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An Interview with Barry Jenkins

[Filmmaker]

“The history of camera emotion, 35 mm emotion, is racist. It just is.”

Barry Jenkins’s writing rituals:
Coffee, coffee, coffee
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey

by Morgan Jerkins
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Barry Jenkins

[Filmmaker]

“The history of camera emotion, 35 mm emotion, is racist. It just is.”

Barry Jenkins’s writing rituals:
Coffee, coffee, coffee
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey

by Morgan Jerkins
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Barry Jenkins

Morgan Jerkins
1 Snaps

Incredulous. That is the word that describes how I felt about the opportunity to interview Academy Award–winning director Barry Jenkins and about sitting across from him onstage in Las Vegas at the Believer Festival in April 2018. At this point in his career, Jenkins is hitting his stride, and I was concerned that my questions would be ones he had answered umpteen times before.

I was introduced to Jenkins’s work through Moonlight. Like many others, as I watched the film I knew that I was partaking in something special. Its cinematography and lighting are as sensitive to black skin as its transformative story of a black, queer boy living in Miami is to those two marginalized and disenfranchised groups.

Since then, Jenkins directed the forthcoming movie If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, and will direct an Amazon series based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Underground Railroad. Seems to me that Barry is not only a filmmaker but also a bibliophile who pulls from both historical and contemporary sources.

My only regret is that the interview seemed to move too quickly. Forty-five minutes fly by when you’re having a good time, of course. Barry was just as effervescent onstage as he is on Twitter. He didn’t miss a beat. I was expecting an eyebrow raise from him, since I’m just a film lover and not someone who has actually studied the art, but instead he made my job easier than I’d expected. Even before the interview, he spiritedly walked backstage and said he already knew about me from an op-ed I’d written in The New York Times a few months prior; he even mentioned my accomplishments onstage, as if it were an honor to be interviewed by me, and not the other way around. Interviewing Barry was one of the highlights of my year.

—Morgan Jerkins

 

I. “JOJOBA OIL AND SHEA BUTTER”

MORGAN JERKINS: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about first was adapting stories that are not your own. I think a lot of times in literary circles you think about cultural appropriation, whether or not white people can write people of color well. Moonlight is a story about queer black men, and you are not queer. So I wanted to ask if you had any apprehension about adapting the story.

BARRY JENKINS: Yeah, I did have some reservations and doubts, because, as the world knows now, I am straight. But it was funny, because when the movie came out, at first I’d do these interviews and people kept being shocked. “Oh, wait, what? You’re not queer?” And I’d be like, “No, that’s, like, Tarell [Alvin McCraney, cowriter of Moonlight].” And I remember when [his] play [In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which the movie is based on] first came to me, I had the same conversation, you know, the question you just asked. I asked myself, Where is the line? I feel like there is a ceiling on how close a storyteller can get to someone else’s experience.

And I think sometimes people approach stories with the best of intentions, but you can’t get to the one-to-one if you can’t literally put on someone’s shoes, you know. If the shoes don’t fit—or, to be brutally honest, [if] you would never wear that damn shoe, because your life is comfortable enough that you don’t have to—then it’s hard for you to create a piece of art about what it’s like to wear that damn shoe.

In this case, Tarell McCraney had written the foundation of the piece, the play. And I didn’t know Tarell, growing up. We were on this track to go to the same high school, but Tarell went to, like, the fancy arts high school downtown, and I stayed on the track to go to our hood-ass high school, Miami Northwestern, which is what the film is based off of. So our lives were pretty much the same up until the age of sixteen. And when I say the same, both our moms were addicted to crack cocaine; we were born a year apart from [each] other; both our moms contracted the HIV virus from intravenous drug use in the 1980s; Tarell’s mom passed away of AIDS-related illnesses; my mom is still alive but HIV positive. So it was just everything you could imagine [would be the same between] two people who grew up within four blocks [of each other], their lives being mirrors of each other’s, with the exception of [their] sexual identity.

