A Fragmented History: Short Films in Indonesia

Previously unpublished / Originally written in Indonesian / Translated by Rani Elsanti / Edited by Corry Elyda

The opening of Festival Film Pendek Konfiden 2007, an influential short film festival in Indonesia. Now defunct.


In 1995, Sony launched the DV camera. Seven years later, in 2002, 1,071 short films from all over Indonesia were submitted to the Festival Film Independen Indonesia (FFII/Indonesian Independent Film Festival) held by private TV station SCTV. If one looks back to the course of Indonesian film history, one will see long and winding trails of political struggles.

Historical records suggest that 5 December 1900 was the day when film was introduced to Indonesia, five years after the first film and cinema was born in France. The first screening was organized at a house in Tanah Abang area in Batavia (now Jakarta). The movie was a documentary about the trip of the Queen Wilhelmina and Hertog Hendrik in The Hague.

In 1926, NV Java Film Company produced Loetoeng Kasaroeng, the first local (Indonesian) film. In 1950, Usmar Ismail, who would later be christened as the father of Indonesian films, established the Perusahaan Film Nasional Indonesia (Perfini/Indonesian National Film Company). Dewan Film Nasional (National Film Board), during its conference on 11 October 1962, agreed to commemorate March 30—the first day of the shooting of Darah dan Doa (The Long March), Perfini’s first film production—as the National Film Day. On 24 August 1962, Indonesia’s National Television Station (TVRI) went on air for the first time.

From before the Indonesian independence up to the day when Indonesia’s first president Sukarno was ousted from power, Indonesian films traced the path of the ideological struggle to build the image of Indonesia as a free nation. The films produced during this period often covered the issue of Indonesia’s identity as a free nation. In 1965, the political situation in the country changed dramatically. Sukarno was ousted from power and Suharto stepped in.

Hollywood films had been in Indonesia for a long time. In the beginning, however, they were not the dominant forces. During the political crisis in 1965, Hollywood films faced serious challenge due to the boycott by Panitia Aksi Pemboikotan Film-film Imperialis Amerika Serikat (PAPFIAS/The Committee to Boycott Imperialist American Films). The action put Indonesian films and cinemas in disarray.

Suharto’s government ruled Indonesia with its development propaganda. After the political crisis passed, the condition of Indonesian films started to improve. In 1970s, Indonesian films faced a better prospect, and so did the Hollywood films as the window to import films opened increasingly wider. Slowly but surely, Hollywood films started to push the local films aside. The window was opened even wider as business conglomerate Subentra Group gained a monopoly right through its 21 Network (now Cineplex 21), a distribution network and a chain of A-class cinemas (with a few B-class ones) that exclusively take on Hollywood films. In the 1990s, we could safely say that A-class cinemas only screened Hollywood films. Indonesian films were gradually ousted, found themselves to be on the lower-class level, and dominated by erotic-horror-comedy films. It is such erotic-horror-comedy films that dominated the Indonesian film industry in the 1980s to late 1990s.

Typical street vendors of pirated DVD and VCD in Indonesia.

Typical street vendors of pirated DVD and VCD in Indonesia—a popular entertainment choice for the masses.


Generally, Indonesians are also familiar with “layar tancap” (literally means “inserted screen”), or moonlight cinema. It is a mobile film screening usually held in weddings or in other ceremonial events. The screening is used either the 16 or 35mm film format. They usually screened Indonesian B-movies (erotica combined with drama, music, comedy and horror), Hong Kong action movies, and Hollywood and Indian movies. The entrepreneurs are united in Persatuan Perusahaan Pertunjukan Film Keliling Indonesia (PERFIKI/Indonesian Association of Mobile Movie-Screening Entrepreneurs). The presence of such moonlight cinemas pushed the traditional performance arts such as Javanese theater ketoprak, Betawi comedy theater lenong, Betawi music tanjidor, and Wayang (puppet). Today, however, such moonlight cinemas have also been marginalized by the appearance of home videos.

Indonesians have used the VCD technology since 1997. VCD technology took the place of magnetic-tape technology (VHS and Betamax formats) and LCDs, as the generally-used format. VCD rentals mushroomed, and the industry of pirated VCD grew in parallel. Most people bought these pirated VCDs as they are considered cheap, even though they are often of low quality. The technology spread too many areas, even to the remote ones. Pirated VCDs is a giant industry, controlling almost 90% of the home-movie market in Indonesia.

