The term auteur has been used since the early sixties when Cahiers du Cinema tried to define the work of the director as well as trying to create a canon of filmmaking. Since then the term has been widely used to explore the work of directors that showed strong elements of style and coherent explorations of recurrent themes.
Julio Medem’s career has spanned more than a decade and, through it, he has built a strong reputation for quality. He has always shown a strong interest in exploring the language of cinema. Since his first feature, Vacas, in 1991, he has consistently used his camera to depict his own personal vision of human nature and the strategies to relate to others. Through images and sounds, Medem conveys to us a very particular universe where common elements can be identified and prominent features can be analysed.
Los Amantes del Círculo Polar (Lovers of the Arctic Circle) stands out as the best example of his cinema so far. All of those common elements that have appeared in his other films reveal themselves here as perfect and meaningful parts of a giant jigsaw, where notions of subjectivity and perspective are approached, something crucial in a narrator-based medium. His use of the subjective point of view, his choice of colours, his framing and camera angles, together with themes of love, death, fate and identity result in an extremely lyrical film, where form and content are intrinsically linked.
The film not only becomes a fascinating exploration into the nature of love and fate but also a formal study of structure and film language. If its theme explores love its form explores geometry, and neither contain perfection; it is simply the imperfect symmetry of love.
The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.Heart and reason have been given different maps to reach their goal, Pascal suggested more than four hundred years ago. “The human brain contains a universe”, says Angel in Tierra whilst debating which side of him is going to win; the spiritual or the physical. Heart and reason, the spiritual and the physical, fantasy and reality: dualities all constantly present throughout human existence and also in Julio Medem’s cinema. As Medem himself says: “The emotional and the rational dimensions, the instinct and the spirit, the needs and the soul are aspects blended together […] I am very interested in the ideological, reflexive and rational content of my films, but I need to reach it through the emotional experience” (Heredero 1997: 562).
In Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, Ana believes in coincidences, they guide her life but they are the same ones that lead her to her death at the end that becomes the beginning, the completion of the circle. The film is full of these kinds of dualities, but whereas in his previous feature, Tierra, they split the main character, Angel, in two, in Los Amantes del Círculo Polar they are organised in circles. The film’s content and morphology replicate each other. Sometimes, when one circle finishes the other starts, complementing each other, like the cycle of life. Other circles run side by side, sometimes touching, sometimes not.
Julio Medem’s fourth feature begins at the end, returns to the beginning before eventually returning us to the final sequence, thus completing the circle. Ana and Otto meet one day after school when they are eight years old and fall in love. Through a series of tragedies in each other’s lives, they become lovers in their adolescence and then follow different paths. While separated from each other they still feel a very strong connection that eventually will take them to the end of the world to complete the circle that opened seventeen years before.
The film contains very strong elements
of authorship, as my study wants to demonstrate. Firstly, through its contents,
where notions of personal and gender identity are essential in the development
of the two main characters, Otto and Ana. If guilt and love guide Otto’s
life, fate and coincidence guide Ana’s. These elements, together with the
relevance of the landscape, constitute variations on some of the trademarks
of Julio Medem’s cinema, where the fantastic and the real blend together
as an essential part of his universe.
My intention is to study Los Amantes del Círculo Polar from both perspectives: the poetics of its content and the elements of its morphology, paying careful attention to the manner in which perception and subjectivity have a strong presence in this film in particular, and in Medem’s filmography in general. In this way, I intend to use my study of this film to show the elements of authorship we can find throughout Medem’s cinema.
All Medem’s films are essentially love stories. That seems to be his excuse to explore different aspects of human psychology (we should remember he is a trained psychiatrist). It would be very difficult to define which kind of genre Medem normally works in, but certain themes appear as a constant presence in his films: exploration of identity, gender behaviour, the relationship between sex and love, the limits of reality, the presence of fantasy, destiny and the nature of truth. All of these themes are explored in order to better understand human behaviour, as a kind of study of the subconscious. As Medem himself explains, “I have been immersed in the subconscious for a long time now and I am still fascinated by it, I still need to recognise lots of things inside and keep taking out all that is in there” (Heredero 1997: 559).
