Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

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Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Timothy » Wed Jun 02, 2010 1:44 pm

Winnipeg filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy discussed the making of her debut feature, Black Field in a recent article from Uptown. She refers to her work as "anti-Avonlea" and explains that her film is more aunthentic to the time period, depicting life that is "dirty, difficult and dangerous."

Anti-Road to Avonlea, indeed
...Local filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy got her hands dirty capturing 19th-century Manitoba farm life for her debut feature, Black Field
Kenton Smith

Yet it’s not as if there was no trepidation whatsoever from potential funders. According to Esterhazy, “At first, people said, ‘You want to do a 19th-century historical drama for under half a million? Are you insane?’ “But it turned out to be quite doable for the money.”

Indeed, Esterhazy consciously tried to write the script with a small cast and limited locations in mind. But she refused to water down Canadian history.

“Life back then was dirty, difficult and dangerous, and we were striving for authenticity,”

she says. “We began referring to the film as the anti-Road to Avonlea...”


Anyone who has seen Road to Avonlea in its entirety knows that the series showed life could be "dirty, difficult and dangerous." There were many examples of this, including when Emmett Greer dies in an offshore exposion, Colleen Prichard dying in childbirth, Cecily King suffering from life-threatening tuburculosis, etc. Yet this film maker is compelled to knock Avonlea down a peg to support her film as more "authentic."

Of course, there is more to a show's authenticity than just writing a down-and-dirty script. To achieve a realistic portrayal of the time period, you need experts on historical details, costume designers, set specialists, etc. and a budget to pay for it all. While Sullivan Films did this brilliantly, the Black Field production appears in contrast to be greatly inferior.

...It was certainly the most demanding shoot co-producer Ashley Hirt had worked on. “We were out shooting in fields in early spring,” she says. “That’s hard physical work.

“For that matter, lots of unexpected challenges came up — like figuring out the cost of renting chickens. As a city girl, I’m not usually thinking about those sorts of things...”


Although Esterhazy boasts about the show's authenticity, its clear that she does not have the experts or the budget to make a show with the authenticity of Road to Avonlea. This is just another example of certain individuals and the media in general putting down Avonlea. The problem this stigma Avonlea has developed in the media is that it negatively influences investors, who might shy away (probably already have) from investing in another Avonlea film.

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by hannikan » Wed Jun 02, 2010 4:27 pm

When I saw the article here I thought the same thing. Just because RTA doesn't portray Edwardian era PEI as a stark, bleak locale (which it generally wasn't) and everyone dressed in black, doesn't mean there isn't authenticity there. Esp since that isn't how LMM portrayed the location in her writings used as the inspiration for the series. That would have been a very strange tone to take with the material, I think. It's not perfectly realistic all the time, but that's really not possible in order to keep in entertaining. There is such a thing as being too dark and brooding to be entertaining. For a long running series that could get very tiresome. I am curious if Black Field would fit this description but I would be interested in seeing for myself. It's important to have a variety of films and TV shows with a variety of tones anyway. There's room for that. She mentions having female characters that aren't cookie cutter and are allowed to make mistakes. I think that (with the exception of Sara) most of the female characters on RTA are very well developed to portray a lot of humanity, including personality flaws and making mistakes. No we don't see them committing adultery or anything of that caliber but I don't think that is necessary to show complexity of character. That's great that she found inspiration in the Bronte's writings but I never found Jane Eyre or Catherine from Wuthering Heights, particularly strong female characters. They both show lots of stereotypical female weakness, IMO. I can't imagine either of them trying to farm in Manitoba.

I think it is partly just the ego of the young director, thinking they are doing the first "authentic" version of something. And it's a sign of insecurity to have to compare yourself or your work to something else in order to describe it. It should speak for itself. It's sort of an example of the generation gap and the young thinking they are the first to ever do anything. Like teenagers always think they're the first to discover drugs and are shocked to find out their grandparents were just as likely to have known what they know about it. She is not the first director to encounter difficulties filming, nor is she unusual in being so hands on as a new filmmaker. Most are hands on because they can't afford to hire people to do everything for them yet. And some even choose to continue to muck through the mud even when they could hire someone to do it. If she chooses to in the future, she won't be the first to do so. I also think that portraying rural Manitoba is different than showing PEI. PEI was settled by Europeans long before Manitoba was. Rural Manitoba would have been more stark and bleak for settlers; it's more unforgiving terrain in which to try to carve out an existence. PEI is a very temperate environment. It would be like comparing a film about rural Southern California with a film about rural Montana or Wisconsin. It's apples and oranges. Sure they're both rural, but still very different locales. This perception is funny too, because she should see the Wild Pony, Sullivan's first film as a young director. It was set in a very rugged part of Alberta. They encountered crazy obstacles, as anyone filming in that area would, including Sullivan almost losing a toe to frostbite.