In the beginning, the pirated VCDs were supplied from China and the coastal areas around South East Asia (illegal factories in the Thailand coastal areas are considered as one of the biggest suppliers). Later on, the locals can produce such pirated VCDs in a significant number on their own. People selling pirated VCDs are everywhere—along the road, in the market, and even in supermarkets.

The pirated films are usually box-office Hollywood films, as they are the best-selling. Many assume that such practice is one of the main causes the number of moviegoers has dropped. Many parties have urged the Indonesian Government to take stern actions against piracy. Raids are done. Roadside VCD stands as well as local VCD factories producing pirated VCDs are closed down. However, such efforts so far have created no significant changes. The government’s actions to get rid of pirated VCDs and close down are merely token actions. The rife corruptions in Indonesia, whether within the government or among public, help the piracy business grow.

In 2003, people start to be familiar with the DVD technology. Just like VCDs, the DVD films face a similar fate: piracy. However, the interesting feature is the pirated DVDs are not limited to those of box-office Hollywood films, but also films from other countries like Korea, Hong Kong, European, and even films from many well-known festivals such as Cannes and Sundance. With around Rp 6,000 (43 US Cent) to Rp 7,000, one gets such films with a way better quality than the pirated VCD’s.

When the 2005 Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest) was held, at least ten of the screened movies had been available in the market in the form of pirated DVDs, three months before the Festival. It means that the public access to “good quality” films have become increasingly better. It has created a space for new discourses among film activists, especially the youth, as they can get new references relatively easy. Pirated DVDs is a new phenomenon that at least rises to new possibilities in terms of information exchanges.

Gotot Prakosa, one of the key figures in the history of short and experimental films in Indonesia. He passed away in June 2015.

Gotot Prakosa, one of the key figures in the history of short and experimental films in Indonesia. He passed away in June 2015.


Short films as a “movement” have started since the 1970s. Students of cinematography from the Lembaga Pendidikan Kesenian Jakarta (LPKJ/Jakarta Institute of Art Education), where the department of cinematography was opened in 1971— today known as the Institut Kesenian Jakarta (IKJ/Jakarta Institute of Arts)—established Sinema 8, a group that used 8mm camera to create “mini films”, right after Festival Film Mini (Mini-Films Festival) in 1973 in Jakarta.

As a new and national movement at the time, Sinema 8 existed as the manifesto of the youth of the era, to create works in free and independent ways (and with minimal equipment). At the time, 8mm camera was the medium that was most familiar to the public (home use)—of course, we’re talking here about the middle- to upper-class public.

The discourse to move against the established industry was thus born alongside this “new movement”. This is what we are still debating about even today: does a “film industry” truly exist in Indonesia? At the time, however, the group’s spirit of rebellion pointed at the problem of power over (and in) the creative space—a problem that apparently remains in Indonesia today.

The film activists’ restlessness about the commercialized films and about films as a means of government’s political propaganda formed one of the main issues that had inspired these activists to establish the movement. Short films had long been known among parts of the Indonesian public through the Gelora Pembangunan (Spirit of Development) films during the Sukarno’s era—a series of short documentaries on the benefits of development in Indonesia. These films were screened in villages, or in cinemas before the main film. This went on during the Suharto Regime (1966-1998), whose Department of Information had the program to screen government’s propaganda films (most of them short films), with its ideology of development.

The experimental films mushroomed during this period. Names such as director and animator Gotot Prakosa, director Hadi Poernomo, and Henri Darmawan appeared as the motor in their circle. Artists such as the dancer Sardono W. Kusumo were also involved, enriching the vocabulary of the experimental films with his personal collaboration using the 8mm medium. Before this, artist DA Peransi had been known as the person who actively introduced new approaches in the making of documentary films in Indonesia.

In 1982, Forum Film Pendek (Short Film Forum) was initiated after the Indonesian delegation, Gotot Prakosa, came back from the Oberhausen Festival. The Forum tried to continue Sinema 8’s ideas to be an Indonesian film movement. In that year, the video technology was already familiar to a lot of Indonesians. In 1985, the Electronic Cinema Exhibition was one of the programs in the Pekan Sinema Alternatif (Alternative Cinema Week), held in the Cipta II Gallery of Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM/Ismail Marzuki Cultural Park) from 12 to 16 November 1985. The electronic cinema exhibition was a form of response to the new video technology that just entered Indonesia.