And I thought, Well, if this person and I have all these things in common, and then I meet this dude, and he’s a much taller, much more handsome, much broader-shouldered guy than I am—if you’ve met Tarell, you know what I’m talking about; he is like a Greek god, this dude. I was like: If, with the exception of him being a much more attractive human being than me, we have all these things in common, with the exception of this one thing, I am then explicitly saying that someone’s sexuality is such a barrier to me being able to identify with their experience that I’m just gonna… I don’t wanna believe that about the world.

And so because so much of our lives were the same, I thought if I could be responsible for learning as much from Tarell directly about his experience, I could then, as an artist, take that and put it into the work. And so it really was Tarell saying that he trusted me that gave me the strength to go and do the piece.

Having come out on the other side of it, I would hope that even if Tarell hadn’t given me his trust, the fact that he had given himself so much in the source material, maybe that would have been enough. But I’m glad I didn’t have to ask that question, because, I mean, so many people have told me what that movie meant to them, and Tarell’s not a filmmaker, you know? So it was up to me to translate it to the screen.

MJ: Yeah, I was gonna say, for those creators who do not have an exceptional story like yours and Tarell’s, who wanna write about others’ experiences that they can’t immediately identify with, whether it’s sexuality or race, what type of advice would you give to them?

BJ: I remember a time when there was no internet, you know? I went to high school without email. And so now you can look up pretty much anything you want, you know. I think in 2018 you have to really want to be ignorant of someone else’s experience. You have to willfully be ignorant. So I don’t think it removes the question; I don’t think it absolves the maker or creator of that question. But I do think that if you do the work, you can get there.

You know, it’s funny, the last time I got this question, I gave a really flippant answer. I was like, “Has anybody ever been to fucking Mars? How many stories have you seen told about going to Mars, you know?” People do it all the time.

Now, by the same token, going to Mars is one thing. Knowing what it’s like to be Tarell McCraney is a whole different thing, you know? But I think it’s possible.

MJ: OK, so, growing up, you were a quiet kid. I was not. And I think that in Moonlight silence functions in a very special way. From the first scene, we don’t hear Chiron talk. I remember when I was sitting in the movie theater, I was like, When is he going to talk? Are we ever going to hear him talk? And then at the end it doesn’t end with dialogue. I wanted to know, from a director’s point of view, how do you convey to people that silence is a form of communication? Especially among black protagonists, because oftentimes when we’re speaking, we speak in a certain way, maybe too defensively, too aggressively. How did you do that?

BJ: You know, there was one of the earliest reviews of the film—it wasn’t, like, an official review; it was like a blog post or something—that really cut me. And it wasn’t about a critical read of the film; it was about the character Chiron. And it described Chiron as being autistic. And it was because he goes so long without speaking, and that had just never, never occurred to me. I grew up in very similar circumstances to this character, and I just grew up in a way where I just didn’t talk to a lot of people, you know? I was often by myself. My family background is very, very complicated. I wasn’t raised by anyone who was a blood relative of mine, and yet I could see my blood relatives all around the neighborhood because things were just so, so bad. The 1980s were just a very rough, rough time in many of the inner cities around the country, but especially in Miami, so I just grew up not speaking. I was a person who lived through observation. I would watch people. And I felt like people would watch me because I wasn’t giving them a lot in the way of conversation. My grandma would have to look at me and be like, “You hungry?” and I would just nod and say, “Yes.”

And so as I was building the piece—you know, to go back to your previous question, because Tarell is tricky, man. Tarell can be very quiet and he can be very animated, you know? It depends on how comfortable he is with you. But for me, I had to fuse the character of Chiron with myself and Tarell. And so it was really rewarding for me to, again, take another step into the character, and I felt like, Yeah, Chiron’s gonna be someone like myself and Tarell. People are gonna have to really watch him to understand how he’s feeling, and if someone crosses that threshold to speak to him, that’s how he knows: I can trust this person.

So when Juan shows up, he’s skeptical. He’s like, Oh, he’s still looking at me. He’s looking me in the eye. I can trust this person. And especially when Janelle [Monáe, who plays Teresa] shows up, with her moon of a face, oh my goodness. He’s like, I can trust this person. In the screenplay, there’s a lot of action description, you know. I can’t do what these folks do, but in my screenplays I try to do a little bit of it, which is kind of a cheat.