ETA: I don't know that this kind of press would hurt the chances of a RTA reunion movie since I don't think the crowd would be the same. Yes, they're both period projects but anyone considering investing in RTA probably wouldn't invest in this film and vice versa. I do think there is a period after a show ends when people will lampoon it for being passe and cliche, etc... It happens to all wildly successful shows, esp family oriented ones. Look at the Cosby Show. Everyone made fun of that after it ended, but EVERYONE watched it for the many years it was on. But after about 20 years, it starts to be considered a classic and that's when everyone gets nostalgic and wants to see it again. My teenage students now love the Cosby Show. All things 80's have made a comeback in a huge way and the 90's are starting to get their due, too. I think it will happen with RTA very soon.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by hannikan » Wed Jun 02, 2010 6:43 pm

This isn't exactly a rave review:
http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117941 ... id=31&cs=1

There are 2 trailers here and a summary of it as well as promotional photos:
http://vampirediariesonline.com/sara-ca ... june-2010/

I see she is 40 years old... from reading the interview in Uptown I would have thought she was in her twenties and just starting out. But that may be because there is probably some bitterness at it taking awhile to be recognized. I am a little intrigued by the trailer and would just categorize it as different than RTA, not better.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by HistoryMiner » Sun Jun 06, 2010 7:27 pm

It is rather irksome when people dismiss Avonlea and put it down, often without even having watched the series.

Though at the same time, it would be difficult to argue that RtA was an authentic and realistic portrayal of life at the turn of the century, even though some sad events were written into the story (some meant to be tragic in a romantic way like Gus being lost at sea). Kevin Sullivan fully knew this, and his intent was to create an idyllic romanticized view of the period. When I took a course on Atlantic Canadian history from this era, I remember seeing some archival photos of working class farming families from Nova Scotia which reminded me of RtA, but in a degraded way... it was actually a little disturbing because one woman looked a little like Olivia, and wore similar clothes, but they were very shabby, and the surroundings were dilapidated and very dirty. She looked exhausted and very worn down with her large family. Life at the time was more difficult and a lot less sanitized. People were a lot more vulgar and less morally upstanding. A series like "Emily of New Moon" showed more of the "uglier" sides of life during the time period. But that in no way detracts from the quality of RtA as a family drama in terms of characterization and story depth. It's all in the producers' intention, and Sullivan was very successful in what he wanted to make.

The filmmaker should not be comparing apples to oranges.

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by hannikan » Sun Jun 06, 2010 7:59 pm

Yeah and the Emily series material was not directly used in RTA. The works used to create RTA were not dark and did not show the drudgery of rural life. Those were LMM's choices in the writings used for the series. Later in the series somewhat darker things were infused when the writers were using the LMM material less. But it was just with a different intention and in a very different locale. I do not think farming on PEI circa 1900 and farming in Manitoba circa 1850 were the same.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Wild Roses » Tue Jun 08, 2010 10:36 am

I'm with HistoryMiner on this one. Nor do I think the article was a putdown to the series. There's a strain of idealism that permeates all of LMM's book, regardless of whether it belongs there or not, and many scholars have examined to shreds why that is so I'm not going to go into it. RTA has its sad moments, but I wouldn't for a moment ever call it, or consider it a realistic depiction of Edwardian life. I'd call it the tv series equivalent of The Music Man.

For example, "Aunt Janet Rebels." I'm not educated on Canada's history regarding suffrage and workers rights but I do have a stockpile of books on my shelf regarding that sort of history in the USA and England so I think I can comment on it safely. Sure, Janet got sent to jail, but she was never in any danger of being physicallky abused or raped while in jail--and there is MUCH documentation of that happening to famous and unknown suffragetes of the era in the USA and England. When workers protested, they didn't just get slaps on the wrist and 'go back to work,' they got more than just fired: their homes got burned, they were blackballed so that other workplaces wouldn't hire them., sent to jail on false charges, etc. To say RTA prettified up what happened to suffragetes and strikers of that era would be an understatement. It made it look like a damn near fairytale!

Then, the whole arc of Gus being lost at sea. In any realistic series, it would be shipwreck=death at sea. I recently read Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of The Pointed Firs and she doesn't even bother to hide just how much shipping life sucked for women of the era. Nearly every woman in the town she writes about is a widow or knows someone who is. However women still go on with their daily routine and make life what it is for themselves. (I use the book as comparison to LMM's Anne's House of Dreams. Both are fairly similiar in their depictions of what shipping communities are like.) In the series, Gus is found alive and even gets his sight restored. (And lets remember that his sight being restored happened in an era when medicine and surgery was still crude.)