Video was a new phenomenon at the time. Just like the 8mm camera, the use of videos was limited among people from the middle- to upper-class. The discourse on video art received good responses, but those were limited to responses toward the sophisticated technology. In the Pekan Sinema Elektronik (Electronic Cinema Exhibition) during the Alternative Cinema Week, some video art works from Germany and the United States were screened.

During the program, a discussion on alternative films was held during the program. It discussed about the definitions of “alternative”, referring to the context of the era—which was the problem of the hegemony of senior filmmakers in the film industry in Indonesia.

The discourse grew in the Indonesian cities, with the center of the discourse remained in Jakarta. Jakarta Institute of Arts can be considered as the main motor of the discourse. Indonesians had more or less become familiar with the celluloid media (8, 16, and 35 mm) and video (analog), but their use as an art medium was limited among an exclusive class: the upper middle class.

The riots and demonstration in May 1998, followed by the downfall of Suharto's New Order and the dawn of Reformation.

The riots and demonstration in May 1998, followed by the downfall of Suharto’s New Order and the dawn of Reformation.

Until 1988, Indonesian television had only one channel, i.e. the Television of the Republic of Indonesia (TVRI), a government channel mostly broadcasted news or government propagandas of the Department of Information. Then, The Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia (RCTI), the first private TV station was established in 1989. Afterward, other private TV stations sprung up. Today, there are nine private national television channels and numerous local TV stations.

The programs aired by the private television stations brought many changes in the Indonesian visual culture. The electronic cinema (sinetron) is the favored program of all the TV stations. Sinetron is a form of TV dramas, adapted mostly from the Latin America and Hindi TV dramas, with a verbal story-telling and a stereotyped story of the rich and the poor, the bad and the good.

During the Suharto era, economic and political strengths were centered in Jakarta, which is still valid even today. Information and technology (along with other components) were not spread out equally in all parts of Indonesia. Only the haves attended the cinemas. Accordingly, the discourse on short films, alternative cinemas, or video art spread only in a limited circle. It never truly spread to the whole of Indonesia. Films as a whole, or specifically experimental films and video art, have been initiated and responded by this limited circle of people. Krisna Murti, one of the video art pioneers in Indonesia who is still actively working with videos today, is one remnant of the era.

The centralized and military-style government directly affected the education system, which went in a one-way-pattern. Everything was under the government’s control. The Department of Information accordingly controlled the stream of information. At the same time, a new form of colonialism emerged in the world. Indonesia, which was called “the third world”, faced a new identity crisis. As a country with the potentials to become a member of the communist bloc (especially after the political crisis in 1965), Indonesia under Suharto received the full support of the United States. One of the programs for the public was a brainwash program using film screenings in villages. The screened films were ones with the theme of development. The heroic epic of figures of (economic) development entered the village, teaching the locals (and the underdeveloped ones) about all things modern, with the doctrine about “The West” as a good comrade. “Development films”— those films were called.   

In 1995, the political and economic crisis showed their symptoms in Indonesia, reaching their zenith in 1997 when the economic crisis hit almost the entire Southeast Asia. The economic crisis, followed by the political crisis in Indonesia, created a historical gap. Suharto’s repression during his governance had strongly affected the Indonesian social structure. Youth movement simultaneously arose in many areas in Indonesia. The art world in general was focused on the political and economic crises.

Repressions by the Suharto regime took place on many levels from 1995 to 1997. Art was no exception. Mass media considered as against the government were closed down, and groups of people considered as radical, or art forms that were thought of as subversive, also faced a similar fate. The repressions created a gap in history, giving rise to a lost generation (i.e. lost from the history). In 1998, Suharto stepped down from his position due to pressures from students and the political elite maneuvering against the regime. This was the era known as the Indonesian era of reforms.

A public euphoria celebrating the freedom of expressions was seen everywhere. Media that had been closed down because they were considered subversive were born again. Forbidden art forms were again presented. At the same time, the world was also facing a new euphoria: the revolution in the information and digital technology.

