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Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.


Strangers in a strange land


Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud poses on October 27, 2014 in the southern French city of Marseille. [AFP]

By Harry van Versendaal

“Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name… But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.”

Seventy years after the publication of “The Stranger,” Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud revisits Meursault, the absurd anti-hero of Albert Camus’s emblematic novel. Meursault, “a Frenchman who just didn’t know what to do with his day and with the rest of the world, which he carried on his back,” shoots and kills an Arab man lying on a beach as he is dazzled by the blazing midday sun. In his book, “The Meursault Investigation” (Patakis, translated by Giannis Stringos), which was recently published in Greek, Daoud grapples with what he considers an overwhelming omission in Camus’s narrative and sets out to give the victim name and context. The details are narrated by the victim’s younger brother, Harun, who also discloses, as it were, the name of the dead Arab: Musa.

Harun, whose life has been hijacked by the anger and sadness of a mourning mother that imposed upon him the duty of reincarnating her tragic firstborn, is seeking justice and absolution. He will finally get his chance during the 1962 massacre of Oran, where a still-unknown number of Pieds-Noirs met their death. Ironically, killing a Frenchman – this one with a full name – leaves him with an absurd aftertaste. In the aftermath, Musa is not accused of taking another man’s life, but for picking the wrong time.

“This Frenchman, you should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week!,” an officer of the Algerian National Liberation Front yells at Harun during interrogation. “I didn’t see what difference that made, I replied,” says Harun. At the trial of “The Stranger,” Meursault is found guilty because he was not seen crying at his mother’s funeral.

Randomly thrown into a meaningless universe, Harun and Meursault appear immune to the values and the dictates of the judge, the priest, or the officer. Both are strangers in their respective worlds.

Although this is a post-colonial narrative about the legacy of millions of Meursaults, the author finds very little to celebrate as the setting smacks of decay and frustration. “I watched the post-independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse,” the hero says.

Daoud uses the same material as Camus – “the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind” – but he uses it in a very different way. Contrary to the cold, detached language of the Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher, the book which last year won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel, crackles with tension and sentiment.

Born in 1970 at Mostaganem, Daoud now lives at the port of Oran on the Mediterranean coast where he works for a French-language Algerian newspaper. Not everybody is fond of his ideas: one ultraconservative cleric has demanded his public execution for being “an enemy of religion.” Inevitably, there are times when the words of Harun appear to come straight from the author’s lips:

“As far as I’m concerned , religion is public transportation I never use. This God – I like traveling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don’t want to take an organized trip.”

Ο ξένος του Καμύ κι ακόμη ένας

Του Χάρη φαν Φέρσεντααλ

«Σκέψου το λίγο, είναι ένα από τα πλέον διαβασμένα βιβλία στον κόσμο, ο αδελφός μου θα μπορούσε να ’χε γίνει διάσημος, αν ο συγγραφέας του είχε καταδεχτεί μονάχα να του δώσει ένα όνομα… Ομως όχι, δεν του έδωσε όνομα, αλλιώς ο αδελφός μου θα είχε δημιουργήσει πρόβλημα συνείδησης στον δολοφόνο – δε σκοτώνει κανείς εύκολα έναν άνθρωπο όταν αυτός έχει όνομα».

Eβδομήντα και κάτι χρόνια μετά την κυκλοφορία του «Ξένου», ο Αλγερινός δημοσιογράφος Καμέλ Νταούντ στέκεται απέναντι στον Μερσώ, τον «παράλογο» αντιήρωα του εμβληματικού έργου του Αλμπέρ Καμύ. Ο Μερσώ, «ένας Γάλλος ο οποίος δεν ήξερε τι να κάνει τη μέρα του κι όλο τον υπόλοιπο κόσμο που κουβαλούσε στους ώμους του», πυροβολεί θανάσιμα έναν Αραβα σε μια παραλία κάτω από το ανελέητο φως του μεσημεριανού ήλιου. Στο βιβλίο του, «Μερσώ, ο άλλος ξένος», ο Νταούντ καταπιάνεται με το βασανιστικό για αυτόν κενό στην αφήγηση του Καμύ και αναλαμβάνει να δώσει όνομα, οικογένεια και χαρακτήρα στο θύμα. Τις λεπτομέρειες αφηγείται ο μικρός αδελφός του θύματος, Χαρούν, ο οποίος μας φανερώνει και το όνομα του νεκρού Αραβα: Μούσσα.

