A little boy, kneeling on a chair at a kitchen table coloring, asks in accented English, “Where’s Momma? I want to see her. When’s she coming home?” His voice is straightforward, a bit demanding, but no different than any child wanting something missing. The camera brings in his drawing, shows his fingers grasping a crayon. He makes strokes of black, hair surrounding a narrow face. Camera backs to a long shot, whole kitchen, table with boy, dated stove and fridge, a man, slender, unshaven, standing at counter chopping vegetables, cigarette between his lips.
A girl, about six, comes into the scene, goes to the boy, pokes him. He makes a face at her. She moves to the counter, eyes the pile of vegetables, says, “Momma always puts in extra peppers.”
The man, Hamid, sets his cigarette down, pulls her to him in a brief hug. “Leila,” he speaks in English as well, accent thicker, “you and Jamal, set the table.” Leila returns to the table, starts to push Jamal’s papers aside. He squeals. Dad calls, “Hey.” The kids turn to him. “What do you want to drink?”
“Coke,” both answer.
He replies, “Do you think we are rich Americans?”
Hanna: “Jeez Dad, I knew you were doing this, but what the…”
Jeremy: “You’re interrupting.”
Tim, filmmaker and father, remote in hand, stops the film, rises from his chair, scans his family and the room, pretend camera in his hands.
The scene is Tim’s media room, complete with projection equipment, large screen, subdued lights. Wife Ellen and fifteen-year old daughter Hanna sit on a sofa, twelve-year old son Jeremy is slouched beside them in an oversized, leather chair, his own similar chair on the other side of the sofa, empty. Photos and awards from his career as a documentary filmmaker decorate the walls.
The family waits, Ellen turning to Tim, eyebrows raised. He registers her impatience, wonders if asking his family to view this latest piece of his work is a good choice.
He lets his hands drop, “What’s the problem Hanna, not your life?”
“Well noooo. You, your camera, your other guy, in their apartment every day, like, who would allow that?”
“Clearly not you,” her mother says.
“C’mon Hanna, use your common sense,” he answers in a chiding tone. “It couldn’t be every day.”
“Dad, I’m not a moron. What I’m saying is you were in their lives a lot.”
“I was, but keep perspective. Remember you were ten when I started.”
“And I had other projects, a living to earn, not to mention my own family to spend time with.”
“As if you did a lot of that.”
“Muuum! You’re missing the point. Dad was away a lot. Even you had things to say on that. But what I’m talking about is having strangers right in the middle of your life. Not just in, but in and out. Like how many times? Totally crazy.”
What is Hanna saying? Is she simply being fifteen? And why has he asked them to do this? Simple enough, he’d thought, when he finished the final edit. This is good work, maybe an important piece, and important that his family see it.
“Not so crazy, Hanna, if you know what you’re doing and have a good purpose.”
“Such as?” Jeremy asks.
“That should come through in the film. But look around. We live in privileged ways. Most people in those countries do not. Life is uncertain. I wanted to show that, the day-to-day reality. As for Hanna’s question and the filming, it wasn’t easy for them, or us. Every time we were in there shooting it was a balance – intrude, stay out of the way, get the everyday bits and then, when possible, intimate moments.”
What more does he need? In part, he wants them to experience where he’s been and have some sense of what kept him away so much. At the same time, he wants their reactions, family to family, as it were. What else? Will they see what he tried to achieve and how he was committed to that? Will they see that sometimes making good art requires sacrifices?
Hanna’s eyes go to her mother, back to him. She says nothing. He waits another moment, returns to his chair, starts the film again.
A narrow street, lined with older apartment buildings, cars parked, some with one set of wheels up on the curb, people moving about, children playing with a soccer ball in the narrow path between cars. The camera swings around to one building, perhaps classy in another era but, like those around it, worn, a little run down. The stone facade appears dirty from decades of dust and pollution, the iron railing on one side of the stairs to the front door leans, curtains hang askew in some windows, garbage cans sit on the sidewalk.
Hamid comes out the door, down the four stairs, walks away. He nods to a man, passes two women in summer dresses, another in traditional garb, covered head to foot in black, only her eyes showing. The camera follows him, brings into focus a busy street beyond, a wide boulevard, traffic in both directions. A street car goes by, clangs.