And so there’s this simple scene in the film where the two characters are wrestling, the two boys on the field. And in screenplay terms, that’s an eighth of a page, which would just be one line: “They wrestle in the grass.” I looked at the screenplay recently and it’s, like, three-quarters of a page because I’m trying to communicate that there are things happening in the silence. And so the film is structured that way, from the script to the shooting, and what I love about cinema is [that] there are certain things about the image and there are certain things about these actors, these human beings’ faces, that can just communicate so much more than I feel spoken words can in that context. And you don’t get to see—it’s just one of the realities of the film business—you don’t often see that kind of aesthetic principle applied to characters who are not white and who are not straight.

But I feel like I grew up with a lot of young men who, as they aged, they spoke less and less. And they ended up being closed off from the world, and I wanted to make a film about one of those characters.

MJ: Piggybacking off what you said about the aesthetic principles of black faces, I want to talk about the lighting of black faces, too, because that is extremely difficult. Many of you who know about photography [know] it has a very racist history with regard to how to capture black faces. If any of you are fans of Issa Rae’s Insecure, they do an immensely good job with lighting black faces. And so can you talk a little bit about the process of that?

BJ: When I first got into film school, I was way behind the curve because I’m a little bit older than I seem. We shot everything on film when I was in film school. So you had to really learn how to expose an image, and that image went off to the lab, and it was like magic. It came back and you couldn’t see it on set, what it was. So I had to learn these techniques of how to expose skin on film. And both my films in film school featured people of color. I made one short film called Little Brown Boy that featured a protagonist very similar to Chiron in Moonlight. Then the other—I don’t know how the fuck this happened—is about an Arab American couple washing American flags in a post-9/11 South. And a lot of things in this country are systemically fucked-up. And the history of camera emotion, 35 mm emotion, is racist. It just is. It was marketed and calibrated to sell to suburban white families. And so 35 mm film was never intended to accurately reflect or replicate darker skin tones. So I learned all this shit on film because I kept making things and being like, Why does this look so bad? And there’s this cinematographer who used to work with Spike Lee named Malik Sayeed, who shot a film called Belly. And Belly is the most gorgeously shot film. Moonlight’s cool. [In] Belly, the cinematography is crazy. I mean just insane. And then there was a film called City of God with this Brazilian DP, César Charlone. And I remember listening to the commentary on City of God. There’s a scene where the actors are up in a tree. [It’s a] very dark film, like dark in tone and also very dark skins. And they shot it… I thought it was day-for-night, but it wasn’t. And I was like, How are they getting people who are darker than me to reflect, literally, moonlight? And César talks about taking—I mean, hey, this is Brazil, so they had to do what they had to do—like, literally taking cooking oil and just rubbing it all over the skin of the actors so it would literally catch the light and reflect it. And I was like, Oh, that’s a dope concept. And so typically when you make a film, you have a makeup department, and the makeup department uses what? Powder. They just put powder over everybody. But you don’t put powder on black skin. So I told my makeup person, I said, “Hey, this is a no-powder show. We need jojoba oil and shea butter.”

MJ: Yes!

BJ: And so everybody in Moonlight is just wearing oil. And then the other part of it, too, which is really cool: I feel like so many things that happened with Moonlight [were] just [about] timing. I’m just a very lucky and privileged person, because there’s this camera called the ARRI Alexa. And the Alexa is made in Germany. And we used these lenses called Hogg lenses that are also made in Germany. All the technical, like, lenses and glass in Moonlight come from Germany, which is a very strange thing. But this camera is digital, so it doesn’t abide by the rules of the systemically racist 35 mm emotion. Because of that, you can put a very dark subject next to a very bright subject. And this thing has so much latitude that, when you get in post, you can reach down into the shadow and you can pull it up however you want, and you can take that brightness and you can put it down how you want. So now you can calibrate it to whatever you want to calibrate it to. I think, had this movie been made in 2012, at the budget that it was, there’s no way it would look the way it did.

 

II. “MY TWEETS ARE NOT MINE.”

MJ: Moonlight is based in Miami, but we’re not seeing South Beach or anything like art deco hotels. We’re seeing Liberty City. I think of other black directors who feature places that are as active as the protagonists themselves, like, for example Spike Lee and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, or John Singleton with South Central LA. I wanted to talk about what Liberty City means for you and how important it was for you to make sure that this particular neighborhood of Miami was pulsating, was moving along with the characters.