Indonesia started to be familiar with the internet. It was initially only in a small scale in the beginning of 1990, but its use kept on growing significantly. The communication revolution brought one big change among the people. Information that had been hidden came to the surface and was easily accessed. Information exchanges became even faster and created a strong communication network.


“Independents as a strong opposition movement against the dominant media practices in some sectors.” —the back cover of the 1999 Festival Film-Video Independen Indonesia’s program book

In 1998, a group of young directors created a form of independent cinema by producing a film entitled Kuldesak, which was produced and distributed independently. In 1999, a group of youngsters in Jakarta held the first Festival Film-Video Independen Indonesia (FFVII/Indonesian Independent Film Video Festival) on a national level. They afterwards established the Yayasan Konfiden (Konfiden Foundation), continuing to hold their festival in 2000, 2001, and 2002. After a three-year period of inactivity, they started the festival again in 2006, with a new name: Festival Film Pendek Konfiden (Konfiden Short Film Festival).

The discourse spread to many cities in Indonesia, at least on Java. The communication became easier through the Internet and this helped spread the discourse even further. Mailing lists became the main port of information exchanges. What Konfiden did with its festival inspired others in cities such as Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Semarang, and Purwokerto in Central Java. Various film events, whether local or national level, started to emerge.

At that time, a new catchphrase appeared—“Making films is easy”—serving as an alternative discourse for the youth to re-open their creative space. This had been supported by the entrance of digital video technology, which changed a lot of things. Until mid-1990s, the analog video technology was the one that people used in general. The analog technology was relatively more expensive than the digital video technology, which did not require any complicated equipment or specialized skill. At the same time, self-built computers and pirated software reigned over the technology market in Indonesia. It was very easy to get software such as Adobe Premiere, only for Rp 25,000 (US$ 1.85).

Until today, Indonesians generally used Windows-based personal computers. It is assumed that 80% of the computers in the market are self-built, with 100% pirated software. The developments of digital video technology, moving directly alongside the developments of the self-built computers and pirated software, form an important stage in the discourse of films and videos in Indonesia. In fact, Such technology has given a wide opportunity for film activists, especially the youth, to learn intensely about the techniques and the artistic sides of film making using the medium of video.

Self-built computers are becoming cheaper everyday, and so are hand-held cameras in their simplest forms. The components have facilitated a new development in Indonesian films and videos. A lot of film workshops are held in various cities and towns, whose participants are mainly youngsters (from junior high up to university students). Cine-clubs in many universities are active again and film communities mushroomed. The motor of the movement is mainly students.

The period of 1999 to 2004 was a golden period for Indonesian short films. The growth of myriad film communities and cine-clubs helped spur the spirit of Indonesian short films, or the Indonesian films in general. The spirit further increased when SCTV held the Festival Film Independen Indonesia (FFII/Indonesian Independent Film Festival) in 2003. With its strength as a massive media, SCTV managed to reap 1,047 works during the 2003 FFII. It helped ignite the growth of more film communities in Indonesia.

After SCTV, other TV stations followed suit. Global TV held similar festival in 2005, while Metro TV with its documentary film competition named The Eagle Award, starting in 2005 until today. SCTV only held FFII only twice. The last one was in 2004, citing the lack of sponsors as the reason for stopping the program. The impact of the festival, however, can still be felt today. Private TV stations, with their commercial interests, take advantage of the moments to create a new market focusing on the youth. This is similar to the “new film industry” in Indonesia, as Indonesian films started to re-appear in cinemas. Indonesian films producers find that the film communities and cine-clubs, whose proponents are mostly the youngsters, are a strong potential market. Significantly, Indonesian films produced from 2000 until today are about the youth, whether they are in the form of drama, comedy, or horror.

OK. Video, a bi-annual media arts festival organized by ruangrupa since 2003 in Jakarta.

OK. Video, a bi-annual media arts festival organized by ruangrupa since 2003 in Jakarta.

An artists initiative called ruangrupa organized OK. Video: Jakarta International Video Art Festival (now called the OK. Video: Jakarta International Video Festival) for the first time in 2003, offering a “new” discourse: visual artwork using the medium of video. This was a response to the phenomena of the increasingly massive usage of the video medium among Indonesians. The festival is a biannual festival, and in 2005 ruangrupa held the second OK. Video with the theme of SUB/VERSION, as a response to the phenomenon of piracy in Indonesia and the issue of copyright in general. The festival received warm responses, nationally and internationally. Now OK. Video is considered one of the most important film and media art festivals in Indonesia.

