The Documentary Handbook

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The DocumentaryHandbookThe Documentary Handbook takes a thematic approach to documentary, including chapterson the many myriad forms we watch today – from the cinematic releases of Michael Mooreto low-budget internet efforts like Video Nation, from ‘shock docs’ to reality television.The Documentary Handbook is a critical introduction to the documentary film, its theoryand changing practices. The book charts the evolution of the documentary from screen artto core television genre, its metamorphosis into many different types of factual TVprogrammes and its current emergence in forms of new media. It analyses those pathwaysand the transformation of means of production through economic, technical and editorialchanges.The Documentary Handbook explains the documentary process, skills and job specifications for everyone from industry entrants to senior personnel, and shows how the industrialevolution of television has relocated the powers and principles of decision-making. Throughthe use of professional ‘expert briefings’ it gives practical pointers about programmemaking, from researching, developing and pitching programme ideas to their production anddelivery through a fast-evolving multi-platform universe.Peter Lee-Wright is a documentary filmmaker with 30 years’ experience working forthe BBC and Channel 4. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications atGoldsmiths, University of London. His most recent writing includes critical overviews ofsports documentary and trade union documentary in Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film(2005) and analysis of the changes taking place in multimedia news, notably in New Media,Old News (edited by Natalie Fenton, 2009).

Media PracticeEdited by James Curran, Goldsmiths, University of LondonThe Media Practice handbooks are comprehensive resource books for students of media andjournalism, and for anyone planning a career as a media professional. Each handbook combinesa clear introduction to understanding how the media work with practical information about thestructure, processes and skills involved in working in today’s media industries, providing not onlya guide on ‘how to do it’ but also a critical reflection on contemporary media practice.The Newspapers Handbook 4th editionRichard KeebleThe Advertising Handbook 3rd editionHelen Powell, Jonathan Hardy, Sarah Hawkin and Iain MacRuryThe Television Handbook 3rd editionJonathan Bignell and Jeremy OrlebarThe Photography Handbook 2nd editionTerence WrightThe Magazines Handbook 2nd editionJenny McKayThe Public Relations Handbook 3rd editionAlison TheakerThe Cyberspace HandbookJason WhittakerThe Fashion HandbookTim Jackson and David ShawThe New Media HandbookAndrew Dewdney and Peter RideThe Alternative Media HandbookKate Coyer, Tony Dowmunt and Alan FountainThe Radio Handbook 3rd editionCarole Fleming

The DocumentaryHandbookPeter Lee-Wright

First published 2010by Routledge2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RNSimultaneously published in the USA and Canadaby Routledge270 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa businessThis edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’scollection of thousands of eBooks please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk. 2010 Peter Lee-WrightAll rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced orutilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, nowknown or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in anyinformation storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing fromthe publishers.British Library Cataloguing in Publication DataA catalogue record for this book is available from the British LibraryLibrary of Congress Cataloging in Publication DataLee-Wright, PeterThe documentary handbook/Peter Lee-Wright.p. cm. – (Media practice)Includes bibliographical references and index.1. Documentary films – History and criticism. I. Title.PN1995.9.D6L384 2009070.18–dc22ISBN 0-203-86719-X Master e-book ISBNISBN10: 0–415–43401–7 (hbk)ISBN10: 0–415–43402–5 (pbk)ISBN10: 0–203–86719–X (ebk)ISBN13: 978–0–415–43401–0 (hbk)ISBN13: 978–0–415–43402–7 (pbk)ISBN13: 978–0–203–86719–8 (ebk)2009022687

To Linda – support beyond words

ContentsList of illustrationsAcknowledgementsIntroductionPart I Talk to the cameraixx191Reportage122Exposé: investigations, undercover and the so-jo343From lectures to landmarks: history and ideas514Vox populi: the voice of the people73Part II Observe the people895Real life6Docu-soap and mocu-soap1107Extreme television: flashing lights and freak shows128Part III Change the Liberation199

viiiContentsPart IV Entertainment for all21712Formats and reality TV21913Lifestyle: house and garden, makeover and motors,food and travel23814Performance and performers25715Drama-doc and docu-drama27716Art and anarchy295Part V Watch the figures31317Box ySelective webographyIndex371406413415

