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Out Film CT’s 32nd Annual LGBTQ Film Festival Expands and Inspires the Next Generation of Queer Filmmakers

Connecticut’s first ever film festival, the Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, was presented in 1988 by AlteRnaTiveS, an LGBT cultural organization founded one year earlier. It was not a success. Lack of publicity, gloomy films, and difficulty attracting an audience fated the event for a futile first few years: after four annual festivals, the organization was in debt. However, with the help of new leadership, several LGBTQ celebrity appearances, and a new name for the organization (Out Film CT, to reflect the focus on film), the festival began playing for sold-out crowds. Now, Out Film CT is celebrating the success of its 32nd annual Connecticut LGBTQ Film Festival, which took place in Hartford from May 31 to June 8.

The festival, which presented over 65 feature-length and short films highlighting LGBTQ characters and issues, had an exciting year. According to Out Film CT President and Festival Director Shane Engstrom, attendance reached near-record levels and feedback from the audience award ballots was remarkably positive. In addition, two new short film programs, International Shorts and Youth Shorts, were introduced, which Engstrom said “expanded the discussion beyond our borders and opened the conversation to the LGBTQ leaders of tomorrow.”

32nd Annual LGBTQ Film Festival Closing Night Party at the Wadsworth Atheneum

The festival is significant not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for filmmakers and artists across New England. Besides highlighting important queer issues including youth homelessness and political attacks on the transgender community, Engstrom said that the festival showcases filmmaking as a unique art form. The festival “provides a forum for the community to interact directly with filmmakers,” he said. “Filmmakers are able to share their filmmaking choices and visions, and…tell stories that unite the community by letting them know that they’re not alone in their feelings and in their circumstances.”

“The arts are important because they allow people to see their stories being told boldly.”

Since the inception of the event, the vision for the festival has predominantly remained the same. However, technological transformations have “revolutionized” the screening committee’s process for evaluating the submitted films, according to Engstrom. Originally, committee members scouted films at other festivals or watched them on VHS tapes, and then on DVDs. Today, nearly all of the films are viewed online through secure web links. Because over 500 films are submitted to the festival each year, “it would be impossible to watch all the films as a group,” said Engstrom, “so having the films accessible online allows screening committee members to watch and rate the films from the comfort of their homes.”

While the Connecticut LGBTQ Film Festival is Out Film CT’s primary event of the year, the organization also holds a “Queer Thursdays” film series, which presents an LGBTQ film on the second Thursday of each month at Cinestudios on the campus of Trinity College. Engstrom emphasizes that events like these allow the community to share a common experience through art. “The arts are important because they allow people to see their stories being told boldly,” he said. “People [come back because] they enjoy the experience of watching these important films…in a safe space, surrounded by friends and allies.”

Out Film CT President and Festival Director Shane Engstrom (L) and Mayor Luke Bronin (R) with Annabel Jankel, winner of the Director’s Award for her film, “Tell It to the Bees”

In the future, Engstrom said that Out Film CT would love to expand the festival to offer screenings in various locations around the state, but as an all-volunteer organization it has not yet been able to screen beyond Hartford.

Above all, Engstrom says that Out Film CT embraces all viewpoints and welcomes anyone from the community. “We…hope that everyone who attends has a chance to meet someone new, share their opinions, listen to others’ perspectives, and form some new bonds that will keep the LGBTQ community strong.”

Supporting programs like the LGBTQ Film Festival is part of our mission to improve lives and transform communities through the arts. Your support for the Greater Hartford Arts council helps us make it possible.

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Stepping Into Varla Jean Merman’s One-Ring Circus

courtesy of varlaonline.com

-The following post was submitted by Jacques Lamarre for TheaterWorks-

Over twenty years ago, I attended Wigstock, a day-long dragstravaganza in New York City. Each drag queen had only one number to make an impression on the thousands of people in attendance. Some of the performers were forgettable. Some were a hot mess. Some, like RuPaul and Debbie Harry, were memorable for being themselves. And a handful of the queens came out and nailed their performance. Performing her legendary “School House Rocks” medley, Varla Jean Merman killed it – or in today’s parlance, she slaaaaaayed. I was bewitched.

Claiming to be the unwanted by-product of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman’s 32-day marriage, this candy-colored crackpot possessed a killer operatic voice, a twisted sense of humor, and a girlish giggle. Time Out NY called her “a delirious synthesis of Divine, Karen Finley and Montserrat Caballe…this big, beautiful creature is a kind of demented genius.” I wouldn’t disagree. Her combination of childlike innocent and minor felon was truly unique and hilarious. I searched out Varla Jean performances in New York and then in Provincetown where she has staked her claim as the resort town’s premier drag artist.

