milena, the heroine of WR, tries in her own way to educate the Serbs sexually. But she is eventually undone by her fatal attraction to a Soviet people's artist, who embodies the deep complicity, at the heart of the Leninist revolutionary tradition, between romantic idealization on the one hand, and sadistic, destructive impulses on the other. Life and Death of a Porno Gang carries forward both the sexual utopianism of WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and its disillusioned recognition of the fatality of the death drive. Djordjevic, like Makavejev, engages with the cosmic forces of Eros and Thanatos, situating these forces socially, culturally, and economically.

Life and Death of a Porno Gang also picks up on the tradition of the road movie, in which the characters travel for the sheer experience of the journey itself, rather than in order to reach some specic destination. There is a strong utopian element to the porno gangs summer tour through the Serbian countryside. A group of self-consciously marginal people form their own small counter-society, fueled by sex, drugs, and a shared spirit of adventure. Their trip is an exodus, a creative line of flight. They find themselves living in a kind of idyll: putting on shows, camping under the stars, and welcoming other refugees from oppression into their midst. The men and women of the porno gang disregard repressive social norms, and remain open to all sorts of carnal experience. Viewing the film, we empathize with all these characters, as we get to know their particular stories, and see how they are all changed by their interactions with one another.

This doesnt mean that the members of the porno gang live blissfully, without conflict. In Djordjevic's utopia, no less than in Makavejev's, tension and discord continue to exist. These come both from the outside and from the inside. Consider, for instance, the case of Ceca, who is probably 18 or 19. He joins the group after seeing them perform for the people of his village one evening. Ceca tells Johnny and Max that he is tired of being beaten by his father, and rejected by all the people of his village, for dressing as a woman. He is welcomed by the porno gang; he basks in their full acceptance, which is something that he has never experienced before. However, Ceca's fulllment comes at a price. The last thing that he does before joining the porno gang, as he bids farewell to his life on the farm, is to kill his beloved goat Rado. He has cared for the animal ever since it was born. But he cannot bear the thought that, once he is gone, his father will certainly slaughter it, out of vengefulness and spite. So he slits its throat himself, in a kind of ritual sacrice. Its a moment of both tenderness and horror.

Johnny is very much taken with Ceca, and quickly seduces him. Before they have sex, he warns the boy that he is ill with HIV. But Ceca simply responds that he doesnt plan to live forever, anyway. This is a deeply painful moment for the audience; its clear to us that Ceca does not really understand the full measure of what he has just agreed to. Even in what I am calling its most utopian moments, Life and Death of a Porno Gang does not deny the reality of exploitation, pain, and loss. Eros is always shadowed by Thanatos. But the film does not allow us to judge Johnny harshly either; for it gives us no outside perspective from which to do so. We certainly do not side with the police and other authorities, who regard the porno gang as a bunch of perverts and degenerates. Rather, we find that we cannot judge the members of the troupe at all, except to the extent as gradually happens over the course of the film that they judge themselves. The utopian dimension of the film is precisely this: its rejection of any sort of extrinsic judgment. The porno gang is not an ideal community; it is just a group of people, in close contact, who for a time forge their own imperfect affective bonds, and develop their own autonomous balance between intimacy and privacy.

The developing triangle between Johnny, Ceca, and Max gives us still more insight into the inner dynamics of the porno gang. When Johnny pursues Ceca, Max is consumed with jealousy. The three of them argue vehemently. At one point, Max angrily attacks Ceca, and soon enough the three of them are hitting each other and shoving each other around. But, although the pain and hurt are real enough, we cannot quite take this violence seriously, because the other members of the porno gang do not take it seriously either. They gather around to watch the fighting, and to laugh at it, while Vanja captures it all on video. For the porno gang, this love triangle is just another spectacle. In any case, they have all just eaten psychedelic mushrooms, which they found growing in the forest. The very next shots of the film, with no transition, show us that the fighting has been transformed into genial horseplay. Even Johnny now joins in the laughter. Everyone dances and dallies in the woods; some of them even try to hump the trees. Pain, jealousy, loss and sexual conict are not denied, so much as they are diverted. The porno gang does not abolish these things, but somehow it finds ways to make them livable.

If I have been insisting so strongly upon the utopian dimension of Life and Death of a Porno Gang, this is precisely because it is so precarious. It falls apart in the course of the film. The sociality of the porno gang cannot maintain itself for long against the pressures of the Real. Marko and his collaborators may hope to educate the Serbs, but they get more of a response to their provocations than they had ever bargained for. Indeed, the porno gang is all too successful in offending and outraging their peasant audience. These Belgrade hipsters, with their bohemian ways, are not appreciated by the patriarchal rustics who provided Miloevic with his biggest base of support. In response to their performances, Marko and his actors are threatened, beaten, humiliated, abused and (in one scene) outright gang-raped by furious peasants, brutal cops, and local political bosses who seem to be still in power from the old Communist days.