0.111.112.113.114.115.116.117.118.119.1Sean Langan ‘Meeting the Taliban’ for Dispatches: War on TerrorUndercover Mosque. Produced by Hardcash ProductionsBettany Hughes, Athens: The Truth About Democracy Bettany HughesSortie des Ouviers de l’Usine Lumière (Workers Leaving the LumièreFactory) (Lumière 1895)User-generated content: the G20 protest in London. Photographby zongo69. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic LicenseMalcolm and Barbara: A Love Story ITV/Rex Features. 1999 Malcolmand Barbara PointonCurb Your Enthusiasm HBO/The Kobal CollectionThe ArmstrongsCops Courtesy Langley Productions, Inc.Front cover of Ways of Seeing by John Berger (London: Penguin Books,1990). Copyright John Berger, 1972. Reproduced by permission ofPenguin Books LtdBreaking the News. Reproduced by permission of Illumina Digital LtdLeni Riefenstahl at Nuremburg, 1934Bowling for Columbine Alliance Atlantis/Dog Eat Dog/UnitedBroadcasting/The Kobal CollectionPoster for Estrellas de la LineasThe Big Brother logo – the all-seeing eye. Big Brother logo licensedby Channel 4Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs. Photography byGlenn Dearing, Camera Press LondonShine a Light Concert Promotions International/The Kobal Collection/Mazur-Umaz, KevinThe Verdict. Produced by RDF TelevisionDavid by Sam Taylor-Wood Adam Butler/AP/PA PhotosTouching the Void Film Four/Pathe/The Kobal Collection/Sutton-Hibbert, JeremyNotorious Fox Searchlight Pictures/The Kobal CollectionLife in Cold Blood. Photograph: 63290305317342356

AcknowledgementsThis book draws on such a rich weave of personal experience, critical conversation andconvivial support that it will be impossible to name all who have contributed to it. But thespheres of influence in which I have worked I acknowledge with heartfelt gratitude, from theBBC and Channel 4 to the National Film and Television School, Southampton SolentUniversity and Goldsmiths, University of London. I particularly thank my colleagues atGoldsmiths for their unstinting support and vital comments on the text: James Curran, TonyDowmunt, Natalie Fenton and Noel Hines. I also had invaluable detailed feedback frombroadcast journalist Mat Charles and documentary filmmaker Tracy Bass, both of whom alsoteach at Goldsmiths. The former Head of the Short Course Unit at the NFTS, DeanneEdwards, gave early and timely advice on the book’s focus.Conversations and interviews are acknowledged within the text, but I would particularlylike to mention Kevin Sutcliffe, Deputy Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4, andMartin Turner, Head of Newsgathering Operations at the BBC, for their regular advice.Richard Klein – former documentary commissioner at the BBC, now Controller, BBC4,Angus Macqueen – former Head of Documentaries at Channel 4, Sue Davidson – formercommissioner of science documentaries at Channel Five and Emma Read – commissioningeditor for factual entertainment and specialist factual at Sky, lead a long list of key contributorsfrom the commissioning carousel that ensures they will be in other posts by the time ofpublication. Producers and filmmakers who gave generously of their time include VickiBarrass, Ed Braman, Mike Flood Page, David Dunkley Gyimah, Abigail Harvey, SeanLangan, Gavin MacFadyen and Helen Veale. The BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol wereespecially welcoming and I am most grateful to Miles Barton, Alastair Fothergill and NigelPope. Among those who contributed to the expert briefings, all of whom I should like to thank,I should mention Murray Dick, Shiva Kuma Naspuri and Hannah the Journalist.I would also like to thank my editor Aileen Storry for her constant confidence throughthe lengthy gestation of this book, and my wife Linda for her undying support.Peter Lee-Wright