This fascination with the subconscious is the backbone for his characters’ behaviour and development. In the case of Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, Otto and Ana’s love story starts in 1980, when both are eight years old. Their first encounter happens by coincidence, an element that becomes the fuel of their relationship (especially for Ana, who believes blindly in fate). In fact, the story is told through coincidences, as Ana says at the beginning of her story: “I could tell my life story as a train of coincidences”. Out of the universe of possible instances that a human life can be told, Ana and Otto chose to tell their story by jumping from one coincidence to the next, like a children’s game.
The film makes fate and the romantic idea of eternal love the centre of its story. In general, Medem’s characters are linked by an invisible force that drives them together (Cristina and Peru in Vacas; Jota and Sofia in La Ardilla Roja; Angel and Mari, and Angel and Angela in Tierra; and Lucia and Lorenzo in Lucía y el Sexo); throughout the narrative, Medem’s characters have a common destiny. In Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, fate and coincidences are an explicit part of its diegesis. Ana believes in fate (she even thinks her father has been reincarnated in Otto); however, her will is so strong that she believes she is actually capable of provoking a coincidence. This is the case when Ana is walking by the lake in Finland and hears the postal van, she says to herself that if she runs after it, the van will bring her something. It does, but not what she expects: she gets a tape from her mother from Australia and not something from Otto.
Ana’s part of the story is structured though her belief in fate. The other protagonist of the love story, Otto, believes in eternal love (a variation on the theme of fate). Two instances tell us about it: after discovering that his parents are getting divorced, and using his father’s metaphor, he promises his mother his eternal love: “if the petrol runs out, I’ll die”. The other example is the sequence of the paper planes, where he writes a phrase we cannot see but by the reaction it provokes in its readers we understand it deals with eternal love: “That’s life’s big question” says his father; “It’s beautiful!” says Ana’s mother.
This passionate love is unleashed the day Otto meets Ana. This love makes him abandon his mother and, indirectly, provokes her death. His guilt is so strong that he eventually has to find his own way, leaving Ana and his father for an uncertain future. Otto’s driving forces are his love for Ana and his devotion to his mother. To a certain extent, one is born out of the other: Otto, clearly upset because of his parents’ divorce, gets obsessed by the idea of everlasting love; this causes him to write the phrase on the paper planes, which will eventually provoke Otto and Ana’s second encounter in the playground. In other words, Otto leaves his mother for Ana but out of guilt after his mother’s death, he leaves Ana for the world until he realises she is the one that brings meaning to his life, his most precious part: “lives have many cycles but mine has only turned once and not completely … the most important thing is missing” says Otto looking at the Arctic sun.
In previous features, Medem explored the idea of identity but from different perspectives. In Vacas, national identity was at the core of the subtext; in La Ardilla Roja, sexual identity becomes the centre of the story; while cosmological and spiritual identity are the driving forces in Tierra. In Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, the concept of identity is explored through the notion of who we are in the eyes of the loved one and what is our perception of the world through the other. As Ana says, “I want to have a heart like Otto”, which is somewhat like saying I want to love like Otto or I want to see the world like Otto. The identification between Ana and Otto is mutual and immediate. Their life circles run parallel to each other to become part of the same circle.
Both Ana and Otto create a private universe to live in, outside the rest of the world. It takes them seventeen years to do it and they have to travel to the end of the world to find it. However, once Ana dies, Otto is left alone in this impossible place for one; he is left trapped in a space for two with only one inhabitant. Psychologically, Ana and Otto construct a territory where they can live far away from the world. Its physical correspondence is the Arctic Circle, but Ana does not make it and so Otto is left alone in those two final images of the film: Ana’s eye and the crashed plane over the final credits. Essentially, he dies for the second time (his mother’s death being the first).
Space is a crucial narrative element in Medem’s films. To be more precise, landscape bears a metaphorical quality that almost becomes another character of the stories. Landscape in his films does not necessarily have to be a particular location; it is rather a state of mind, a psychological entity. At the same time, landscape takes the notion of identity, of belonging, a bit further.
This idea of belonging is directly linked to the idea of escape. “Medem’s films invariably feature individuals trying to escape from constraints of various kinds - (home)land, tradition, gender, sex, subjectivity - in narratives where the motif of the ‘journey’ features prominently” (Santaolalla 1999: 311). The journey of Medem’s characters takes them to the most diverse places, mentally and physically: in the case of Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, to the end of the world.