BJ: Yeah, you know, that’s complicated, man, because I was born and raised in Miami. I never made any art that was set in Miami. Like, my life as an artist was completely separate from my life growing up in Liberty City. There was nothing in my world that pushed toward art. I was an athlete, but there were so many amazing athletes that I knew there wasn’t a future for me in that. And I kind of just stumbled into film after being in film school, so making Moonlight was something that terrified me.

That’s why I’ll always big up Tarell McCraney, because I don’t think I would have had the courage to have made a film or to tackle a story that was set there. So once I knew that we were going to do this thing, once I decided I was going to go back home, it felt like a great opportunity to show a version of Miami, a depiction of Miami, that was just as true. Because, you know, give Michael Mann credit: all that shit’s real. You got the art deco and the neon, and all that craziness is still there. But there is this whole other world too.

I’ll give some of the hip-hop cats credit, you know, the people like Rick Ross who have talked about [Miami] and have always put it in backdrops of their music videos. But I think characters like Chiron also exist besides characters like Rick Ross. And people like Chiron weren’t having their stories told. So when we went back, it was very important for me that the city speak for itself, you know? It was very important for me to be able to point the camera in any direction and be OK with who’s walking through the frame, you know? And have the blessing of whoever ends up in the frame. And so when you watch Moonlight, we have all these amazing Hollywood actors in it. You know, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, all these people, but the first voice you hear is this guy named Shariff Earp, who was a dude who walked into a community center—because we went down there during the course of the year and said, “Hey, we’re making this movie. No acting experience required, you know. Just show us what you can do.” And Shariff came in, he read for this part. But he was just not a good fit for it. But we started talking, and he was talking about how he wanted to change his life and how he’d done all this stuff, and as he was talking, I just heard his voice, and his voice was the sound of Miami.

So the first voice you hear is somebody who literally walked into the youth center, this guy who had just gotten out of the county three months prior. And, you know, I mention it because Moonlight went all over the world. We went to France and Germany and all these places the movie was released. And so it had to be subtitled. And so you send the screenplay, you send the film, and people who speak like you… I would always get these emails from distributors [who were] like, “Hey, they need some help with, like, the first five minutes of the movie.” And I’d be like, “Huh?” They’d be like, “Yeah, it’s like they say it’s English but it’s not English.”

And I would always think, like, Oh shit, that’s right. It’s not in the script. This is this guy. I let him go. I just want you to be you. And as I started subtitling, I realized something had happened. You know, when you walk into the cinema to watch Moonlight, the first thing you hear, which is a little heavy for some people, is “Every Nigger Is a Star.” That’s the first thing you hear. Like literally the first fucking thing you hear in this movie. And then the second thing you hear is the voice of Miami. You just see that this is gonna be the Miami that you have not seen before, but you’re welcome to sit down and take a journey. So, yeah, it was one of the things I’m proudest of with the film.

MJ: Now, usually in the beginning for artists, before they reach their success, they’re working up to it, right? But now that you are successful, do you feel like there are other pressures? And do you feel like, because of said pressures, whether it’s from your team or your fans—

BJ: Can you tell? Can you tell? Can you tell?

MJ: Do you feel like it’s harder to be experimental?

BJ: It’s not harder to be experimental, because I’m still working with the same people. And also, too, the movie that put me on is hella experimental. So it’s kinda like I walk into a room for a meeting and people know what they’re getting, in a certain way. Some of the actors nobody’s gonna know. Places where people should be talking, it’s gonna be quiet. And then you’re not gonna understand why the hell the camera’s there. But eventually you’ll catch up to it. So the experimental part is not the question.

There’s a responsibility I feel, like with the spotlight that has been put on someone like me, who kinda came out of nowhere. And you learn very quickly there are things you are equipped for, which is creating. As a creator, I’m thirty-eight. I’ve been making films for sixteen years. I can do that. All this other shit surrounding it? I have no idea what this is, you know? And I never expected to be in the center of it, so it’s a learning process. And the only way I’ve been able to navigate it so far, as well as I have, is to know that I’m still working with the same people.