IntroductionFilm is more than the twentieth-century art. It’s another part of the twentiethcentury mind. It’s the world seen from inside. We’ve come to a certain point inthe history of film. If a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself.This is where we are. The twentieth century is on film . . . You have to askyourself if there’s anything about us more important than the fact that we’reconstantly on film, constantly watching ourselves.Don DeLillo, The Names, ch. 8, New York 1982If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless,you’ve got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, fordocumentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you’redumb and blind.Salman Rushdie ‘Songs Don’t Know the Score’,Guardian, London, 12 January 1987hen British-born terrorists bombed London on 7 July 2005, killing 52 and injuringmany more, Londoners found resources and strengths within themselves morefamiliar from folk memory of the Blitz in 1940 and 1941. Many of the imagesBritons treasure from wartime were made under the auspices of the Crown Film Unit, apart of the Ministry of Information, tasked with keeping up public morale. The title alone ofHumphrey Jennings’s 1940 short We Can Take It (GPO Film Unit) conjures up an impressionof the chippy little cockney standing up to the incoming bombs of the Third Reich. His morefamous Crown Film Unit films, Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943),enshrine the carefully constructed myth of an indomitable resilience in the face of peril.Historians have begun to revise that myth and reveal the government incompetence and publicpanic that began to take hold as people found insufficient refuge from the onslaught of Germanbombers. Painful truths will not diminish Jennings’s iconic status in the documentary canon,tragically ensured by his premature death on location in 1950, but this casts a useful light onthe plastic nature of documentary and the role it serves in the public consciousness.The undisputed art of filmmakers such as Jennings, Watt and Rotha helped elevate thedocumentary form to a podium where purists like to encase it in a formalist shroud. Earlytelevision documentarists laboured under a uniform conception of their craft, in a traditionseamlessly transmitted from Grierson and Reith to Wheldon and Attenborough. This unitarymodel often obscures the truths that documentary sometimes unwittingly reveals, reflectingdifferent meanings in a constantly changing society. Despite leftist sympathies, Jennings’sW

2Introductiongeneration saw no compromise in propagandist work for the war effort, nor conflict betweenhis poetic sensibilities couched in a classically educated voice and his populist objectives. Ifalive today he would probably find it difficult to get work from commissioners desperate toattract young audiences through a popular argot. Equally, a contemporary society in whichmost people have access to some means of video recording, many can receive over 500channels of television and – as Londoners reputedly are – can be caught on CCTV surveillancecameras up to 300 times a day creates a totally different visual context. Cultural change hasalways been reflected in the different forms of representation. If Jennings represents the‘documentary as high art’ orthodoxy of a formal, conservative mid-twentieth-century Britain,the liberalisation of the 1960s onwards gave rise to the ‘documentary as unmediated reality’myth, arguably an even more restrictive straitjacket that yet has a certain currency.On that fearful 7 July, television news bulletins carried grainy video of the Underground nightmare grabbed on survivors’ mobile phones, a novel use of available technologyto help record and make sense of their trauma. David Blunkett MP, then a member of theCabinet emergency committee, commented on how the media outpaced the government’sown internal information system:In fact the news media were ahead of the material being presented to us. They hadeyewitnesses sending through video footage, photographs and on-the-spot accounts. It was,in essence, the first time I think that reporting was as much about the men and women onthe ground as it was about professional reporters themselves . . . We were entering anew era.1This has been heralded as some kind of emergent citizen journalism, but that is to elevatethe automatic pressing of a record button to the same level as the making of informeddecisions, which none of these people were in any position to make, nor pretended to be.The context of those images’ presentation and the interpretative commentary is what definestheir meaning, and that remains in the reporters’ and editors’ control. Yet the thirst for instantreaction and first-hand experience has created a market for the ill-considered.When another fatal incident took place on the London Underground just eight days later,no one had their phone on video record, but many confused first-hand accounts werebroadcast to the world. Traumatised commuters had to make sense of armed police burstinginto their carriage and shooting a fellow passenger dead with multiple shots to the head. Itis a natural human reaction to try and retrospectively make narrative sense of the sounds andimages that preceded this shooting. Thus the instant myth was born that Jean Charles deMenenez had vaulted the turnstiles in flight from the police, wearing a suspiciously bulkypuffer jacket. In fact, it was the pursuing police that had done this, and their innocent targethad strolled onto the train wearing his summer clothes and carrying a free newspaper. Evenafter admitting their mistake in shooting the Brazilian electrician dead, the police persistedin the post-rationalised view of events to justify their extreme actions – and it wasn’t untilLana Vandenberghe, a secretary at the Police Complaints Commission, leaked the truth toITN that it emerged publicly. At least a camera recording would have made that deliberatemisinformation harder to sustain but – coincidentally and despite the heightened state ofsecurity – all the Stockwell station’s many CCTV cameras were allegedly ‘not working’.So we must always strive to know for whom the cameras are working (or not), before wecan know how to read the images they record, or exclude. As the founder of the English