Let's not forget the buried treasure arc either. It's one of my favorite arcs in the series but...not realistic. A bunch of kids stumbling upon a collection of valuable gems and safely getting them away from the bad guys. Please. What's better than having the kids play being pirates--bringing pirates to Avonlea. And, quite frankly, in town like Avonlea, I expect people would wonder how Gus would be able to afford Felicity such a big rock on a waiter's salary. Which would lead to questions. Nobody ever asked even though nobody knew about Gus's secret stash worth millions.

Also, let's remember the characters themselves. Our POV is the the King clan. The Kings are establishment middle class characters. The majority of the characters we saw in the series were also presented as being like the Kings. Rarely did we see the underbelly of Avonlea--the dirt poor characters struggling to survive. When we do see them, it's in the form of episodes like "Aunt Janet Rebels" or character arcs like Gus's (who may have started out as scrappy, tabacoo chewing outsider, but by the end of the series is middle class in his views, education, and personality).

I don't think the director of that film was putting down RTA just pointing out that it middle classed issues like race, class and gender, which it does, wholeheartedly. (She should have used Titanic as an example. Now, that film is a guilty pleasure of mine, but man! it completely ignores the politics of the Edwardian era so it can do the poor guy-rich girl fairytale storyline).





And we do know from LMM's own diaries and letters that even SHE wasn't all that enamoured with the places and people on PEI she grew up with. She choose to idealize it as a coping strategy to deal with her other issues. Which isn't so to say she absolutely adhored everything dealing with her childhood and adolescence--because obviously she didn't--but she didn't think what she wrote was realistic either.

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by hannikan » Tue Jun 08, 2010 8:13 pm

I don't know which fairyland version of So Dear to my Heart and Happy Christmas Miss King you watched, but Gus's sight was not restored. I agree it would have been pretty unrealistic for it to have been in that era. RTA has elements of realism with elements of romanticism, just like LMM's writings. But dressing women in black corseted dresses to plow a field with a soap opera style I stole my sister's boyfriend and now she might shoot someone plot line is not any more authentic. That was not the average farmer's life either. Gothic romanticism, like the Bronte's, is still romanticism. LMM used her novels to romanticize her childhood somewhat; she embellished things and created more harmonious relationships than she actually experienced in some cases but she also had a real love for the Island and island life, too. She did have fond memories as well as dark ones from her life there.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Timothy » Wed Jun 09, 2010 1:02 am

hannikan wrote:But dressing women in black corseted dresses to plow a field with a soap opera style I stole my sister's boyfriend and now she might shoot someone plot line is not any more authentic. That was not the average farmer's life either.
Good point, but according to Esterhazy, "Canadian history is sexy. At least it is in my film!"

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Timothy » Wed Jun 09, 2010 1:16 am

To be fair, the focus of RTA is on the King family, characters that are fairly well off, relative to the poorer classes in Avonlea. We still see many examples of the less fortunate in the Avonlea community with the illiterate boys working at the cannery; Gus Pike's struggle with his ax-murdering father among many other things; the impoverished Lester family and child labor with Wiley Lester; Lottie Cooper having to give up her baby to the Dales after the cannery burns down, etc.

I think that life on Prince Edward Island during the Edwardian era, for the most part, is accurately represented on RTA. I also think PEI was very different than places like New York or Boston during this era, so it might be significant while looking at this from a historical perspective, to also look at this from a geographic perspective as well.

In regard to Aunt Janet Rebels, not all suffragettes were physically abused. Manitoba's Nellie McClung is a good example of this and I don't believe she went to jail, even as she successfully founded the Winnipeg Political Equality League and confronted public officials on the poor working conditions for women. Perhaps it depended on who you were, where you were and the type of people you were dealing with. I think it's believable that Janet King wasn't harmed during her "rebellion." She was the wife of a respected farmer and family in the community, so it's unlikely she would be physically harmed without provoking the wrath of the community, in my opinion.