So if I get out of pocket, people who’ve known me since I was twenty-two are gonna be like, Hey, you being a little bit much right now, you know? You need to check yourself. And it helps me check myself. You try to just continue making things the way you always did, and, most important, for the same reasons.

MJ: Mm-hm. What type of other shit are you talking about?

BJ: I mean, like, I was on a plane, I was drinking, and somebody was watching Notting Hill, and so I started tweeting about somebody watching Notting Hill beside me—

MJ: I think I saw this.

BJ: And it became, like, a news story. And I was like, “That’s a bit much. That’s a bit extra, you know?” But what it does is it makes me realize, Oh, my tweets are not mine. That’s a very simple way of putting it, but, you know, I don’t have the anonymity that I once had. And I think, you know, I can be an off-brand kind of person. I want to do things quietly but I can’t do things quietly anymore. I have to not question: Oh, I wanna talk about this in public. Oh shit, do I wanna talk about this in public? Do I wanna have a conversation about this in public? Because talking about it in public is going to create a conversation about it in public. Those are, like, some of the simple other things that come with it.

But the more important thing is, I’ll go to a gallery opening or a museum, and there are young black filmmakers who are there, and I can tell immediately, from the moment we start speaking, that they are looking to me as a symbol. And I think there’s a responsibility that comes with that, and yet I have to continue making things the way I’ve always made them, and for the reasons I’ve always made them. But I can’t absolve myself of the responsibility of knowing that I am a symbol. So, yeah, it’s tricky.

 

III. BE PATIENT AND FORGIVING WITH YOURSELF

MJ: You’re also doing a project based off Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which is a novel.

BJ: Yeah, and [James] Baldwin’s [If] Beale Street [Could Talk], which is also a novel. You know, my first job in the industry was at Harpo [Studios]. I was working for Ms. Winfrey when they did Their Eyes Were Watching God, which Halle Berry starred in. And then Darnell Martin and Suzan-Lori Parks were there adapting some things, so just somehow I’ve always ended up in that space.

I’m a very visual storyteller, and so for me to have someone like these brilliant folks do most of the story work is awesome, because then I can come in and figure out, OK, how can I visually translate this story? So it’s just always been the way. But the beautiful thing about Moonlight was [that] it was like half a story. And so there was enough room for me to sort of, like, come in and also still be a writer or storyteller, but be a visual storyteller.

MJ: What are other things that you’re reading? Whether it’s books or, you know, long-form, short-form work on the internet?

BJ: Oh! So I try to re-read the things I’m working on, so I’m re-reading The Underground Railroad, often. Re-reading If Beale Street Could Talk, often. And then there’s this French actress, Isabelle Huppert. So I’m reading all these French books that have been translated into English, because we’re trying to find something to do with Isabelle Huppert. And then I like interviews. I read a lot of interviews with people. I have this stack of this magazine called Acne Paper that doesn’t print anymore, and a lot of BOMB magazines. So I go in between novels for work and interview magazines.

MJ: I wanna talk about your Twitter presence, because you’re very active on Twitter. And usually—

BJ: I’m dialing it back, I’m dialing it back.

MJ: No, no, it’s good, it’s good. So, you know, sometimes when I talk to other artists, they’re like, “I don’t wanna be on it.” It’s a distraction for other people, especially people of color. It’s a form of creating or sustaining some type of community. So how do you use it? Is it just for fun or is it also a way to just reach out and get some ideas churning, or what now?

BJ: Now, I am friends with, like, seventeen-year-old kids in, like, Scotland, you know? How am I gonna have a friend [who’s] seventeen in Scotland, who is just obsessed with movies, you know? And I follow, of course, journalists, like everyone else does, to try to figure out, OK, where are the journalists who are seeing the things that end up, you know, in the articles that I’m reading? The Washington Post, The New York Times. So that’s part of it. I mean, Black Twitter is just, like, amazing. It’s like its own news source and it’s real-ass news. Like, if I see it on Black Twitter, I know it needs to be paid attention to, you know what I mean? And so at first, before Moonlight, I had, like, maybe two thousand followers, and that was the perfect way to operate on Twitter. I mean, it was kind of, like, selfish, though, because I was doing more listening than speaking. And now I feel like I don’t use it for promotional tools; I try not to. Because I want it to function, for me, the same way it did before I had a following. But yeah, I just think it’s a very liberated space right now where you can go. Especially because as a writer you spend so much time alone that it’s nice. But it’s a hell of a distraction, man. Ugh. If I’m somewhere where I can’t get to Twitter, I get a lot more worked up. But it’s nice to be able to check in and see, like, what is really going on. So, yeah, I love it. It’s the one social media platform that I’ve been holding on to.