Before Otto and Ana reach the Arctic Circle, there are few other spaces they inhabit that bear such a strong symbolism and carry such meaningful metaphors as to correctly represent the state of mind of these characters. Chronologically, the first space Otto and Ana share is the school. At the age of eight, the playground outside the school is the meeting point of their environment: it is where classmates, parents and teachers come together. It is, in effect, the meeting point of their world.
The first contact Ana and Otto have is far from that playground, in a forest nearby. However, the starting point of the chase that will take them to the forest is the playground. Ana finds out that her father is dead and Otto chases the football another kid has kicked too hard. Both run, but for different reasons. Their lives start, surrounded by others, “as a kid I lived surrounded by the rest of the world” says Otto, but after their first meeting Ana and Otto’s worlds become entangled far from everybody else, in the metaphorical forest.
When Otto and Ana become lovers as adolescents, her house is their hiding space, their shelter. The first suggestion of the link with nature (as opposed to society) starts with the way in which they reach each other’s rooms, though the garden and in the window. It is not until Ana’s stay in the Arctic cabin that another house will have such a strong link with nature. Another example of how Medem seems to connect love with nature is when Otto takes a picture of his mother by the reservoir. That is his way of escaping into a pleasant space once he discovers his mother’s body. Curiously, the reservoir looks very similar to the main location in La Ardilla Roja, the camping site, where the main characters also try to find a pleasant space far from the city.
The other house portrayed in the film is Otto’s mother’s house, but in this case this house is connected with death and guilt: this is the house that Otto abandons to be near Ana and it is also the house where Otto’s mother dies. The enclosure of the corridor in this house seems to take us to the corridor in the funeral parlour, where Otto and his family follow his mother’s coffin.
In opposition to this natural element, Otto and Ana almost meet in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, when both sit in the same terrace looking randomly for the other in the “outside world”. In a way, we are back to the school playground: both have to go to the “outside world” to try to find the other. This is obviously not the space in which they are intended to meet and they have to wait until they reach the Arctic Circle.
Amongst all of the metaphorical landscapes contained in the film, the Arctic Circle is the most extreme. It is the end of the world (Fin-landia - as Ana writes it on the envelope - in Spanish meaning literally “the end of the earth”) where Ana and Otto are hoping to meet. Ana arrives at the cabin and, on seeing the line drawn on the floor marking the Arctic Circle, moves all of the furniture inside the Circle, with the exception of the television set (the only element that would link her with the rest of the world). She waits for Otto by the lake, while he waits for her in the woods. Eventually she decides to go to Rovaniemi, the city, to find out about Otto. This turns out to be fatal. If she had waited by the lake, Otto would have arrived. Medem seems to make an ultimate connection between nature/love and civilisation/death. As he remarks in an interview, “in nature I find myself closer to the instincts and, above all, my own intimacy” (Heredero 1997: 560).
Like in his other films - where a magic forest (Vacas), a camping-site (La Ardilla Roja), a wine-producing area (Tierra) and an island (Lucía y el Sexo) carry strong psychological meanings and strong metaphorical connotations - Los Amantes del Círculo Polar makes another addition to the exploration into the use of spaces in order to suggest states of mind.
One of the elements that distinguishes Medem’s cinema is its visual narrative. The reason behind this seems to be the process used in developing his films: “I always start with an image. I do not start with an idea or a discourse but a very internalised image” (Heredero 1997: 561). The fact is that his films are generally easy to identify by their visual authorial presence and Los Amantes del Círculo Polar is no exception.
The first feature that stands out from the film is its structure. Rather than a linear and chronological film, Medem tells us the story in a circular fashion. The beginning of the film is also the end. Essentially, the film starts where the story finishes, Otto reflected in Ana’s eyes. From that point, a big circle is opened to encapsulate two more circles: Otto’s and Ana’s. The film is a giant palindrome that will take us back to the beginning.
The structure of the film is underlined by the clear signposting that guides the spectator throughout the whole film. It starts with “Otto”, it continues with “Ana”, goes back to “Otto” and so forth. This structural signposting is maintained until Otto and Ana are separated. The title then is “Otto/Ana”. During the first section of the film, which corresponds to their childhood and adolescence spent together, each part is told by the character whose name appears as the title. That is the narrative voice of that particular section.