In 2004, my former boss Michael Wilson invited Varla to appear in The Mystery of Irma Vep at Hartford Stage. I was dumbstruck and fan-girling that my favorite drag queen was going to be in residence at my workplace for the better part of two months. It was during this time that I became acquainted with Varla’s alter-ego, Jeffery Roberson. Varla is Jeffery’s id unleashed. Where Jeffery is generally shy and quiet, Varla is an attention vampire. Varla gives Jeffery permission to let his freak flag fly.  We bonded over John Waters, Strangers with Candy, and Patrick Dennis (the queeny author of Auntie Mame). In some ways, we are kindred spirits.

In short order we became friends. Jeffery asked me to help him write his upcoming summer show. I underwent drag queen boot camp and, in a few months, there my name sat under my idol’s on the show poster for Girl with a Pearl Necklace. That was fifteen years and fifteen shows ago. During that time, Jeffery’s fame, artistry and humor has only grown. He has performed in Tokyo, Puerto Vallarta, Austria, London, and just about every major city in the United States. He even took to the stage at Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House.

Despite being in-demand around the globe, Jeffery still manages to find his way back to Hartford where Varla has a staunchly loyal fan-base. She has appeared at Hartford Stage, Cinestudio, The Mark Twain House & Museum, and, last year, TheaterWorks. This coming Sunday, she brings her one-woman circus act Varla Jean Merman’s Under a Big Top to the Wadsworth Atheneum in a co-presentation with TheaterWorks. It’s fitting, because this wacky warbler is a work of art. I’m thrilled that we will get to share her subversive and sinful circus act at the same time that the family-friendly Cirque du Soleil is in town. By the time that you realize that she has stolen your wallet and your heart, Varla’s freak show will be on to its next destination.

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Thien Nguyen

Thien Nguyen is a walking (and cycling) encyclopedia of all things local. As a frequent user of public transit, Thien knows the ins and outs of the capital city. He also happens to be a consumer and lover of art and culture. As an ideas person, he immediately came to the table with excitement and a vision of the endless possibilities for MMH. His love of Hartford is evident from this article – just wait until you meet him.

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
For me, art has always played some part in my life. I’ve always been connected to it in one way or another. Maybe because I am surrounded by so many creative and artistic humans in their own way, or maybe because somehow, whenever I fail to express myself through words, art helps me, which is the one thing I love the most about art.

When I’m at work or at home, and a favorite song play is playing on the speakers, with nothing but art on my mind, I feel happy and serene. In an ever-busy schedule, art is an escape for me from the constant chaos and pressure. When it comes to art, you can be anyone you want to be and express anything you want to.

An engineer can be a great guitarist, a doctor can make perplexing sketches; art doesn’t always have to make sense to you. You are not expected to solve problems or explain theories in art like you have to in mathematics or science. Art itself is the solution and a remedy. Art is therapeutic.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
I enjoy travelling. So, I work often to make that sustainable. As a city dweller, I spend a lot of time on my commuter bike on the streets, and on the rails-to-trails. As I age, into age, I find myself spending more and more time in nature: hiking, kayaking, and camping.

What drew you to MMH?
The opportunity to bring an international project, home, really appealed to me. This [being art] was and is something that Hartford ought to continue to talk about. Art ought to be accessible to ALL people.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
Over the years, living in various Hartford neighborhoods, time has shown me that Hartford is a city where making impactful and tangible change is possible. And, there are humans here, who like me, want to be happy and proud of where they work and live. Community projects like MMH, inspire and encourage me to get involved. Sharing passions and enthusiasms with other like-minded humans help me to feel like I belong and accepted.

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:
– Biking and walking the city freely after 5pm, when the silence and solitude settles in.

– Feeling humility and sincerity when being caught off-guard seeing something new on the streets I walk/drive/bike by everyday. Make sure that you take a few minutes out of your everyday life to notice and appreciate your beautiful surroundings, no matter how small/normal/mundane.