These scenes are brutal, but not without their own strange glimmers of humor. At one point, late at night, all the members of the group are made to kneel, with their clothes pulled down, so that a line of old peasant men can rape them from behind. As the camera tracks down this line, the pain of our protagonists is evident. But all of a sudden, Johnny starts laughing; he goes on, louder and louder. Soon, all the other members of the troupe are laughing as well. We arent told, in so many words, just why they are laughing. Is it the inherent absurdity of a bunch of homophobes punishing the very activity that they detest by themselves indulging in it? Or is it the further irony that Johnnys punisher is unwittingly infecting himself with HIV? In any case, the groups sardonic laughter is a sign of resistance and solidarity, a sign of life. In spite of everything, they will not be bullied out of continuing their experiment with new ways of living, loving, and expressing.

But there are worse things to come. Marko is approached by Franz (Srboljub Milin), a German journalist with mysterious police and business connections. Franz tells Marko about his love for the Balkans, on account of the regions im- pressive blend of cruelty and creativity. He recalls the exciting times he had as a reporter, covering the Yugoslav wars. He shows Marko video scenes of wartime atrocities in Bosnia, and complains that such footage is no longer easy to come by. On this basis, Franz makes Marko a proposition. He offers him large amounts of cash in return for making snuff films: that is to say, for actually killing people on camera, and recording their deaths. Franz explains that there is a lucrative market for such things in the United States and Western Europe. The Americans and Western Europeans regard the former Yugoslavia as a primitive and uncivilized place, torn apart by atavistic violence. Such alleged savagery titillates the West- ern imagination; the Balkans are a "lawless place," Franz says, but for this very reason they are "fertile ground" for all sorts of excesses that would be impossible at home. For Franz's patrons, it is entirely to be expected that things like snuff films should come from Serbia. One of the aims of Life and Death of a Porno Gang, as also of Spasojevic's A Ser- bian Film, is to throw the image of Balkan barbarity back in the face of a Western audience that is all-too-eagerly anticipating, and hoping for, such an image. It is as if the directors were saying to their foreign audience: So this is what you expect of us, isnt it? Lets push it as far as we can, and see if you can really take it. But if this is the basic gesture of A Serbian Film, with Porno Gang things are a bit more complicated. Serbia has its appointed place in the Western imaginary, as a site of primitivism; but it is also an actual backwater from the point of view of transnational capitalism. After the fall of socialism and to some extent, already before it the nations of Eastern Europe entered into the world capital- ist marketplace on severely unequal terms. They were condemned to perpetual underdevelopment, as sources of cheap labor and other natural resources. (Yugoslavian Gastarbeiters in West Germany had already pioneered this role, as far back as the 1960s). The Balkans are something like Europes own internal Third World. Life and Death of a Porno Gang simply extrapolates from all this, when it imagines Serbia and the former Yugoslavia as a source of veriable images of torture and murder, for the delectation of afluent Western consumers.

Marko and his troupe are appalled by Franz's offer, but they quickly run out of alternatives. They are on the run from vicious cops and angry peasants; they are entirely out of money. And so they find themselves, in desperation, agreeing to kill people on camera for pay. They have, in effect, been coerced into making the free choice of entering into an unsavory market relation. Franz assures them that his police and government connections will protect them from the law. And in any case, he tells them, they will only be killing volunteers: people who have themselves made the free choice to die. Its all a cynical business arrangement, from which everyone supposedly profits. Rich people in the West are willing to pay exorbitant prices, in order to have access to this snuff material. The porno gang will receive the money it needs to survive. And the families of the victims will also receive large sums of money, supposedly allowing them to escape from their own straightened circumstances.

In the second half of Life and Death of a Porno Gang, Marko and his troupe dramatize for the camera, and then actually perform, a number of executions. All of the people they kill have their own stories. First, there's the giggling psycho who enjoys slashing himself, and who wants his death preserved on camera because he likes the movies. Then, there's the former soldier who is consumed by guilt, because of the wartime horrors in which he actively participated. He tells us about all this, before dying, in a poignant monologue delivered straight to the camera. Next, there's the small-town bully whose political connections allow him to get away with rape and murder. He is the only unwilling victim of the porno gang; they take justice into their own hands, kidnapping and executing him. Finally, theres the old farmer a reverent Miloevic supporter whose granddaughter is hideously deformed, due to the effects of radiation from the NATO bombings.

The porno gang slowly but surely disintegrates from within, as a result of these experiments in snuff. The actors all tell themselves that this is just a job, and that when it is over, they will go on to better things. But they are unable to make themselves believe this. The groups esprit de corps disintegrates. Performance now is labor, rather than enjoyment; even the actors attempts to relax and amuse themselves take on an air of desperation. Marko becomes gloomy and impotent, much to Una's disgust. Johnny is shot and killed, in the course of a frenzied escape from the police. Max hangs himself in despair, despite Ceca's attempts to comfort him. Shortly afterward, Ceca himself becomes ill, and also dies. The remaining members of the troupe cant take it anymore; as Rade sadly reminds Marko, "we came on this trip to fuck, not to kill." But death has entirely usurped the place of sex; Thanatos has defeated Eros. The utopian line of flight has turned into a grim death trip. What started out as a movement of sexual and social liberation becomes, instead, a nightmarish and nihilistic voyage towards oblivion.