Living room of the small apartment, older woman on a couch, green fabric faded showing white wear marks. Jamal and Leila, one on each side, all three looking at what appears to be a storybook. Jamal squirms. The woman doesn’t try to hold him. He scampers away, brings back a photo, whines, “I want to see Momma too.” He climbs back beside the woman, holds the picture up to her, does not return his attention to the book.
Sounds come from off-screen, footsteps on stairs, a door opening and closing. The camera swings in that direction. Hamid walks into view, goes to the older woman, pecks her on the cheek. He scoops up Leila and whirls her around. Jamal grabs for his knees, hugs, cries, “Were you with Momma? Did you see her?”
Hamid gathers him in one arm, holding Leila in the other, semi-dances around the tiny space. “I did.”
Jamal demands, “When’s she coming home?” Leila leans away from her father, watches.
Hamid, face and voice now serious, answers, “I don’t know. Soon I think.”
The older woman speaks, translation on screen, “How is my daughter?”
“Teta, she’s okay.”
Teta half turns her head, looks at him sideways, skeptical.
“Dad, I don’t like where this is going.”
“Why, big sister?”
“That should be obvious,” Hanna answers, glaring at her brother. “Why isn’t the mother there? Where is she? You can see in the looks that something’s wrong.”
“And you were expecting what?”
“Jeez, Jeremy, get a cell!”
Ellen, sounding concerned, “Tim, tell me again why we’re doing this.”
“I thought we had that settled.”
“I’m fine, but how about Hanna and Jeremy?”
“You got it, Mom. Little snot-face here, well, who knows what it will do to him?”
“Thanks for caring, big sister.”
“C’mon guys, give it a chance. This is serious work and I want your serious response.”
“Tim, we’re clear on that,” Ellen’s eyes now holding his. “But this isn’t just about us. You’re not sure of something, is that it?”
“For god’s sake, Ellen, I’m not one of your students.” He pauses, goes on, “Besides, what’s wrong with wanting to share my work with my family?”
“Oh, don’t patronize us. You always want something more.”
Jeremy jumps in. “Yay, Mom and Dad. Give us a show.”
“In any case, I’m with Hanna. So far this is heading down a darker path than I expected.”
Tim turns away, picks up the remote; “Sorry, no reveal at this point.”
“You’re sure these two can handle it?”
“Really Ellen, this generation of video games and Harry Potter? C’mon.”
Hamid walks towards forbidding building. Camera pans past him, takes in the structure, high concrete walls, windows with bars. In the near ground is chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, a gate, guard posts, uniformed men.
Hamid stops, shows papers, goes through, stops at a barred door; more guards, papers checked again and this time he is searched. Motion towards camera, words, questions, menacing looks, then camera waved through, follows Hamid into building, along corridor and into a room. Hand comes out blocking camera. Camera moves back, adjusts, and films from outside, through glass.
A gaunt, dark-haired woman enters. Hamid, still standing, leans into a glass partition, presses his lips to it. The woman meets his lips with hers. They sit, pick up black, old-fashioned telephone handsets. Hamid raises his eyes to the guard standing behind her, speaks into the phone, “Reem, are you okay?” Her mouth moves as though each word is an effort. They have a brief exchange, then he shows a photo, points to it. Parts of his phrases are audible: “Jamal … growing up… missing you. Leila helps…” She smiles wanly. We hear him say, “Teta,” but the rest of the sentence is unclear. Reem turns away, mouth tight, hint of scowl.
“Oh god, the poor woman,” Hanna cries.
Ellen reaches for her hand, squeezes it.
Once again Tim stops the film. He begins to speak, reconsiders. Instead, he rises and walks behind the sofa. Hanna twists to face him. He bends down, kisses her on the forehead, reaches, strokes Ellen’s hair. Hanna, eyes still on him, frowns.
Unperturbed and maybe indifferent to his sister’s emotions, his tone hinting at being impressed, Jeremy asks, “How did you get in?”
“There were hurdles,” Tim answers, ruffling his son’s hair.
“Officials, documents, permissions and, yes, a little money changed hands.”
“Cool. You bribed somebody.”
“Small time stuff. The custom in those places.”
Hamid reaches, his hand touches the glass. Reem shrugs, sighs, her forehead becomes creased. She turns away, rises, begins to leave the room, turns back, her face filled with something – resignation, pain, or perhaps just the gauntness we first saw.