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by hannikan » Wed Jun 09, 2010 11:58 am

I also am not terribly knowledgeable about Canadian history, but I know that in the U.S. suffragettes were not physically abused en masse. High profile activists were harassed and threatened of course, but the average suffragettes were just ignored or patronized. They were generally not seen as a threat, only a nuisance. In the U.S. the suffrage movement was tied up originally with the anti-slavery movement in the middle 1800's. There were anti-slavery activists (like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass) who advocated women's suffrage as well as suffrage for black men. So there was protection for white, middle class women in being connected to that movement. There were violent acts against abolitionists, too, but as the movement grew and the Civil War loomed, in the North, abolitionists were generally quite safe. In the early 19th century, suffrage was connected to the temperance movement. Most suffragettes in the U.S. were also prohibitionists, which had a a fair amount of backing in the Republican Party. They were seen as moral crusaders protecting "good" Protestant America from the evil vices of Immigrant Catholic America. There were others who were tied to the labor movement, like Mother Jones. They were in more danger because the government thought this threatened the capitalist system. So it depended how far they took things. If they were involved with a movement that threatened an overthrow of capitalism, yeah they were threatened with violence or were attacked. There were few suffragettes involved in the socialist movements even in U.S. cities though. The average middle class suffragette was politically conservative and if concerned about labor only in outlawing child labor. When Mother Jones led the Children's March from Pennsylvania to New York, in 1903, no one was hurt but Pres. Roosevelt basically ignored her demands. It wasn't until the next Pres. Roosevelt that child labor was outlawed in the U.S.

Janet wasn't taking things that far but far enough for the backlash she encountered. She did go to jail, she was threatened by Mr. McCorkadale, she was berated by townspeople. If it had been a bigger operation she was trying to take down, with more managerial officials that McCorkadale could have brought in to intimidate the workers, it might have had dire consequences. But it wasn't and there wouldn't have been such an operation in such a small village. Those female cannery workers were the most likely to have been physically hurt if the cannery operation was bigger and Avonlea had a bigger police force (really who was afraid of Abner Jeffries?) because poor women were not protected the same way middle class women like Janet were. But Janet could have been hurt as well for putting herself in the position of defending them. And throughout the episode we are concerned that someone will be hurt, things do get tense. While her demands were labor based, Janet was not calling for an overthrow of the whole economic or social system only a small increase in pay. If the women hadn't convinced the men that they would benefit from higher wages, the cannery men might have struck back if the operation shut down because the women refused to work and the men couldn't work but wanted to.

When Janet went to Rose's home she seemed worried that Rose took at least verbal abuse at home from her husband when she didn't "obey" him. In Avonlea, things like this are rarely explicitly shown, but implied. We don't know that Abe Pike beat Eliza, but it's definitely hinted at in ROGP. Gus carried a lot of turmoil and seemed to have blocked out very dark times from his childhood. That implication can be just as compelling as directly showing violence and mistreatment. Later on we see evidence of Bret McNulty having been beaten as a child laborer and the foundling home children said they were threatened with being whipped at the Hillsdale Orphanage, as well. If the cannery strike had gone on longer there probably would have been more consequences, more people jailed and Janet would have been further isolated from her family and comfortable life. Abner Jeffries would have called in reinforcements from neighboring towns. But it was resolved rather quickly because McCorkadale was actually hen-picked at home. That brought in some humor and showed he wasn't as powerful as he seemed to be. If Janet had continued as a suffragette; traveling to cities with larger movements connected to labor rights, getting a reputation with local law enforcement as a troublemaker, being away from home for long periods of time, who knows what might have happened? It would have been a very different story. But they chose to have the story end where it did, with Janet only reminding Alec about helping women get the right to vote when he considers being a politician, because the events would have become more gritty.

Still it was worthwhile to show what they did. What I found particularly well developed in the story was how her family reacted. While Alec was supportive of women's right to vote in theory he wasn't prepared for the execution of getting it accomplished in reality. He was insulted by the men in town for not reining in his wife, questioning his masculinity, which caused him to lash out at Janet. He represented men at the time who would have been more broad-minded but he also represented men today who are in favor of women having equal status until they have to be a stay at home dad. Janet had never even thought about being involved in the suffrage movement before but we do see her frustrated that Alec doesn't understand how much work she does and takes her for granted in Ties that Bind. It was a great way to show some of the complexity of the problem of women's rights then and now.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Wild Roses » Wed Jun 09, 2010 6:26 pm