Introduction3documentary school, and originator of the term ‘documentary film’ (to describe RobertFlaherty’s 1926 film Moana), even John Grierson was aware of the many ‘different qualitiesof observation, different intentions in observation, and, of course, very different powers andambitions at the stage of organising material’.2 That neat triptych can also serve to help definethe ambition and scope of this handbook. It is my contention that those different qualities ofdocumentary observation have evolved with the proliferation of views and voices that theprogressive democratisation of the media has allowed. This has paralleled an equal explosionin different intentions, just as the monolithic monopoly of the BBC, charged by Reith to‘inform, educate and entertain’ has been challenged by a vast and growing range of channelsand other platforms peddling every conceivable kind of message. And the different powersand ambitions range from the global objective of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – tocontrol as wide a range of global media as possible and influence governments so as to ensurea beneficial business environment – to ultra-low-budget video serving special interest groups,normally distributed through web connections. These three features together have beenresponsible for a multiplication of filmic forms that make up a significant proportion of ourtwenty-first-century visual culture, not just through the dominant means of television’s manygenres, but also reinvigorating cinema, giving much to the internet and invading the art galleryand the theatrical stage. Many of these emergent, maybe transient forms are not documentaryin a form that Grierson and the founding fathers would recognise – and are also dismissedas trivial, formulaic and worse by some leading practitioners and theoreticians – butundeniably play a significant role in the ways in which factual information is framed,transmitted and viewed today.It is this broader field of documentary and related factual programming that TheDocumentary Handbook addresses. While recognising and celebrating the antecedents andachievements of the classic documentary form, I feel it pointless to erect an ivory toweraround it and its memory, denying all worth to the bastard forms it has spawned. Many ofthese programmes, in a fast-evolving multi-platform universe, are poor, though so were quitea few made during the so-called Golden Age of television in the 1960s and 1970s, when therewas much less competition for resources and audiences. Furthermore, it is disproportionatelyin these new forms that many industry entrants will expect to work. Inexperience inproduction staff can be mitigated by better education and training, though poorly paid andresourced jobs are bound to continue with the marginal economics of niche channels. It ispossible to elevate the ambition of this generation of programme-maker and enhance theircritical skills, at least more readily than anyone can expect commercial stations to compromisetheir profitability in the service of art.In today’s fragmented marketplace, even the major terrestrial channels cannot take theiraudiences for granted and can no longer produce ‘must-see’ television for all the family, suchas the legendary Christmas Morecambe and Wise Show, which used to attract over 20 millionviewers in the 1970s. Not only do families infrequently sit together or share tastes, but theyoung audiences have separate TV sets, watch digital channels such as Bravo and MTV, andmore often take their information and entertainment from the internet through the likesof YouTube and video download. Finding ways to access that audience is the key driver ofchange in TV programming, with technological evolution providing the instruments for thosechanges. Increasing consideration is given to audience wants and reactions, encouraging theendless repetition of successful formulae above formal innovation. Few focus groups produceinnovative programme ideas.