“Look at her!” Hanna cries, voice almost shrill.
“I know, Hanna. It was a painful moment. I’m sure what I felt then was pretty much what you’re feeling now.”
Hanna, slowly shaking her head, “Her face! Oh my god!”
“I know. Three, maybe four weeks in that place, an awful toll.”
“But why was she there?” Hanna, voice still pained.
“Too simple, Tim,” Ellen, giving a mild reprimand. “You can do better.”
“Simple for me but not for her.”
He pauses. Jeremy fills the gap: “C’mon Dad. Don’t fudge the answer.”
“No fudge. We’re looking at a complicated place to live.”
“Background, Tim,” Ellen says pointedly. “The kids need help. They don’t follow the news, and they aren’t studying any of this stuff in school.”
“A good reason for them to see the film, don’t you think, a bit of contemporary history.”
“Just the trailer, Dad,” Jeremy chimes in.
Tim turns to him. “Okay, the brief version. What got Reem into trouble was being part of a group. Here it would be no more than a protest. There, anything like it was anti-regime.”
“Just ‘anti’? Didn’t they stand for anything?” Ellen asks.
“As far as I knew they were just a loose collection of people, frustrated, agitating, speaking out.”
“From our position I’m sure you’re right. There? A different story. In any case, police hauled a bunch of them out of a cafe one evening. That was it.”
“Hardly, Tim! What else? What happened next? What about her family?”
He waits a moment, eyes still on Ellen, considers the demand in her questions, answers. “Hamid learned of the arrest hours later. He went searching and, of course, no one in authority would help.”
“He must have been terrified.”
“We hadn’t started filming yet, so I didn’t hear the story right away. Days went by, Hamid told me, before he even knew she was alive.”
Ellen looks at her children, back to Tim: “Alive?”
“Yes. People disappeared, some never heard from again.”
“Jeez, Dad, what kind of country?”
“We hear stories,” Ellen says, “but how do people like us wrap our minds around conditions like that?”
“Out of our experience, isn’t it? Even being there, you don’t fully get it.” He turns to the children. “How about you two? Can you imagine anything like that?”
“As in one of you being taken away?” Jeremy answers.
“You got it.”
Both shake their heads.
“What they must have gone through,” Ellen, tone now plaintive, “and that poor woman…”
“Hamid was in bad shape. We were ready to cancel, pack up and come home, but he said Reem really wanted us to do the film. So, we stayed and began.”
Tim picks up the remote. Ellen says, “Wait a minute.”
He turns to her.
“What about you? I assumed you faced risks, but you never said much. How serious was it?”
She watches, head tilted.
“We had moments.”
All three sets of eyes are on him.
“You’re sure you want me to talk about this now? I’d like to get back to the film.”
“That, my dear husband, is a dodge. Fess up. What happened?”
He shrugs. “We were harassed – officials, police – nothing we hadn’t expected. Threats? Yes, a few. All part of being there and you can never tell whether they’re serious.” He hesitates, sighs deeply. “Once, early on, we were taken into custody.”
Ellen, angry: “You never told me.”
“It was brief, not as bad as it sounds. And I didn’t want to worry you.”
Ellen, shaking her head, “Christ, Tim!”
“But what if…?” Hanna asks.
Jeremy: “Were you scared?”
Tim looks at Jeremy, answers, “We were. It was intimidating. But they released us the same day with no explanation, in the same way they took us in. We had been cautious, but were a whole lot more so afterwards.”
“Does that mean she wasn’t—cautious?”
“No. The only caution in that country was to keep your mouth shut, something they weren’t willing to do.”
“She said there was no future for them and even less for the kids, too oppressive, too corrupt.”
“So what was she charged with, being a good parent?”
Tim laughs, “Maybe nothing. In all likelihood Reem never knew.”
“They can do that?”
“There, yes, and in many other countries as well—even our own in certain circumstances.”
Jamal grins, cries out. He is facing four candles on a cake, puffs, blows, extinguishes all four. Two other little boys are at the table. One pokes his finger into the cake and then into his mouth. He laughs, a deep caricature, as though he were some cartoon figure. The other boy and Jamal follow suit, licking the icing off their fingers in exaggerated ways. Leila, standing to one side, complains, “Papa, don’t let them. It ruins the cake.”