Ο Μούσσα, που η ζωή του έγινε βορά στον θυμό και στο πένθος μιας μητέρας που του ανέθεσε το χρέος της μετενσάρκωσης του αδικοχαμένου πρωτότοκου, αποζητά δικαιοσύνη και λύτρωση. Θα έχει την ευκαιρία του κατά τη διάρκεια των γεγονότων του Οράν, τον Ιούλιο του 1962, και τη σφαγή άγνωστου μέχρι και σήμερα αριθμού Αλγερινών ευρωπαϊκής καταγωγής. Ομως η δολοφονία ενός Γάλλου –με ονοματεπώνυμο εδώ– επιφυλάσσει στον Μούσσα μια γεύση παραλόγου. Βρίσκεται να κατηγορείται όχι επειδή σκότωσε, αλλά επειδή δεν διέπραξε το έγκλημά του στο πλαίσιο του απελευθερωτικού αγώνα. «Τον Γάλλο έπρεπε να τον σκοτώσεις μαζί μας, στον πόλεμο, όχι αυτή την εβδομάδα!», ωρύεται ένας αξιωματικός κατά την ανάκριση. «Απάντησα πως αυτό δεν άλλαζε και πολλά πράγματα», εξιστορεί ο Χαρούν. Στη δίκη του «Ξένου», ο Μερσώ κρίνεται ένοχος επειδή, νωρίτερα, δεν έκλαψε στην κηδεία της μητέρας του.

Σε έναν κόσμο όπου βρέθηκαν τυχαία, έναν κόσμο χωρίς έξωθεν ή εγγενές νόημα, οι δύο ήρωες παρουσιάζουν ανοσία στις αξίες και τις επιταγές του δικαστή, του παπά, του αξιωματικού. Αμφότεροι είναι ξένοι στον κόσμο τους.

Αν και έχουμε να κάνουμε με ένα μετααποικιοκρατικό αφήγημα πάνω στα πεπραγμένα και στη σκιά χιλιάδων Μερσώ, το σκηνικό βρίθει από παρακμή και ματαίωση. «Είδα τον ενθουσιασμό της Ανεξαρτησίας να ξεφουσκώνει, είδα τις ψευδαισθήσεις να ναυαγούν», λέει ο πρωταγωνιστής, στα μάτια του οποίου το Αλγέρι μοιάζει με «παλιά ξεπερασμένη ηθοποιό της επαναστατικής τέχνης». Ο Νταούντ χρησιμοποιεί τα ίδια υλικά με τον Καμύ, «τις πέτρες από τα παλιά σπίτια των αποικιοκρατών», αλλά με διαφορετικό τρόπο. Σε αντίθεση με την ψυχρή, αποστασιοποιημένη γλώσσα του Γάλλου, το ύφος του βιβλίου, που πέρυσι βραβεύτηκε με το Goncourt πρώτου μυθιστορήματος, δονείται από ένταση και συναίσθημα.

Γεννημένος το 1970 στο Μοσταγκανέμ της Αλγερίας, ο Νταούντ ζει σήμερα στο μεσογειακό λιμάνι του Οράν, όπου αρθρογραφεί σε τοπική εφημερίδα. Οι απόψεις του δεν είναι αρεστές σε όλους. Ενας συντηρητικός κληρικός ζήτησε την εκτέλεσή του χαρακτηρίζοντας τον «εχθρό της θρησκείας». Αναπόφευκτα, είναι στιγμές που οι λέξεις του Χαρούν μοιάζουν να βγαίνουν απευθείας από τα χείλη του συγγραφέα: «Για μένα η θρησκεία είναι ένα μαζικό μέσο μεταφοράς που δεν χρησιμοποιώ», λέει. «Μου αρέσει να πηγαίνω προς αυτό τον Θεό με τα πόδια, αν χρειαστεί, αλλά όχι με οργανωμένο ταξίδι».

Home and away: Andreas Koefoed talks about his film on plight of displaced children


By Harry van Versendaal

Big shocks change perceptions, and Denmark’s decision earlier this year to confiscate valuables from asylum seekers hoping to find refuge on Danish territory caused some serious damage to the nation’s benevolent image.