When the film opens, a circle opens. The very first section of the film does not have a title. That section is precisely the one that corresponds to the end. That is the entrance to the circle. The whole film is a circle symbolised by the Arctic Circle. This bigger circle contains two smaller ones, Otto’s and Ana’s, that open for every labelled section of the film. At the end of the film, when both reach the Arctic Circle, the bigger circle reappears and closes. Some critics argue the film has two endings, the one labelled “Ana’s Eyes” and the one labelled “Otto in Ana’s Eyes”. The first, where they are happily reunited and, in the second, when Ana gets hit by a bus (Rosenbaum 1999). In my opinion, in the sequence labelled “Ana’s Eyes” we are presented first with Ana’s last wish: to meet Otto again. That is what she imagines before she dies. Whilst in “Otto in Ana’s Eyes” we get Otto’s perspective on the same event. He even tries to change it by closing his eyes and wishing it never happened. In the first sequence, we hear the collision and the newspaper falling; what continues - Ana running upstairs - is marked by a softer audiotrack, like suggesting a surreal distance.
When Otto appears reflected in Ana’s eyes, the circle closes, but not the way they have imagined. Those two smaller circles, Otto and Ana, close also when the bigger one closes: Ana dies and Otto is left trapped in an impossible place, her eyes.
The use of these labels to signpost the film and guide the story reinforces the narrator’s presence together with the voice-over, erasing any trace of an “invisible enunciator” (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 51). If in traditional narrative cinema, “the representations on screen appear […] as reality itself” (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 51), in Los Amantes del Círculo Polar the signposting and the voice-over reinforce its clear subjectivity, and by extent its authorship.
The structure of the film is not the only territory where circles have predominance. Constant motifs indicate this circular nature. The more obvious is the first image of the film: Ana’s eyes. They are the ones that contain Otto’s reflection, and by extension, his soul. They are the first and final circles, their whole world (including Otto) is contained in them. That circle has a clear correspondence with another motif in the film: Otto circles “Ana” every time he writes her name down (in the map as a pilot and in the newspaper when he is looking for a job). If Otto is inside Ana’s eyes (Ana’s circle), Ana is enclosed in Otto’s circle. Only the other matters, the rest of the world does not. These circles create a boundary between them and the rest of the world.
Medem uses circles in two more instances throughout the film. One is the playground fence. After young Otto sends the paper planes away, the camera follows a few of them until they land on the school playground. The last paper plane we see is through a hole in the fence. If we read that image, we can find some of the crucial elements of the film contained within a circle: the plane refers to Otto’s future and past, the love question written in it will drive their lives, and the circle itself contains everything.
The other circular motif in the film has rather more claustrophobic connotations. When Otto’s mother dies, her body is cremated. Before this happens we see Otto and his family through the round window of the funeral parlour. That window encloses the main characters as we see them from what is, in effect, death’s point of view (that is, the side where the coffin is). Up to that point, happiness has been the common element in the lives of the main characters. After Otto’s mother’s death, all idea of happiness collapses.
If circles have always been the metaphor for the cycle of life (“it is good that life has its cycles” says Alvaro to his son Otto), repetitions become a crucial part of it. Los Amantes del Círculo Polar plays with repetitive elements such as the red buses. They appear three times in the film and each time, they bring a tragedy in their wake. The first time, Otto and his father are in the car when they almost hit a red bus. Immediately after, his father tells him he is going to divorce his mother. The second time, Otto and Ana are sitting in the back of the car while Ana’s mother is driving and she hits a red bus. The result of this is that they go to school in different buses from that moment on, not in the same car anymore. Finally, the third instance is the most tragic one: Aki is driving Otto to Rovaniemi and they almost hit a red bus, the same one that will bring Ana to her final encounter in life. Medem seems to use red buses as bearers of bad news.