Hamid, smiling, shakes his head. “Leila, they’re just boys.”
The camera swings away, finds Teta. She is standing to the side, steps forward, knife in hand, ready to cut the cake. Jamal reaches again with his finger. Teta catches his hand, holds on a moment, releases it and, with her own hand free, scoops up a finger of icing. The boys giggle.
“Sweet, Tim,” Ellen comments, “a softer touch than in your other films. Is there more like it?”
“A good moment, yes. We had others but I haven’t included many.”
“Why?” Hanna asks.
“Balance and focus. Families are families wherever you go. The real story I wanted to tell is the circumstances they live in. I want the viewer to experience the impact of that.”
Ellen: “But you haven’t made a propaganda film.”
“Of course not,” he answers, sharper than he intended, “unless you see something I haven’t.”
He pauses, let’s his annoyance settle, continues.
“This film was harder than I expected, hard to stick with and hard emotionally. I never felt part of the family; I couldn’t let that happen. But you can’t spend as much time with them as I did without feeling invested. Their life was difficult and I wanted to document that. At the same time I did care about them. So, I need your reactions, your take on how well I did on both counts.”
“Yeah, and he wants us to know how good we’ve got it,” Jeremy says.
Tim nods to Jeremy, looks at Hanna and Ellen. Did they hear his plea? And what was it anyway? All three wait, watching him. He glances at Ellen and Hanna once more, receives no response, turns back to the remote, re-starts the film.
Camera shot, framed by a window, shows an outside view, rooftops, TV antennas and, beyond those, the soaring peak of a mosque’s minaret. The scene holds for a moment, background beyond the minaret unclear. Then, the sound of far-off explosions. Camera brings into focus distant, rising, plumes of smoke, pulls back and returns inside, pans the room, the living room, settles on Hamid and Reem standing in the middle, holding one another. Jamal is at their knees, Leila sitting in a chair, Teta on the couch, both watching. Hamid strokes Reem’s hair, presses her to him. She turns her face up, puts a light kiss on his lips, settles her head on his chest, reaches down with one hand, pulls Jamal against her thigh.
Leila calls, “Dance, Momma, dance like you used to.”
Reem smiles at her, wrinkles her nose, pulls Hamid close. They begin to shuffle around the tiny space, Jamal hanging on to their legs.
“Good stuff Dad,” Jeremy comments, “but how did she get out?”
“Often what happens when civil wars start. Many guards just leave their posts and prisoners walk away.”
“Were you there when she got home?” Hanna wonders. “It must have been something.”
“I wish we had been, but no. When we arrived the next day, Jamal ran to the door yelling, ‘Momma’s home! Momma’s home!’ We filmed the scene right after.”
“So, how did you feel?”
Tim meets his daughter’s gaze, turns the question back on her, “How do you feel now watching it?”
Hanna smiles. Tim adds, “Me too, not only good but something more, a real sense of relief.”
Family, sitting in living room, Hamid on couch, Leila, beside him, taller, more grown-up, less a little girl, watchful; Jamal on the floor at his feet, making engine sounds as he pushes toys, a car and a truck, back and forth. Reem, in a chair away from them, appears separated, on her own. The camera closes in on her. Her eyes move as if she is seeing something, but her face is vacant.
Pot clanking, whistle of kettle comes from off-screen. Camera swings in that direction. Teta’s face appears in doorway. She scowls at camera. From somewhere, closer than before, a whump, the unmistakable sound of an explosion. Jamal whimpers. He looks up at his father who remains motionless, turns to his mother, starts toward her. Her eyes are elsewhere, not seeing him, or seeming not to. Crying now, he redirects and heads off camera. We hear Teta cooing to him.
Hanna: “Dad, this is gonna get worse, isn’t it?”
Leila on the floor in corner of living room, playing with dolls, talking to them. Reem comes into view. Leila turns to her. “Momma, why don’t we have a TV?”
The camera swings outside through window, pans rooftop skyline, shows, among other things, plethora of TV aerials, but no smoke, nor any sounds of explosions. It returns inside, sweeps the room showing no evidence of a TV.
“Papa and I don’t like TV.”