– Connecting with people, on a deep level

Fun fact:
I never knew the levels and depth of my appreciation and gratefulness for having a front porch. Hammocking, reading, breathing, being – my front porch is the perfect “carrier”

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
All of the things. But really, that MMH is something that we can all share together. For, we are all we have. And art, is one of the best things to share 😊

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Kirk Woodard

If you’ve made it out to Black-Eyed Sally’s for a Jazz Monday, chances are you’ve seen Kirk play. If you’ve attended events with a jazz trio, your chances are even higher. Essentially, Kirk is one of Hartford’s go-to drummers for all things jazz. Having just graduated from The Hartt School’s inaugural Master of Music in Jazz Studies program, Kirk is clearly no stranger to the local or regional jazz scene. Last year, you may have seen Kirk teaching bucket drumming at the Bushnell Sculpture Garden. This year, in addition to serving on our Planning Committee, Kirk will be back with the buckets at the Riverfront, Willie Ware, playing the kit for the Jazz Jam Session at Scott’s Jamaican Bakery, and making a special appearance at Basses Loaded!

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
I play the drum set. I am active on the Hartford music scene.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Reading, listening to vinyls, enjoying nature, cooking, and traveling.

What drew you to MMH?
I support the idea of making participation in the arts accessible to the community. I also support having nice venues in Hartford to allow artists to showcase their work.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I have lived in Windsor, CT the majority of my life. I am drawn to Hartford because this is where I have had very memorable moments and performances.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
Jazz, R&B, Hip Hop

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:
1. Music community
2. Food
3. History and stories of Hartford.

Fun fact:
I teach drum lessons at The Music Shop in Southington, CT.

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to playing with 10 bass players outside of the Wadsworth. It’s going to be a very unique and special concert!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
I hope to see more venues that have live music regularly. I also hope to see more jazz jam sessions in the area.

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Neighborhood Studios Spotlight: Lili St. Amand

Local dancer and Hip-Hop teacher Lili St. Amand was looking for ways to do what she loved as a teenager and jumped at the chance to take part in Neighborhood Studios’ Breakdancing Shakespeare program. She will be performing at the Summer Soirée on Wednesday, June 26 along with other Breakdancing Shakespeare alumni – don’t miss the chance to see Lili and support Neighborhood Studios, the Arts Council’s youth arts education program!

Tell us about yourself in a few sentences.
I’m a very artistic person. School was never my thing but when I got to art class I strived from a very young age. I also like to express myself through my hair and clothing. I feel it helps me speak louder about who I am.

When were you a part of Neighborhood Studios and which program(s) did you participate in?
I did Breakdancing Shakespeare [at Hartford Stage] for two years.

What drew you to Neighborhood Studios?
What drew me to this program is that I could do what I loved and get paid for it. Getting paid for what you actually like to do can be pretty hard especially at such a young age (and I was 16 at that point).

Describe your experience with the program – what did you do while you were there and what did you learn/take away?
This program opened a lot of doors for me as a dancer. There were a lot of dancers in the program that were already on the underground dance scene. A lot of them took me under their wing and showed me the places to session, what dance battles to go to, and the best workshops. This then allowed me to make more connections and blossom within the dance community we have here.

The program itself taught me how to be an even better performer. It taught me how to push my dancing to the next level and use it in different ways I had not thought of yet. This program also taught me the basic skills of how to market yourself well and how to create a resume. These skills then helped me in my actual dance career outside of the program which I am very thankful for.

What are you doing now and how did Neighborhood Studios help you get there?
I am a local Hip-Hop teacher now in the Hartford County area. I travel to do out-of-state dance battles which has led me to some success. In 2017 I won World Of Dance New Jersey Head Bangers Brawl. The year after I was asked to come back to judge and showcase. And now I’m so excited to be the assistant choreographer for Breakdancing Shakespeare! I can’t wait to provide the same fun learning experience to these kids that I had when I was in it.

 What is a fun fact about you?
A fun fact about me is I love rescuing animals! I have two cats off the street and they’re the best cats ever!!! I’m even throwing a birthday party for my cat that I will have for a year on June 23rd (the day I picked him up off my street).

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Dylan Healy

Dylan Healy lives and breathes the arts. He is all at once a musician, booking manager, promoter, record label owner, photographer, and much more. Dylan is certainly a jack of all trades, which is what made him such a great collaborator on our MMH Planning Committee…even if he plays annoying instruments.

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
Voice, guitar, other string instruments, and annoying things like glockenspiel and melodica.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Outside of all things music, I’m really into mid-mod furniture. I’m also trying to get better at cooking– I just learned how to properly roast a squash and it changed my life.

What drew you to MMH?
What drew me is how passionate Amanda and the team are about bringing the arts to everyone

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay
Community. Community. Community. Mo’s Midtown.
 
What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
Right now, all things Double Double Whammy.