Another recurrence that Medem has used before is family repetitions. In Vacas, he followed the story of three generations of two neighbouring families in the Basque Country using the same actors to play every generation. In Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, Fele Martinez and Nawja Nimri play Otto and Ana (the main characters as adults) but they also play Otto (the nazi pilot) and Cristina (his wife) respectively when they meet in the woods after Otto’s grandfather (played by Nancho Novo who is the actor that plays Otto’s father, Alvaro), saves the pilot’s life. If Medem foregrounded the character’s concern with reproduction by using the same actor to play the three generations in Vacas (White 1999: 6-7), here he uses a similar device to foreground the character’s destiny, to meet and fall in love, written before they were even born.
In a film where signposting has such a strong presence, words and language play a crucial part. The film is full of word games that serve as background and foreground motifs. The most obvious one is the palindrome. The word comes from the Greek language (palindromas) meaning “recurring”. In common terms it is used to describe a word that can be read the same backwards and forwards. As I said before, the film is an enormous palindrome (the bigger circle) containing two smaller circles. These smaller circles are labelled by palindromes: Otto and Ana.
These two names and its unusual features serve as a basis for the first conversation in the car between the main characters. They replicate the structure of the film and the characteristics of the circles they represent. The surname Medem itself is a palindrome and he has a sister called Ana and an uncle called Otto, so it seems that there is a strong family connotation.
These palindromes are not the only word game in the film. The phrase “Otto, el piloto” is another one; in Spanish it has a strong symmetry of rhythm. This phrase is repeated several times throughout the film marking Otto’s fate and his connection to the German pilot. Added to this, Ana writes “Fin-landia” (Finland in Spanish) in the envelope she sends to Otto with a hyphen in the middle, dividing the word in two and giving it another meaning: it is not a country (Finland) but a description of a place (end of the world). All of these word games take the story into a sort of playground, a children’s game of secrecy and intimacy. Otto and Ana are the only ones that know the rules and that is the code on which they build their private universe.
We live at the height of our eyes, halfway between the stars and the atoms.
Angel, TierraLos Amantes del Círculo Polar opens and closes with a close-up of an eye, Ana’s. This is not new in Medem’s cinema, at least in its connotations. In this particular instance, the eye looks and is looked at, it sees and we see the world reflected in it (in this case Otto’s face). In previous films, Medem has explored the notion of perception, or to be more precise, “what has become one of [his] constant features […]: an obsessive concern with the act of looking, and more particularly, a focus on the pleasures of seeing the world from different, occasionally baffling, viewpoints” (White 1999: 1). This interest seems to recall a more general notion about the nature of truth: “there are no facts, only interpretations” (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 161). Subjectivity, perception, the act of looking and the nature of truth become an intricate part of Medem’s films.
Any point of view is subjective by definition. That is how classical cinema guides the spectator through the narrative (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 142). Thus, subjectivity and perception have always been common tools in cinema. In Medem’s case, what I will call “the subjective point of view” (despite the redundancy) is taken slightly further. In general, his films always include the unusual point of view of objects and animals: in Vacas it was the cows of the title and objects such as an axe, in La Ardilla Roja it was the squirrels of the title, while in Tierra it was the woodlouse and the boars that offered their subjective point of view. According to the director, “their presence [of the animals] is a kind of metareality, an attempt to profile the primal senses […]. Sometimes you have to look closer to the fantastic than the real to be able to see things […]. In that sense, the animals are always closer to the fantasy than to the reality” (Heredero 1997: 561).
In Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, this subjectivity is less obvious than in his previous films but it still has a presence. When young Otto sends the paper planes into the school’s playground, the camera follows one of the planes as though it were mounted on it, giving us the improbable perspective of the paper plane. Another object that receives a subjective point of view is the sled on which Otto has the accident. Ana is looking for Otto in the woods and the sled, still hanging from the tree, falls beside Ana, almost hitting her. For a brief moment we see Ana from the point of view of the sled.
Medem’s explanation for his use of narrative by animals is exemplified here by the reindeer when it appears in the woods as though calling Otto and Ana. This is not the first time the reindeer is heard or seen (previously its image appears in Ana’s school book and in Cristina’s painting in the cabin, and its call is heard outside the family house) but this time, it is the reindeer’s point of view that gains relevance, becoming the subject and not the object.