MJ: What other filmmakers do you think we should pay attention to?

BJ: Oh, man, that’s a tough one. I program short films at Telluride, so I’m always watching a lot of short films. I mean, look: Ryan Coogler, obviously. Ava DuVernay—people like that you should definitely be following. I think there’s a lot of people working in music videos right now [who] are really cool. There’s this band called the Blaze. They’re, like, a French duo. They have a song called “Territory,” and rather than hire someone to make a music video, they made the music video themselves. And it is the best thing. The best film I saw in 2017 was a music video called “Territory” by the Blaze. And it’s a very simple story, I wanna say, about an Algerian boxer who’s been living in Paris and has to go home, is forced to go home. And it’s just about his homecoming.

So if I was gonna recommend filmmakers, it would be people who are, like, Vimeo staff picks, you know. This guy named Carey Williams, who just won Sundance and South by Southwest, who made this film called Emergency. I would seek him out. Most of the visually aggressive things that I’m seeing are happening in the short form.

MJ: Do you have any writing processes or rituals? What do you do to get yourself going?

BJ: Coffee, coffee, coffee. And then, sometimes, whiskey, whiskey, whiskey. I have two bachelors degrees: one in creative writing, one in filmmaking. Now, they’re both from Florida State, so, you know, who knows the quality of those degrees, you know. Because you went to Princeton, right?

MJ: No, don’t do that! Don’t do that. Don’t do that.

BJ: I’m just saying! I’m punching above my weight up here.

MJ: I’m not an Oscar-winning director.

BJ: So I just sit down and try to work, you know. And the thing I say—I teach every now and then—the thing I say is to be very patient and forgiving with yourself. There are some days where I get nothing done and then there are other days where I might get eight pages. And I try to feel as good about the days with no pages as the days with eight, because I can’t control it. And maybe, as I become a better writer, I’ll be able to control it. But Moonlight was a script that I wrote in ten days, and I’ve never written anything that fast. And it was just one of those periods where it just really kind of just happened, you know.

I wanna go back to the filmmaker conversation, though. Because it is a cool time to be a black filmmaker—any filmmaker who is from the outside right now—because the outside is in, in a certain way. And the quality of the work is supporting the reasoning for the outside being in. There was this tweet about Ryan Coogler making Black Panther, and when we were in postproduction on Moonlight, Ryan was in preproduction on Black Panther. And, you know, I used to live in the Bay Area, so I met Ryan before Fruitvale [Station]. And he came down for a meeting with Marvel and just snuck in some time to come and watch a cut of Moonlight. He gave two or three really great notes, one that ended up in the film. And I remember him leaving and I shot off a tweet like “Man, Ryan Coogler’s really busy right now. But every time I call him, he picks up the phone. And he helps me out.”

So what’s so beautiful about being in the position I am [in] right now—I think for people who see folks like myself, Ava, and Ryan, and Jordan [Peele] coming up—is there are no crabs in this barrel. Everybody supports one another.

And I say that because two weeks ago—I’m in post right now on Beale Street, and Ryan knows I don’t enjoy postproduction—out of the blue, I get a text message, and it’s Ryan Coogler, and he’s just like, “Hey, Barry. Just checking in on you, man. Just want you to know I’m thinking of you. Hit me up if you need something.” I’m like, “You should be fucking in, like, Tahiti. You should be, like, in Tahiti on an island, because I know how hard that movie was.” And this dude is checking up on me. And he’s young! He’s, like, ten years younger than me! This dude is checking up on me. And it’s like, it’s just such a blessed time to do what we do. And so, for me to, like, complain or feel any kind of way about it, I’m just like, How the hell did this happen? You know? Like, How did this happen? And then I try to think about it and just keep moving forward.

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