4IntroductionTelevision reflects changes in society as much in the way it conceives, organises andprioritises its programmes as in its choice of subjects and their treatment. Televisionproduction was traditionally undertaken in departments specialising in particular subjectgenres – News, Current Affairs, Documentaries, Music and Arts, Drama Series and so on –but changes in the economics and corporate management of the industry have contrivedsignificant collapse of these divisions. The BBC, for instance, appears to have spent the last15 years in a constant, fevered state of internal reorganisation, culling whole departmentsand thousands of staff as it struggles to find more efficient models of production that best fitthe fast-evolving new media landscape. Now what was the Production division has become‘Vision’ and jobs are constructed with titles like ‘Head of Multimedia Knowledge Commissioning’. The BBC has fared well in the development of new media, with its website aworld-beater and its digital channels offering successfully clear propositions, but arguablyat cost to the finances supplied by the licence fee payers to the core terrestrial services forwhich they thought they were paying.Old verities and values have been swept away in this transformative tsunami. CurrentAffairs, once journalistically distinct and physically distant from News, has now been downsized and rolled into the News Division. Documentaries, long one of the key departmentsthat anchored the schedules and gave the BBC its world renown, has been so diminished anddemoralised that in a recent voluntary redundancy offer all its remaining executive producersapplied. Not all of them have left and some great, classic documentaries are still made bythe BBC, but not so many as in the past. This is due in part to the growth of the independentsector, where the majority of documentary filmmakers now ply their often lonely trade, butit is also due to the emergence of a whole host of other programme genres that better servethe television channels’ attempts to retain audience loyalties in a crowded, fragmentingmarketplace. Many of these employ what are essentially documentary techniques, andpeople skilled in those techniques, and it is the object of this book to chart this evolution andthe multiple metamorphoses of the documentary form.A vital part of that process is to understand the drivers of change and the conflicting ideasthey represent. The classic authored television documentary that was once the gold standardproudly represented by the BBC is now seen by many as somewhat anachronistic, representative of a former imperial dominance of ideas and forms. The Latin American documentaryhas fulfilled an important role in giving voice to emergent groups in South America. The fastemerging media markets of the world, notably India and China, mould the form to suit theirdifferent needs. But the empire of ideas is not dead, as Britain is second only to the USA inglobal television sales, and it is precisely in these documentary formats and other formulaethat they are supreme. So this book, while trying to avoid charges of ethnocentricity throughreferring to other national forms, will take as its primary text English language documentaryand its offspring. It will also explore the causes and impact of a revival in cinemadocumentary, which is integrally related to the rise and fall of other media.The book is organised in five parts, grouping together particular types of documentarysub-genre that share a common thread. Thus Part 1 is called Talk to the camera, groupingtogether essentially informational programme forms in which people tend to address thecamera directly. Chapter 1 deals with the various forms of Reportage, which remains thestaple journalistic form in most parts of the television world, whether it is a seasoned reporterjourneying in some far flung foreign part, or a specialist correspondent exploring a featureof the local economy. Chapter 2 concentrates on the Exposé, including undercover