However, as Andreas Koefoed’s latest documentary demonstrates, any absolute, black-and-white narrative must be treated with suspicion. “At Home in the World,” to be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which opened Friday, tells a heartwarming, encouraging story from the same Nordic country.

Relying on an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style, the 36-year-old director follows five non-native children attending a Red Cross school in Lynge while Danish authorities consider their families’ asylum claims. Denmark last year received 10,434 asylum applications.

Initial impressions can be deceiving. Unbending introversion or sudden outbursts of violent behavior suggest that the reasons that made these children and their families flee, the often treacherous journeys to safe territory and uncertainty about the future have resulted in profound psychological trauma.

Connecting these stories, which are documented over the course of a single school year, is Dorte, a committed and compassionate teacher whose presence and demeanor deconstructs another stereotype: that of the self-centered, robotic Northern European.

Born in Copenhagen, Koefoed graduated in documentary direction from the National Film School of Denmark in 2009. He holds a sociology degree from Copenhagen University too, where he also studied anthropology and political science. “At Home in the World” won the award for best mid-length film at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015.

Koefoed spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his movie, Europe’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis and mainstream media coverage of the situation.

What was your motive in making this film?

I wanted to understand what it’s like to be a child and a refugee. What it’s like to lose a home and be on the run and having to search for a place where you can feel safe – a possible new home. How do you face the challenges of everyday life, a new language, new people, new friends? And how do you deal with a troubled past and an uncertain future?

How conscious were the children of the situation they were in, in your view?

My understanding is that they know their present situation pretty well, the status of their case and so on. However, many of the children did not know why they had to flee, because their parents never told them. Not knowing your own story is difficult. You need it to create meaning in your life and to be able to engage in the present, to establish a new home.

How difficult was it to gain access and make this documentary? How difficult was it to become “invisible” and escape the attention of little kids?

It was not that difficult. The Red Cross in general and the head of the school in particular were very helpful and open. They normally do not allow journalists in because they have to protect the children. But they had confidence in my project and they felt they could benefit from the film in the sense that people could get an understanding of what they are doing there. The kids were very aware of the camera in the beginning, but slowly I became a part of the classroom and the kids lost interest and all the natural scenes would simply pop up.

Are you hoping the film will challenge mainstream Western perceptions of migrants and refugees?

Yes. I want to show that these kids are like other kids, but in a difficult situation. It seems to be such an obvious point, but because of the mainstream media’s and politicians’ representations of refugees they have become a stereotype with no personality and no face. You hear many refugee stories, but they are mostly presented by others, and as a result they are usually portrayed in a cliche manner. I also tell the kids’ story, but I try to take a step back and let the children come forward and let us into their lives.

Are you happy with the way Europe has responded to the ongoing refugee crisis?

I am not at all happy. I am disappointed that many countries, including my own, do not assume the responsibility that is needed, and that Europe as a whole hasn’t been able so far to solve it together.

What is your opinion of Denmark’s recent decision to allow authorities to confiscate valuables from refugees?

I think it is awful and completely unnecessary. I understand the point that if a refugee is wealthy then he can cover his own expenses, but I guess only a very small number of the refugees belong to this category. Taking a person’s valuables gives them the worst possible start for a new life in Denmark.

Do you agree with criticism of the so-called multicultural model adopted by Western European states? Is traditional Islam, in your view, compatible with Western, secular values?

I believe that there is room for all cultures within our societies. We have to make sure that young Muslims don’t get attracted to the radical groups by including them in society and letting them practice their beliefs and giving them an opportunity for a good life and a good career. If people feel accepted, respected and appreciated, they will also feel as a part of society.

Film about Paraguay trash band opens Thessaloniki doc fest


By Harry van Versendaal

A film about a group of children living next to one of Paraguay’s biggest landfills who learn to play instruments crafted entirely out of trash until they start performing around the world will be the curtain raiser Friday at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year hosts a timely tribute to the plight of refugees.

Directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, “Landfill Harmonic – A Symphony of the Human Spirit” showcases the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura as an example of how human creativity, expressed here in the form of music and recycled objects, can bring about social transformation even in the most poverty-wracked communities.