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:

1. Collaboration over competition.

2. Startups over franchises.

3. Aislin Magazine.
   
Fun fact:
I have dual citizenship in the US and Brazil.
 
What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
Porchfest!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
Greater steps toward accessible resources and sustainability. Support companies like BlueEarth!

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Pauline Scott

“We bake with love” is the motto for Scotts’ Jamaican Bakery. What more could you ask for in a longtime local business? For over 40 years, the Scott family bakery has been a staple in capital region cuisine with what started with one flagship bakery that expanded into three total branches. It only made sense to ask them to be a Neighborhood Music Hub for Make Music Hartford. Starting at 11am, you’ll be able to enjoy a meal or a snack while listening to hip-hop, reggae, jazz, and more!

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
I belong! I love to sing and dance.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?I love to play Scrabble and Words with Friends. I love to make things beautiful, especially arranging flowers.

What drew you to MMH?
The name music! What else? Whether it is gospel, pop, rock & roll – it doesn’t matter the kind of music. I enjoy them all!

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I was sent. God provided someone to buy the business we had started (in Canada after immigrating from Jamaica) and that’s why I knew this was the place I needed to come. I stay for the same reasons which is the need to give the support to the people who are not as educated as they should be and provide income so they can live without having to go on welfare.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
Gospel!

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:
Oh my God! There are so many things. I love the opportunities it has given my family and those opportunities that I’ve been able to provide for others and encourage others to educate themselves.

Fun fact:
I wouldn’t know! My mother told me that self-praise is no recommendation. The “Great I am” is not me.

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to hearing the song “She’s Royal” (by Tarrus Riley) played between music sets. I love that song because I belong to the Royal Family of God’s Kingdom. He is the King of Kings!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
That whatever kind of prejudices exists amongst The Haves against The Have Nots, the educated amongst us will recognize their need to stop assuming things about others that are not as blessed as them. We are blessed to be a blessing for others. I pray that we each help just one person at a time, just find one person…each one, reach one!

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Dwight Hatch

Take one look at Dwight Hatch’s photography, and you’ll see he has a keen eye for his environment. He contributed many of the pictures you’ve seen us using for MMH promotion this year, and he’ll be back, traversing our city blocks and parks, documenting the various happenings just one week from today! In this interview, he reveals how he first connected with the arts…clearly, it stuck.

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
My connection to the arts stared as an early teen, taking painting lessons with my mother from a local painter.  One night each week we would go and learn different mediums like oil, pastels and watercolor.  I sold my first painting at 13 years old.  Then I moved into photography, inspired by my brother, and I have been creating images ever since.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Professionally, I was a computer programmer and lead technical designer at one of the major insurance companies in the Hartford area.  My other hobbies include golf, hiking, and travel.

What drew you to MMH?
As a photographer, I attended a class sponsored by the GHAC.  I knew right away that I wanted to collaborate as often as I could.  I also go into Hartford to photograph the city’s architecture, monuments and events along the Connecticut river.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I live very close to Hartford and attend various concerts, plays and sporting events throughout the area.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
I like most music. 

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford: The arts (GHAC, Hartford Stage, Xfinity Theatre, Riverfront activity’s like Guitars under the Stars, etc)…

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
Contributing to year two and Shooting Basses Loaded!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
To become a thriving city again!  Full of the arts for all to enjoy!!

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Megan Fitzgerald

Megan Fitzgerald’s love of the arts runs deep. As a music lover and media professional, Megan’s life both revolves around and is surrounded by arts and culture. As someone who had already worked on Make Music Day in a different city, Megan was consistently bursting with ideas on who we absolutely had to work with for MMH Year 2. Her energy and enthusiasm for Hartford is contagious, and it reads in the following interview!

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
My instrument is my sense of humor! Just kidding. While I am slowly attempting to learn ukulele and I love a good shower sing, I am neither a singer or musician. However, my life has been shaped and guided by music and I consider my consumption of it my greatest “hobby”. I have also worked in music, entertainment and media for the last 19 years because music and art are the driving forces for me to relate to the world. Creativity is everything.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Professionally I work in media, currently, public media – which is an important distinction for me. A solid portion of my working world has been with non-profit arts and media organizations because I believe in the power of art to influence life, not as a primary tool for commerce, in our society they’re inextricably linked. As for hobbies outside of listening to music and going to live concerts; I like to get outside in nature, I sew and create crafty gifts for friends and family, I am obsessed with tea and anything connected to learning more about higher consciousness, astrology and the wisdom of civilizations that came before us.