Introduction5investigations where intrepid reporters risk personal harm to reveal wrongdoing in theotherwise unfilmable underbelly of society, and the work of the solo journalist. Chapter 3describes the evolution of the lantern-slide Lecture series into grand, often globe-trottingdocumentary series in which experts reveal the features of their world, be it of history, art,music or philosophy. These are often known as ‘landmarks’. Chapter 4 traces the emergenceof the Vox populi, the voice of the people, from early socialist efforts allowing ordinary peopleto address the camera to latter-day individual forms like video diaries.Part 2 is called Observe the people, and charts the evolution of the observationaldocumentary, which is what most people understand by the term ‘documentary’. Chapter 5covers Real life and its central subject matter for the American proponents of Direct Cinema,the UK founders of Free Cinema and the French conceptualists of cinéma vérité. Chapter 6follows the development of Docu-soap, bringing the casting principles and narrativecomplexities of soap opera to documentary subjects, and the appropriation of documentarytechniques by filmmakers making ‘mockumentaries’. Chapter 7 is called Extreme television:flashing lights and freak shows, referring to the recent development of extreme subject matter,from patients with severe medical conditions to people pushed to their limits. It also looksat the apparently insatiable thirst for documentary series chasing the sensations of crime, firesand accidents dealt with by the emergency services.Part 3 is entitled Change the mind, referring to film’s potential as a tool for education,propaganda and polemic. Chapter 8 looks at the many different fields of Education thatdocumentary has been put to in Britain and the USA, from children to adults, history andscience to health hints. Chapter 9 is all about Propaganda and the various filmic formsemployed by different nations and ideologies, particularly in times of conflict. Chapter 10expands into Polemic and the use of film as argument, particularly in service of contemporarysingle issue concerns. Chapter 11 is called Liberation, in the sense that it is principally aboutthe ways in which documentary film liberates the voice of subject peoples, the oppressed andothers generally denied a voice.Part 4 is Entertainment for all, exploring the different avenues down which documentaryhas moved to bring entertainment to a mass audience. Chapter 12 covers Formats and realityTV, the key drivers of television schedules that attract both young audiences and theadvertising revenue chasing them. Chapter 13 looks at the many formulae of Lifestyle andmakeover, which also reflect the consumerist tendencies and tastes of today’s audiences.Chapter 14 covers the broad field of Performance, from classic rock documentary to archivedriven sports documentary. Chapter 15 is all about Drama-doc and the current tendency todramatise or re-enact everything, where once this was deemed anathema by documentarists.Chapter 16 enters the outfield of Art and anarchy, looking at the ways documentary hasinvaded the art galleries and come to play an integral part of performance art.Part 5 is called Watch the figures, and looks at three of the most profitable areas ofdocumentary film. Chapter 17 assesses the much-commented revival of documentary ascinema Box office and, with it, the notion that documentaries have rediscovered their originalambition to be historical documents, lasting testimony to their time rather than fleetingmoments to pass the time. Chapter 18 looks at Biopics, recognising the porous andincreasingly redundant barrier between fact and fiction, as television rewrites historyand cinema discovers healthy returns in the heroic lives of sports and music stars, evenof presidents and terrorists. Chapter 19 explores the global phenomena of Wildlife andenvironment films, through a case study of the world’s most successful wildlife film

6Introductionproduction house, the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol. It also finds that even thisdepartment is not immune to the impact of economic cycles and vagaries of popular taste,and reflects on how evolving concerns about the environment have politicised the naturalworld.Any such pigeon-holing of creative forms into square boxes throws up anomalies andexamples that either fit none, or belong equally in more than one. Where this occurs, the crossreferences will be made explicit. The aim is not so much to categorise programmes as todelineate pathways down which the documentary form has developed and fields in whichaspirant programme-makers may be expected to perform. It weaves together the historical,industrial and cultural context in which these forms evolve, and recognises that the mutationcontinues. There is deliberately no concluding chapter, because this is a fluid medium inpermanent motion.As Don DeLillo enquires, ‘is there anything more important than that we are constantlyon film, constantly watching ourselves’? This book suggests that yes, there is: that thisobsession with the process has obscured the importance of its effects, that documentary has,often unwittingly, charted the evolution of society from a hierarchical, moralistic one to acommercial, hedonistic and relativist culture. It is no surprise that traditional documentary,with its liberal social view – often ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, as Rushdie has it – was inretreat in the Thatcherite world in which she declared ‘there is no such thing as society’. Theself-seeking, self-regarding individualism that has largely supplanted communal ethics hasnaturally spawned television forms that reflect that change, such as the so-called ‘reality TV’shows that pitch individuals into a latter-day gladiatorial arena for our entertainment. Theirproponents argue that these ‘hold a mirror up to society’, even empowering the audience,as its votes determine the outcome. That the elements of society so reflected are rarelythe most inspiring or aspirational is inevitable because the audience is generated by itsentertainment value, not its educational merit. Producers and broadcasters claim that the purestfulfilment of their mission is to give the public what it wants, distancing themselves fromthe past in which their ‘elitist’ predecessors dared to determine what was good for theiraudience. Today’s arbiters of taste often act as if this exempts them from responsibility forthe results.It is the contention of this book that it is possible to make a good TV show withouthaving a critical lobotomy first, and

The Documentary Handbook The Documentary Handbook takes a thematic approach to documentary, including chapters on the many myriad forms we watch today – from the cinematic releases of Michael Moore to low-budget internet efforts like Video Nation, from ‘shock docs’ to reality television. The Documentary Handbook is a critical introduction to the documentary film, its theory

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