hannikan wrote:I also am not terribly knowledgeable about Canadian history, but I know that in the U.S. suffragettes were not physically abused en masse. High profile activists were harassed and threatened of course, but the average suffragettes were just ignored or patronized. They were generally not seen as a threat, only a nuisance. In the U.S. the suffrage movement was tied up originally with the anti-slavery movement in the middle 1800's. There were anti-slavery activists (like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass) who advocated women's suffrage as well as suffrage for black men. So there was protection for white, middle class women in being connected to that movement. There were violent acts against abolitionists, too, but as the movement grew and the Civil War loomed, in the North, abolitionists were generally quite safe. In the early 19th century, suffrage was connected to the temperance movement. Most suffragettes in the U.S. were also prohibitionists, which had a a fair amount of backing in the Republican Party. They were seen as moral crusaders protecting "good" Protestant America from the evil vices of Immigrant Catholic America. There were others who were tied to the labor movement, like Mother Jones. They were in more danger because the government thought this threatened the capitalist system. So it depended how far they took things. If they were involved with a movement that threatened an overthrow of capitalism, yeah they were threatened with violence or were attacked. There were few suffragettes involved in the socialist movements even in U.S. cities though. The average middle class suffragette was politically conservative and if concerned about labor only in outlawing child labor. When Mother Jones led the Children's March from Pennsylvania to New York, in 1903, no one was hurt but Pres. Roosevelt basically ignored her demands. It wasn't until the next Pres. Roosevelt that child labor was outlawed in the U.S.
I'd recommend you read Not for Ourselves Alone and continue on to Jailed for Freedom and Iron Jawed Angels. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their ilk weren't connected to movements concerned with "the overthrow of capitalism" but only pushed for suffrage--and it was precisely their militant pushing for it--that led them to being jailed. The conditions in jail got bad enough that Paul (and many others) went on a hunger strike. President Wilson was alerted to it. The suffragetes who spent time in Occoquan Workhouse (the jail the women went to) would all disagree with your statement that "no one was hurt."

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone all had very different beliefs in feminism (with Stanton being the most radical while Anthony and Stone were more reformist) but all 3 document times of harassment for public speaking or other (at the time) politically incorrect things: wearing bloomers, advocating equality in marriage, radicalizing Christianity, etc. Also, there was several different factions of middle class women involved in the suffrage movement so it's an overgeneralization to say they were all "politically conservative."

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Timothy » Fri Jun 18, 2010 9:32 am

The women at Occoquan prison were terribly beaten and treated horribly. They were up against the political environment under the administration of President Woodrow "I have unwittingly ruined my country" Wilson, who initially tried to label the women as liars or claimed they exaggerated the ordeal.

Nellie McClung was leading the way in Canada from Manitoba, but she didn't have to deal with the brutality of the Wilson administration. She persuaded Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin to visit a factory to see the terrible conditions and even held a humorous mock parliament where she asked if men should be allowed to vote.

These two instances demonstrate a contrast between the suffragette movements in the US and Canada. Author Susan Jackel wrote: Compared to the flamboyance and occasional violence of British, French and American suffrage campaigns, Canada's was peaceable and urbane, with humour, reason and quiet persistence.(1)

So what about Prince Edward Island? The Canadian Encyclopedia claims that PEI had "practically no popular agitation" as it passed the Election Act in 1922, granting women the right to vote (1); and according to Professor of women's History at The University of British Columbia Veronica Strong-Boag, "PEI never produced a suffrage group."(2)

In light of this, I'm not certain Janet King would even have been jailed.

(1) Women's Suffrage, The Canadian Encyclopedia
(2) women's suffrage movement - Canadian Citizen, Roland Graeme:Knight, Freyja (Woman)

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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by The Chef » Sat Jul 17, 2010 6:19 pm

Me thinks the purpose of RTA was not to turn it into a reality tv-show; it focessed on a story, and because it was set in the late 19th and early 20th century, they simply needed a periodical setting.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by Shelly » Tue Jul 20, 2010 8:37 pm

hannikan wrote:I don't know which fairyland version of So Dear to my Heart and Happy Christmas Miss King you watched, but Gus's sight was not restored.
Gus's sight was restored well enough to work in a Naval telegraphy office in HCMK, I imagine (somehow I doubt he'd just be verbally translating Morse Code, but maybe that's just me? ;)). If it weren't restored at all he would've remained in Avonlea, IMO. (Though, of course, the writers would have the dubious task of explaining his absence.)

Anyway, RTA isn't historically accurate because the source material wasn't/isn't historically accurate. "Aunt Janet Rebels" was practically the only episode that contained anything of any historical significance.
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Re: Film Boasted as Anti-Avonlea

Post by hannikan » Tue Jul 20, 2010 9:24 pm

I have read Not For Ourselves Alone and I know that there were a lot of disagreements between Stanton and Anthony, in particular.

From the way Felicity described the situation the reason Gus was doing telegraphy was because he did not have his sight restored or he would have served in the army. They used wireless/radiotelegraphy during WWI, which could have been done by those who were sight impaired. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wireless_telegraphy

I disagree that RTA didn't show anything of historical significance besides the women's movement in AJR. All elements of everyday life in any era is of historical significance.
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