The climax of the movement took place in 2005. Everything seemed to return to where it started. The fundamental problem faced by the short/alternative films activists in Indonesia is the absence or the lack of distribution and spaces where their works can be appreciated. Since the discourse of short films started, screening and distribution of these films have been taking place sporadically. The country does not have a venue dedicated for the films. The films can be screened in a bookstore, a meeting room or the like. Distribution is also conducted sporadically with the ‘hand by hand’ method.

This situation makes everything seem to be going nowhere. The lack of spaces for appreciations and critiques stunt the growth of the discourse. The activists must take a realistic choice: to keep on working intensely or to consider film making simply as a hobby during their spare time at school or university. Making short films or becoming a video artist does not seem to be a choice for a future career, which naturally entails some levels of intensity.

In 2002, the database project of Indonesian film communities began. The data collection method was the simple one: information about the project was distributed along with a form for community registration. Data from 72 communities or institutions in several cities in Indonesia Indonesian cities were collected, with each community having a film program, whether in the form of film production, distribution, or appreciation. The data was then compiled and published in a pocket-book format in 2003.

Out of 72 communities and institutions that had been contacted again to reconfirm, only ten verified their data. The data of the ten communities and institutions were then published in a weblog (now defunct). From 2003 to date, it has the data of up to 41 communities and institutions. The data collection method is similar to what has been done in the beginning of the project: through Indonesian film mailing lists, or by distributing the forms during film events. The project aims to make a database of communities and institutions having film/video programs in Indonesia as well as creating an open access for these data. Furthermore, the goal of project is also becoming a portal for information exchanges.

The open-air screening in Purbalingga Film Festival, one of the most consistent grassroot movement in Indonesia cinema in recent years.

The open-air screening in Purbalingga Film Festival, one of the most consistent grassroot movements in Indonesia cinema in recent years.


Notes from the past:

Date: 15-16 October 2002
Location: Sumbawa Room, Hotel Indonesia, Central Jakarta
Subject: The Distribution and Exhibition of Alternative Films

The problems of alternative distribution and exhibition (non-cinema venues) have often been discussed in various discussions. They, however, have not enjoyed enough responses, as the indie filmmakers (I’m sorry for using the term ‘indie’ again) have been focusing more on the production. Spaces such as film festivals, especially the ones held in Indonesia, are still the much relied-on space for exhibition and distribution. Temporary film screenings in universities are another option besides the film festivals (that are also temporary).

The importance of the distribution for these alternative films is the focus of today’s Forum Film Chats. We see many problems, especially the ones concerning access, that hamper the distribution of these films. The limited spaces for these films make alternative films cannot be introduced well to the public.

Film producer Mira Lesmana says that the main thing to be considered is the motive of the filmmaker in making his or her film. What the film is for and for whom the film is made are the issue that we must consider first. Mira believes that those are the fundamental issue. If these two matters have not been considered from early on, the filmmaker will find difficulties as he or she faces the problem of distribution. Producer Christantiowati expresses similar thoughts. In the case of Jakarta Project, the matter of distribution has not been considered at all from the beginning, and the team thus faces fundamental problems as they try to distribute the film to the public.

According to Mira, distribution is a system of how the work or the product reaches the public. The main task of a distributor is to campaign and promote the work. The considerations regarding the distribution must already be there since the beginning of production (in the pre-production stage). Looking for partners (investors or funding agencies), reading and mapping the market segment and maturing the concept and the management are the important points Mira stresses on. The scale of the work is also one important point to consider whether it is for wide screen, TV, or festival.

Christantiowati added about the importance of someone in the production team who specifically takes care of distribution. Everything that has to do with distribution will be the person’s responsibility, so that the work can later be well distributed. Using the case of the film she has managed with her friends, Christantiowati mentions that taking care of distribution using “the mob method” does not prove to be an effective solution to the problem.

Mira said that film distribution was related to space, system and promotion. Film makers need to consider this three components if they want the distribution run smooth. Mira also said that so far the indie filmmakers have not thought of it, or do not yet have a clear concept regarding distribution. Even if they do, there are no clear spaces or system. These are the main issues one must discuss regarding the distribution of alternative films.