Reem pauses, her eyes search the room before coming back to Leila. She answers, her voice serious: “We’re like Teta in a way. She doesn’t like a lot of modern things. She thinks TV is no good for traditions. Papa and I don’t agree about the traditions, but we do about TV, especially all the stupid American stuff.”
“But other kids watch it.”
Reem smiles at her, sits on the floor, picks up one of the dolls, talks to it. “TVee, Leila beeee, every little girl just wants a mommeee.” Leila, falling into her mother’s lap, more little girl for the moment than she is, laughs. “Don’t be silly, Momma.”
Reem, holding Leila, falls backwards to the floor, nuzzling and kissing her daughter who starts to giggle. Jamal comes running from off screen, yelps as he worms his way into the heap, both children’s hands searching for ways to tickle their mother.
“This is the set-up, right Dad?”
“Meaning what, my smart-assed son?”
“Simple. The filmmaker getting us ready for what’s to come. Like Hanna said, it’s gonna get worse.”
“Well, fancy that. Little snot-face agreeing with me.”
“Hey big sister, you taught me well.”
Hamid and Reem in the kitchen, Reem preparing food. Hamid comes up behind, encircles her waist with his arms, pulls her to him, kisses her ear. She swivels, hugs him, but returns to the food. He holds her for a long moment; she makes no further response. He shrugs and moves away.
“Look at him,” Hanna says, voice raised. “All he wants is sex. He has no idea what she’s been through.”
“Hanna, don’t be so black and white. Love is more complex, and so is the situation.”
“I don’t think so, Mom. There’s no sign they’ve talked or that he knows what happened to her in prison. Sure he wants his wife back. But Dad cuddles you the same way.”
“Hey, you’re too young to notice those things,” Tim chides.
“As if you guys are ever subtle.”
Jeremy: “Be careful of these innocent ears.”
Hanna: “Yeah, right!”
“But isn’t what we saw just affection?” Ellen persists.
“Mom, look at how he turned away from her. He wanted more, and that’s sex.”
“Alright, point conceded. But give them time.”
“Well nooo. Time has passed. Dad?”
“And this is edited. What are you trying to show? And what have you left out?”
Reem sitting, camera on her, Tim’s voice from off-screen:“Reem, life has been difficult for you since you came home.”
Reem’s mouth turns up, she shrugs: “Yes, hard, very hard. Prison changes you.”
Tim: “The hardest part?”
Reem: “Being mother.” She appears to be about to cry. Turns away for a moment, turns back, face stoic. “I want to, and I try, but…” She goes silent.
The camera brings in Hamid, “And for you?”
Hamid, perplexed, shakes his head, mutters, “Those bastards. What they do to us.”
The camera comes to the children, sitting together on the couch, both serious.
“Leila, Jamal, we’ve been here in your home for a long time. What has it been like?”
Leila turns to Jamal, waiting for him to answer. When he doesn’t, she speaks: “Sometimes it’s strange. You’re here and then you aren’t.”
Jamal: “But after you come back, well, in a little while I don’t notice you.”
Tim: “And how has it been since Momma came home?”
Both children look away from the camera. Jamal slides off the couch, the camera follows as he walks the few steps across the room, sits beside Reem, leans into her. The camera swings back to Leila. She is watching, turns to the camera, her voice grave and grown up: “It’s different.”
“An odd twist, Tim. What made you insert an interview?”
“For a couple of reasons, one being to acknowledge our presence in their lives. You can edit a film like this to make it look like no filming was going on and no film crew was in the room. That creates a false impression. The second reason is all gut. I felt it was important for the family to speak to the viewer, give you a different view of the toll prison had taken on her and on the family.”
Reem and Hamid once more standing side by side at the kitchen counter, both silent. She reaches for a cigarette package, takes one, lights it, walks over to a window, stands staring out. He goes to her, leans against her back. She turns, pushes him away. He is quiet for a moment, studying her and then half-yells, “What’s wrong with you?”
Reem meets his eyes for a moment then turns her head away, from him and from the camera. Her shoulders rise. When she turns back she wipes at her cheek, but her face is now filled with something else. She utters a sound, stops, brings her hands up, speaks almost to herself, “I have to get out of here.”
“And go where? To some fucking refugee camp,” Hamid’s voice raised, not quite yelling.
Reem glares at him. “You go wherever you want. Or stay. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care anymore.”