There is one peaceful moment in the second half of the film. The troupe visits an Orthodox monastery on September 11, 2001: a date of worldwide signicance, but of whose events the film takes no explicit notice. Just as Marko missed the revolution that overthrew Miloevic, so he and his friends miss the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the beginning of the global war on terror. After years of intervention in the Balkans, the afuent West now has other enemies to pursue. It is no longer concerned with Serbia at all except, perhaps, as a source of death and torture porn. In any case, the monastery is a place of withdrawal. Dragan decides to leave the porno gang, and spend the rest of his life there.

I will not try to comment here on the actual role of the Orthodox Church in contemporary Serbian politics and culture. I will only suggest that, whatever other roles the Church may play, in Life and Death of a Porno Gang it seems to be a stand-in for or better, a displacement of something that is signicantly absent from the very heart of the film. I refer, of course, to the experience of actually existing socialism; but also to the ideals that that experience so massively and disappointingly betrayed. The idea of Communism, like the idea of Yugoslavia itself, is today utterly disavowed in Serbia as it is in all of the ex-Yugoslav republics. But I think that this idea still functions, in Porno Gang at least, as something of a structuring absence; if not, rather, as a ghostly, hauntological trace. It is the ghostly subsistence of this idea, refracted through Makavejev, that stands behind the porno gangs utopian experiment in new forms of affective community. And it is the absence of Communism, and even of its idea, that leaves the porno gang trapped between the corrupt gangster capitalism of the new social order, on the one hand, and the repressive traditionalism of the old peasant Serbia, on the other.

By the end of the film, the porno gang has entirely imploded. Except for Dragan in the monastery, all of its members are dead. Marko ties things up, Clint Eastwood- style, by killing his tormentors Cane, Strajina, and (nally) Franz. But this does nothing to restore his blasted hopes. In the last scene of the movie, Marko and Una kill themselves in the romantic surroundings, as Marko says, of what used to be Roman hallowed ground. There has to be a return to zero, to the very beginning. Old Roman ruins are the appropriate backdrop for a situation in which everything has fallen apart, and reconstruction is impossible. Marko says to Una, "I have the impression that I wasted my life."

On its deepest level, Life and Death of a Porno Gang is a movie about the aesthetics of transgression. Early in the film, when he first introduces his porno cabaret, Marko announces his aesthetic credo: What is pornography for me? Well, I was always into destruction. Destruction of the spirit and the body. Our pornography is raw and cruel, no prettication. A fight between Eros and Thanatos, where Thanatos wins. Thanatos makes a laughingstock of Eros." Marko always claims that he has decided to go to the end, and that he is eager to see the face of horror. And it is precisely on the basis of this vision that Franz approaches Marko, enticing him with the prospect of taking transgression to the next level, going further with it than any artist has ever gone before. Franz tells Marko that "one can always go one step further"; and Marko responds, "I'm always for that step further." But Marko is sadly unprepared for what it really means to take a step further, and become the first artist of snuff. In the world of globalized, neoliberal capitalism, transgression is not a daring risk. It is no longer a repudiation of all social norms. Rather, it is a supreme commodity, a locus of particularly intense capitalist value-extraction. Transgression is not an act of defiance, but a reaffirmation of power. One sees as much in the dour, inexpressive, completely controlled faces of the Western businesspeople, all elderly white men, who come with Franz at one point in Porno Gang to witness a "live" performance of snuff.

This recognition is what makes a difference for Life and Death of a Porno Gang. In contrast to the extreme cinema of Western Europe and East Asia, Djordjevic's film does not accord any aesthetic or moral eficacy to the excesses that it depicts. There is no self-congratulation at the rupturing of taboos. Rather, the film portrays, and embodies, the aesthetic and moral impasse that results from a social atmosphere of cynicism and demoralization. This atmosphere is the result, not just of the horror of the nationalist wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, but also of the general process under which the formerly socialist nations entered, upon unequal terms, into the world of Western capitalism. All this becomes apparent both in the narrative content of the film and in its stylistics. Life and Death of a Porno Gang speaks of, and to, a time when hope has been exhausted, and when it seems that There Is No Alternative. If it does nonetheless suggest a way out from the universal rule of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, this is only be- cause it speaks so marginally and so obliquely, from a position of humiliation and opprobrium.

Steven Shaviro is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University,US. He is the author of Passion and Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (1990), The Cinematic Body (1993), Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism (1997), Connected, Or, What It Means To Live in the Network Society (2003), and Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (2009), together with numerous articles on film and video, cultural theory, American popular culture, and science fiction. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory. .

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