Now in its 18th year, the 10-day festival has gone from strength to strength. In 2015, about 50,000 viewers flocked to the TDF theaters, which include the Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas in central Aristotelous Square and the red-brick complex on the seafront. Despite stubborn budget woes, organizers have managed to bring together about 186 shorts and features, including 72 homemade productions, for this year’s event – the last to be directed by Dimitris Eipidis since his 1992 appointment.

Refugee crisis

Audiences in the northern port city, which is just a one-hour drive from the expanding refugee camp near Idomeni at Greece’s border with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), can this year choose from among a host of films on migrants and asylum seekers.

Highlights include “This Is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees,” by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Yassir Benchelah, which tells the story of Syrian children forced to flee to neighboring Lebanon. The film is based on the exiled youngsters’ testimonies about loss, hardship and hope.

In “At Home in the World,” Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed observes five refugee children attending a Red Cross school in his home country as they try to overcome traumas and build a new life. The film received the 2015 Award for Best Mid-Length Documentary at Europe’s most prestigious documentary festival, the IDFA in Amsterdam.

The Nordic country, which recently enacted controversial laws allowing police to seize refugees’ assets, is the setting of Michael Graversen’s “Dreaming of Denmark” as he follows an Afghan minor stuck in the EU country’s asylum process.

A panel discussion titled “Documenting the Refugee Issue: Methods, Objectives, Challenges, Ethics” will take place at the Pavlos Zannas Theater on Wednesday, March 16, starting at 11 a.m.

‘Inventing reality’

Among this year’s highlights is a masterclass by contemporary Danish cinematographer Jon Bang Carlsen. Known for his radical, hybrid style, which he lays out in “How to Invent Reality,” the 65-year-old Carlsen has made more than two dozen films since the 1970s that draw heavily on personal experience. His masterclass, “Inventing Reality,” will take place at the Pavlos Zannas Theater, on Tuesday, March 15, starting at 11 a.m.

Approximately 490 films will be available at this year’s Doc Market, a digital library that caters to television networks and industry professionals from around the globe. Some 60 buyers are expected to attend from Europe, the United States and Canada.

Parallel to the screenings will be a photo exhibition by nonprofit street paper Schedia vendors. Organized by TDF, Schedia, the State Museum of Contemporary Art and the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art, the exhibition “Images of Our Other Self” will be staged at the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port) between March 12 and 26.

Local offerings at the 18th Thessaloniki doc fest


By Harry van Versendaal

Angelique Kourounis’s latest documentary on Golden Dawn, Greece’s infamous neo-Nazi party, has an inevitable existential quality:

“My partner in life is a Jew, one of my sons is gay, another is an anarchist and I am a left-wing feminist as well as a daughter of immigrants. If Golden Dawn comes to power our only problem will be which wagon they will put us on,” Kourounis says in the press announcement for “Golden Dawn: A Personal Affair.”

Based on a series of interviews conducted over the course of five years, the director, a veteran news correspondent for Greece and the Balkans, sets out to decipher the motives and agendas behind GD supporters. She soon finds out it’s not a straightforward exercise.

“Golden Dawn: A Personal Affair” will be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) starting March 11, as part of the Greek program, which this year features 72 feature and short films. Twenty-two of these productions have been included in the different sections of the International Program, while 50 are part of the Greek Panorama.

True to form, this year’s crop raises a wide range of critical subjects including politics, human rights, the environment, art, as well as intriguing human interest stories.

“Ludlow, Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War” by director Leonidas Vardaros draws on interviews and archival material to document the role of about 500 Greeks, mostly Cretans, in the landmark labor uprising against coal mining companies in south Colorado between 1913-14. The confrontation culminated in a bloody clampdown in April 1914, known as the Ludlow Massacre, after the Colorado national guard raided a tent colony inhabited by more than 1,200 miners and their families, leaving an estimated 20 people dead.

In “The Longest Run,” director Marianna Economou follows two underage immigrants detained in a Greek jail pending trial on charges of illegal trafficking. With unparalleled access to the juvenile prison and courtroom, Economou exposes the cases of young people who are forced by criminal rings to smuggle undocumented migrants into Europe.