What drew you to MMH?
When I lived in Philadelphia I was on a Make Music committee there and the performing arts center I worked for participated as a host venue. That was over six years ago so I was excited that Hartford was joining the “Make Music” movement and wanting to find ways to support and amplify local artists. I love the idea of people across the world coming together on the day of the Summer Solstice to celebrate the power of music and one another – to me, that’s what it’s really all about. People are sleeping on Hartford and some of the amazing people here, the notion that “there’s nothing to do” is simply false and the creativity is here we just haven’t figured out as a State to unify and nurture that as best we could. I think MMH and all the other Make Music CT locations are just another small step towards the awareness.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I grew up in South Windsor, my family is from East Hartford – growing up in the burbs Hartford was the epicenter of energy (and insurance, of course) it was where there was art, music and jobs. I have lived in other cities like New York and Philadelphia but in my thirties I reached a point where it was time for me to come back and be closer to my family, watch my nieces grow up, find ways to contribute to the community that helped raise me.  

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
Honestly, it just depends on my mood. I like a lot of different kinds of music – varied genres, vintage to emerging. Music is energy so selecting what to listen to goes hand in hand with what I’m currently feeling or what I need to feel – music can be a vehicle to arrive at so where do you need to go?!

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford

The people – there are great people living in this city who want to see it thrive.

That it’s small enough to get noticed and big enough to make waves.

56 Arbor Street – the creatives and businesses in that building inspire me

Fun fact:
My first live concert experience was the group Color Me Bad <wince> at Riverside Park. It was supposed to be Paula Abdul at the Civic Center but I got into some trouble and my Mom refused to reward me with the concert opportunity so she sold the tickets and I learned my lesson. I have also just effectively dated myself.

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
Hmmm, that’s tricky as I’d like to try and get to a few of the different neighborhood hubs because there are some great things happening in each corner but if I had to pick one, it’s Ashley Floyd’s event. I met Ashley two years ago and it’s been amazing to watch her learn, experiment and grow. I love what she is doing with Lyrics In Da V and the cyphers she’s been organizing. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a young creative person work hard to create opportunities for themselves as opposed to waiting for an opportunity that may never knock.

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
That people see value in the neighborhoods around this city, Hartford is so much more than downtown and the people who live here have incredible value. That people stop making their first and/or only association to Hartford as “a dangerous place”. I also hope that the city can become more connected as a whole for people who live in it and people who visit it. That local businesses can sustain and the city becomes more walkable.

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The Abstract Art of Meditation: An Interview with Bri Dill

Bri Dill of Art.Lab (photo: Nick Caito)

Art on the Streets creates interactive experiences for the public, while also drawing attention to how the arts make us happier and healthier. We recently caught up with Art.Lab owner and operator Bri Dill, whose mission is to make art accessible to individuals of all ages, skill, and interest levels. For Art on the Streets 2019, Dill is presenting on her latest project, Modern Art & Meditation. Read on:

Can you give us an introduction to Modern Art & Meditation?
Creating in any form can be meditative. Ink and paint have a hypnotic quality that promotes a meditative state allowing the creator to calm their mind while making beautiful abstract art. 

What is Modern Art & Meditation’s dream project?
A large scale collaboration- making an abstract piece or mural that reflects hand and mind of the artists who create it. Or a daily series of smaller works that reflect the artists’ mood and mindset based through color, movement and approach. 

What memorable response have you gotten from your work?
Viewers always tend to comment on the use of color. My work is inherently bold and colors used are an instinctual choice made in the moment influenced by my emotions and environment.  

What are you most excited about for this year’s Art on the Streets?
I am excited to make art more accessible to the community. This is a very important initiative that I try to advocate for in all my professional endeavors. I am also excited to meet new people and art enthusiasts!

Who are some Hartford Artists we should be following?
The other 2 finalists in the Hartford Magazine Best of Hartford 2019 Readers Poll, Jamie La Jones & Kate Tortland – both amazingly talented women who have unique and contemporary approach to professional art making. Angelo [Elia of Edge Tattoo] is a self-taught and extremely dedicated [tattoo] artist who’s creativity, artistic vision & self-motivation has molded him into a truly amazing tattoo artist. 

How do you think the Arts supports health and wellness within the community?
I believe that everyone needs an outlet, an escape and an alternative form of emotional expression and the arts are exactly this. Keeps the mind healthy, the community active and exercises the brain.  

photo: Nick Caito
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