On the other hand, the indie filmmakers who attended the discussion said that so far the issue had often been discussed, but no agreement had been reached, especially on how to make a fully-fledged system. The filmmakers and the film communities have devised many strategies to solve the problem. One of them is the Pesta Sinema Indonesia (PSI/Indonesian Cinema Fest), initiated by the MM Kine Klub Jogja, who exhibited the works during the Cinema Fest in a road show to many cities like Purwokerto, Jakarta, and Bandung. People consider that such distribution method is is quite successful.

There are also many proposals regarding test-case distribution methods, such as the ‘distro method’ as proposed by Erik from Bandung and Simon from KPP. Underground musicians usually take advantage of Distribution Outlets (distros), a store that sells fashion products mainly for small and medium enterprises to distribute their cassettes. These distros are connected and share information. Filmmakers can also sell their works there using a consignment system.

Then there is also an old idea of alternative cinema as a space for distribution and exhibition. An alternative cinema can have a dual role of being a distribution space (like distro) and an exhibition space (like other cinemas). The main advantage is  it is not a temporary space. The form of the alternative cinema can be very flexible. It does not have to be in the form of the cinema as we know today. The alternative cinema can be in the form of a 3×3 meter room with a 14-inch TV. The important thing is its continuity.  

From all the proposed solutions, some difficulties that remain regarding short film distribution, among others, are:

  1. Funds
  2. Management
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Legal (ethics)
  5. Access of information

The first three are classic problems, which mean that they are familiar to us. Arfan from the cine club of University of Muhammadyah Malang said that we needed a clear strategy how to solve these three main problems. How do we provide our investors-to-be with a clear concept, so that they are interested to give the funding required to solve the problem? How do we formulate a strategy to cooperate with the parties that might support us, such as the local government?

The legal or ethical issue must indeed be further discussed. What are the rules of the game that everyone can accept, regarding the distribution of the work? How can we prevent misunderstanding or unfairness in distribution? The rules are expected to be universally valid and beneficial to all. The filmmakers should not think merely on the profits, but should also cooperate to help the world of indie films become better.

The last point, which is the access to information, became the focus of attention at the end of the Film Forum Chats (on the second day). Many parties mentioned that we had understood the problem of distribution and exhibition, along with all the proposed methods to solve them. All those methods, with the three classic problems of fund, management, and infrastructure, can be well understood. On the other hand, we realized that access to information—in terms of communication networks among the film communities—was not well formed. Mailing lists as the place for information exchange are considered as the most effective and efficient space. We can start the simplest form of distribution from the mailing lists.

From the mailing lists, we can compile all the information and create a form of a database that can serve as a source for information. If we want to work together with a certain community, we can access the database. Our need and the obstacles we might meet can be gathered from the database. Tommy Taslim said that so far many communities were still reluctant to use mailing lists as a communication space. Mailing lists can actually serve as a place where we can share ideas to find solutions to the problems we face, such as the need for a clear infrastructure, or how to cooperate with other communities to hold a film-screening event. Lulu Ratna, a founder of short film distributor Boemboe Forum, added that a database of different communities was important for us to learn from each other and find about the difficulties or the successes of a certain community.

The forum is concluded with a consensus that the first thing we must do to solve the problem of distribution and exhibition is to strengthen the communication among the communities. Mailing lists prove to be the favored choice as an effective space for communication that facilitates information exchanges. As communication among the communities has been strengthened, it is expected that the problems of distribution and exhibition can be gradually solved.

Purwokerto, 25 October 2002


Credit title

  1. Gotot Prakosa, Kamera Subyektif: Rekaman Perjalanan dari Sinema Jemuran ke Art Cinema. Jakarta. Dewan Kesenian Jakarta and Yayasan Seni Visual Indonesia, 2006.
  2. Katinka van Heeren. Paper read in the conference Shared History/Decolonizing the Image, June 3, 2006.
  3. Seno Gumira Ajidarma. Bangkit – Tak Bangkit Sinema Indonesia: Sinema Gerilya, Pendidikan Semesta, dan Filmologi.
  4. Victor S. Mambor. Satu Abad “Gambar Idoep” di Indonesia
  5. Various sources
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