All of these subjective points of view seem, after all, to reinforce the whole notion of perception and subjectivity, especially in a film where the narrators’ names are written on the screen and their voice-over defines their perspective on the story. There are several instances in the film where the same event is told twice but differently, depending on who is telling it. This device makes the subjectivity even more obvious. This “game” is understood at the same level as the word games mentioned before and is not something entirely new in Medem’s filmography: “It is a game that, somehow, prolongs the relationship in some sections of Tierra” (Heredero 1997: 583).
A step further into subjectivity taken by the director has been to include metaphors as clues to question as to how we see the world, or to be more precise, how we look at the world. This act of looking has become a diegetic element in most of his filmography. In Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, the diegetic element is represented by cameras, photographs and motifs that seem to represent the camera’s lenses.
When Otto finds his mother dead in the kitchen his only way of escaping from that cruel reality and “protecting himself”, is by snapping the camera in his hands. Alvaro takes a picture of the family and briefly we can see the snapshot taken. These two instances bring visual pleasure (at least momentarily) to the characters: Otto is taken to the flashback where he and his mother are by the reservoir; and Alvaro, Otto’s father, shows his family the photo to “show off”. Some other photographs appear in the film as objects to look at and take pleasure from: German Otto’s photographs of his late wife, Cristina, for example.
The act of looking has an important presence in the film as a way of reinforcing subjectivity and perception. As Barthes remarks, “the operator’s emotion had some relation to the ‘little hole’ through which he looks, limits, frames and perspectivizes” (Barthes 1984: 9-10). It is precisely this “little hole” he mentions, that appears in the film as one of the circular motifs I explained in the previous section, the most obvious being Otto and his family seen through the round window at the funeral parlour, which looks very similar to a camera’s lenses. Maybe, Medem is simply trying to explore what Godard once said: “The photograph is not the reflection of reality but the reality of the reflection” (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 194).
Finally, these elements of subjectivity and the act of looking seriously question the nature of truth and what is real and what is fantasy. The fusion of both is at the core of Medem’s journey through cinema as a theme and as a technique, as we also find with directors like Godard. While “in the classic realist text typical of mainstream cinema the image track functions as a metalanguage, providing the spectator with the truth [...]. In Godard, by contrast, no such metalanguage is offered” (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 195). Some of these elements can also be found in Medem. His cinema implies that what we call “fantasy” is as much a part of our reality as what we call “real”. After all, “ontology and epistemology are one and the same. In effect, there are as many realities as there are conceptions of it” (Lapsley and Westlake 1988: 167).
Much has been discussed in cinema since the term auteur (or simply author) was coined by the Cahiers critics in the early sixties. Behind the term, we find a whole understanding of cinema and a certain glorification of the director as an artist, as an author. Following Sarris’ definition, a director can be a technician, a stylist or an auteur, or even go through more than one of these stages throughout his career (Sarris 1999: 517).
In the case of Medem, his cinema contains characteristic elements that make his work distinctive and easy to identify. Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, in its contents and its form, not only refers to his other films but also manifests a strong sense of unity in itself, an “interior meaning” linked to the work of an auteur (Sarris 1999: 517).
The auteur theory claims that there is a strong relationship between the world of the film and the world of the director (Sarris 1999: 516-517) or like Wollen phrases it: “the meaning of the films of an auteur is constructed a posteriori” (Wollen 1999: 520). In other words, the world of the film and its meaning reflects the world of the director. This being the case, it makes sense that the whole work of an auteur should have an internal coherence and common features and interests. As I have demonstrated in the previous sections, Los Amantes del Círculo Polar contains elements that are familiar territory to his other films, not only in its narrative style but also in its exploration of the human subconscious through emotion and ideas. Heart and Reason as two sides of the same coin.
The films Julio Medem has made so far are the work of a great director as suggested by Peter Wollen, “in terms of shifting relations, in their singularity as well as their uniformity” (Wollen 1999: 529). There is no doubt, as we have seen throughout this study, that Medem’s films offer uniformity in their coherent view and a strong singularity in the way this view is offered to us. As I mentioned before, all Medem’s films are love stories, therefore, and quoting Renoir, “a director spends his whole life making one film” (Wollen 1999: 529), Medem gives us, with Los Amantes del Círculo Polar, another variant of his film; just another perspective on the imperfect symmetry of love.
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