Other films in the Greek section include Haris Raftogiannis’s “True Blue,” which follows an elderly couple on Icaria, the idiosyncratic eastern Aegean island whose under-10,000 residents live famously long and healthful lives, and “Next Stop: Utopia,” by Apostolos Karakasis, about the efforts of a group of fired workers at a building materials factory in Thessaloniki to turn the closed-down business into a cooperative.

The festival, now in its 18th year, runs March 11-20, at Thessaoniki’s port warehouse complex and the Olympion movie theater.

Discipline and punish


By Harry van Versendaal

A 16-year-old girl is locked up in a Croatian psychiatric hospital for being gay, teenage Iranian girls are incarcerated in a juvenile correctional facility for breaking the law, a Somali migrant is in detention in Finland until authorities decide upon his asylum claim.

Despite coming from very different directions, these three movies, to be screened at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (March 11-20), all explore the territory between liberty and law, personal responsibility and social structure, punishment and rehabilitation.

Girl, interrupted

Directed by Hrvoje Mabic, “Sick” tells the story of Ana Dragicevic, who was sent by her parents to a mental institution at the age of 16 after she confessed to them that she was in love with a girl. Ana was admitted to the hospital in Lopaca, which was at the time run by Doctor Mirjana Vulin, after being purposefully misdiagnosed as a drug addict. Her purported treatment, which lasted about five years, included pills, injections, being forced to wear a straitjacket and solitary confinement.

Ana is now out of the ward, but her brain is still very much trapped. The treatment has left indelible scars on her psyche. She sees a therapist and receives medication to treat her PTSD symptoms. Despite her condition, she has found a loving partner, Matina, whom she plans to marry in Amsterdam soon. Matina is mostly quiet. She lights one cigarette after another. She looks worried and her patience appears to be wearing thin as Ana’s panic attacks and nightmare flashbacks keep returning. More frustrating for Matina, perhaps, her partner appears to be animated by hate, the will to take revenge on those responsible for her misery. She is suing her parents and the hospital director.

“They are the crazy ones, not the patients. I hope I’ll put that woman behind bars. My parents too. What goes around comes around,” Ana says as she watches a TV program about her case.

Disturbing pattern

Unlike Matina, the Iranian girls in Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Starless Dreams” seem more comfortable with the daily routine inside the correctional facility on the outskirts of Tehran than with life back home with their parents.

Oskouei, one of the country’s most prominent directors and screenwriters, is not as much interested in the magnitude of their crimes – which they reveal to the camera with disarming, often playful honesty – as he is in the social context that allowed them to happen. His interviews reveal a disturbing pattern of destroyed families, drug addiction, poverty and molestation.

Masoumeh has been sentenced to death. She explains how she, along with her sister and mother, killed her addict father because he was subjecting them to systematic beatings. Oskouei asks fellow inmate Khateneh if she still believes in God. “I’m not speaking to Him,” the girl tells him.

Conditions at the Tehran facility are in stark contrast to the inhumanity experienced by Ana in Croatia. The young girls spend their time chatting, playing volleyball, attending hair styling classes, singing, dancing and housekeeping. The walls protect them from the stresses of the free world.

“They will welcome me with chains and a beating,” one girl says of her family near the end of her sentence. A female warden warns another that once she’s left the premises, the authorities will no longer be responsible for what happens to her.

‘Small lines’

Others face detention away from home. Ahmed, the leading character in “I Am Dublin” made by David Aronowitsch, Ahmed Abdullahi, Anna Persson and Sharmarke Binyusuf, sees his own dream of a free life in wealthy Europe put on hold because of a legal technicality.

The Somali fled his war-torn country, crossing Sudan and Libya before boarding a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa. There, he had his fingerprints collected which were then uploaded on Eurodac, Europe’s shared fingerprint database. After failing to fit in, Ahmed moved to Northern Europe, moving between Sweden and Finland as a clandestine migrant for six years. His requests for asylum in Sweden are turned down because he is what is known as a “Dublin case” – a person who has breached the European Union’s Dublin Regulation that obliges them to be deported to the first EU state they entered and seek asylum there.

“These small lines are destroying my life,” he says explaining how he tried to burn away his fingerprints. He re-enacts the painful trick, this time for the needs of a docudrama with him in the leading role, showing that he first scrubbed his fingers with sandpaper before dunking his hands into a sink filled with hydrochloric acid.

Freedom, or its promise, often come at a price.

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