He shifts away, suddenly turns back. For a moment it seems he might strike her. He hesitates, glares. “Sure, go to your political friends, get locked up again. Leave the kids. They won’t miss you.”
She stares at him, her eyes hard, black. “Yeah, you and your girlfriend can take care of them, or did she leave you too?”
The children come in carrying school things, backpack, lunch bag. Jamal is taller, older, perhaps seven. Leila stares at her parents; Jamal, eyebrows bunched, looks around. A moment of stasis, all four standing, watching. Then Reem turns to the camera, yells, “Get out of here!”
Hanna, in tears: “You have to stop, Dad. I can’t take this.”
“There’s not much more, Hanna. I know this is tough, but your reactions are important.”
Hanna is quiet for a moment then almost explodes: “But you didn’t do anything. You could have.”
“What was he supposed to do, big sister?”
Hanna turns on her brother, indignation, rage: “Can’t you see anything? The mother needed help. Whatever happened to her in prison must have been awful.”
Jeremy, ignoring the emotion: “Like what?”
“Even a little runt like you can figure that out. How about torture? How about rape? How about watching people die?”
Ellen: “Tim, what Hanna is saying is important. I think it deserves an answer.”
“What’s the point?”
Ellen, voice raised: “The point? The point she’s making is, as a western raised and educated man, you would have known Reem was in deep trouble. If you didn’t, you should have. If you did, then you made choices.”
Tim sighs, eyes first on his wife then on his daughter: “Let’s watch it through to the end.”
Camera pans a street scene, a wide boulevard with store fronts, cafe patios, a few people walking, parked cars but none moving. The sounds of explosions and gunfire come from nearby. Reem, sitting at a table on one of the patios with two men and another woman, in heated discussion. Their voices are raised, not quite shouting. Reem stands up, throws her hands in the air, walks away.
A second scene, this a line of tents, people wandering about, trash scattered, kids kicking around a soccer ball. The camera zeroes in on one tent; Hamid emerges, searches, calls. The camera swings to the children, Leila and Jamal, bigger and older, leaving the group of kids and coming to him. The camera follows them a moment then turns to the tent, zooms in on it. The flap is partially open, the camera peeks inside. Teta, sitting on a folding chair, chin on her chest, appears to be in a deep sleep.
“Oh shit. I knew this was coming,” Hanna cries.
“Tim,” Ellen calls, her voice sharp.
Hanna near tears, voice full of indignation: “How could you? How could you just do nothing? She needed help. You knew.”
“Not my job, Hanna.”
“Your job? She’s human, you’re human. She needed help.”
“Big sister, you’re so first-world.”
“Mom, you don’t get it. None of you do, just like the husband. How could she return to being a wife? We don’t have to know what happened in prison. It’s obvious.”
Ellen, worried, meets her daughter’s eyes, turns to her husband, frowns, glares.
Tim takes in the glare, turns back to his daughter: “A huge part of the story, Hanna, and why I was there. Families are destroyed in those situations. Sure I might have helped one. But even that isn’t certain, given all that was going on. And then what about all the others?”
“You did nothing!”
“I did a lot.”
“Fuck you, too.”
Hanna, in full tears, turns away from her family, holding herself, sobbing. Tim goes to her, sits, puts a hand on her shoulder. She shudders, jerks free. He puts his hand back, is able to place it so she can’t move further away, pulls her to him. She seems to resist and then allows herself to collapse against him. He wraps his arms around her. “It’s alright baby. It’s alright.”
He looks past Hanna to Ellen. Whatever he is seeking, she doesn’t offer. Her face is serious, perhaps accusing.
Hanna, her voice close to a whimper: “You didn’t do anything.”
Tim turns back to his daughter, “I did a lot, baby. But I couldn’t do what you think I should have done.”
Hanna pulls away, her voice regaining some of its indignation. “Right, your film came first.”
“Dad, she’s got you on that one.”
Tim’s eyes go from Jeremy to Ellen and then back to Hanna. They all wait.
He says, “Do you think so? Do you think that’s true?”
John Betton is a retired psychologist, living in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, where he co-founded Saint City Writers. He continues to explore through fiction his lifelong fascination with the way people think, feel and interact. His story, A New Old Love, appears in the February 2019 edition of Spadina Literary Review.
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