Ten Types of Australian Film

Garry Gillard

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Chapter 10: Teenpic

As we know, all generic categories are leaky, and this is one of the leakiest. An ideal type of teen movie would be one in which the central characters were explicitly aged between 12 and 20, played by actors of the same age, in which the central concerns thematised were of great interest to teenagers, and which was made in such a way as to appeal to teenagers, for example by including music which appeals to teenagers and/or by shooting and editing in lively and energetic ways. In the American scene, John Hughes’s films may be taken as being typical teenpics: The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Pretty in Pink (1986) for example—all of which he wrote as well as directed. Hughes has loomed so large in this area of film-making that he may well have provided, if not a model, at least some ideas for Australian films, as we’ll see in a moment.

However, as we’ve seen, it’s rare to find all the characteristics of any genre in a single film, so it’s more usual to point out the existence of a sufficient number of such characteristics—or even just some of them, or only one, if it is significant enough in the film. It’s also the case that it’s unusual to find a film of a single genre unmixed with features of at least one other. So it’s usually necessary to see a film as bringing together at least two genres, if not more. In terms of these simple definitions: teenpics are films focussed on teenagers and their social situation, and aimed to appeal to teenagers:

... these films can all be defined as teenpics because they all focus on teenage characters.1

If we take “teen movie” to signify any film which deals with the drama or comedy of growing up in a specific social en­vironment, then there are [sic] of course a flood of completely “respectable” teen films which come to mind...2

Teenpics date from the 1950s. Rock Around the Clock (Fred F. Sears, 1956)

... was, as Doherty points out, “the first hugely successful film marketed to teenagers to the pointed exclusion of their elders”. It was arguably, therefore, the first modern teenpic...3

The rock musical was born in the 1950s with teenpics like Jailhouse Rock ([Richard Thorpe] 1957) and The Girl Can’t Help It ([Frank Tashlin] 1956).4

There is an unusually large degree of overlap between this genre and others, especially including (in America at least, and according to Neale): teen-centred art or social-problem films (dealing with “juvenile delinquency”, for example); low-budget horror, sci-fi and slasher films; “gross-out” or “animal” comedies; teen-centred dramas and romances; bratpack westerns; and certain musical biopics. There are also hot rod films, calypso and beatnik films, and what Doherty calls “clean teenpics”: light romances and musicals.5 In the Australian context, among the teenpic crossover films, the greatest number would be either teen-centred dramas, romances, or comedies.

As our key film for this chapter has strong claims for centrality to its type, let’s, for a change, go straight to an examination of Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods, 2000), as, to concur with Lee Gough, “This is a good teen film and a very good Australian one”.6 The distributor for Roadshow, Joel Pearlman, writes

... we wanted to steer away from looking like an American teen comedy and we wanted to celebrate the Australianness of the film and didn’t want it to be derivative in any way.7

The film focusses on a teenager: Josie Alibrandi (Pia Miranda) is still at school. It is concerned with situations in which teenagers typically have to negotiate: supervision by older generations, dealing with school life, school work and school friends, relating to members of the opposite sex, relationships with one’s parents, dealing with cultural expectations and pressures.

One of the key things adolescents have to do—it is almost a definition of the word—is to come to terms with their relationships with their parents, as they prepare to move away from them and out of home and become adults in their own right—as signalled by the very title of Moving Out (Michael Pattinson, 1983). Josie’s key relationship at the beginning of the film is with her single mother; she knows nothing about her father. At this stage, it seems that the two main things her mother is concerned about, in relation to Josie, are her relationship with another family member, her grandmother, Nonna, and her relationship with her Italian-Australian culture, as symbolised by the tomatina day given to community preparation of tomato sauce. Christina Alibrandi (Greta Scacchi) goes along with the custom with some grace, whereas Josie is resistant, and actually leaves the event, preferring to be at Bondi beach.

Then Michael Andretti (Anthony LaPaglia) enters the scene: Josie’s father, although he was not aware that he had fathered a child. This throws the problem of relating to a parent—and particularly to one of the opposite sex—into an unusually strong light. Josie has always been completely independent of her father, so that in a way she could be said to have achieved one of the goals of her adolescence. Now, suddenly, she finds herself in a situation in which she becomes dependent on him, where she needs him not only as a father but also in his professional capacity as a barrister. Given the constraints of time in a 100 minute film with a number of plot strands to tie up, the father and daughter quickly develop a liking for each other, become aware of what they have in common in temperament, and the relationship is satisfactorily resolved.

To throw more light on the treatment of the central character’s relationship to her father, it’s instructive to compare the treatment of the missing father in this film with that in another of our key films, Radiance (see Chapter 8). Whereas in that case, a film which originated in a play, the treatment is theatrical, hyberbolic, melodramatic—in the present case (a film which originated in a novel) the treatment of this central relationship is partly naturalistically dramatic. In terms of its subject-matter it’s still in the realms of melodrama, but is not melodramatic in stylistic terms—certainly not in the negative sense of the word discussed in Chapter 8.

And to intensify the comparison, there are also comic elements in the father-daughter resolution in Looking for Alibrandi: Josie’s contentment at having a father in her life is shown wordlessly by her reaction to hearing him snore, a moment which was prepared earlier in the script by a reference to the fact that she at least knows he is alive. Another such light moment is in the scene in the principal’s office between Carly Bishop (Leanna Walsman), her father (Graeme Blundell), and Josie, following the incident in which Josie has smashed Carly’s nose with a heavy book. When Michael enters, Josie uses the word “Dad” for the first time and in striking isolation. The moment is not purely comic, being mixed with other kinds of meaning, but it is certainly far from tragic.

The resolution of Josie’s bond with her mother is combined with all the other strands, as the beginning is joined to the end of the film with another tomato day. The differences are that Josie is now happy to be there with her mother, and that her father is there too, having come to terms with Nonna Katia (Elena Cotta)—and Jacob (Kick Gurry) also joins in the party.

The second most important task for adolescent Josie to perform is to learn how to choose an appropriate partner. In this particular story, this strand is inextricably tied up with questions of social class. Her first choice is John Barton (Matthew Newton), based presumably on two characteristics: his good looks and their common interest in self-expression, in debating. But it seems that he lacks some vital spark; indeed it is soon completely extinguished. Previously, however, he has failed to respond to Josie’s willing availability: he does not ask her to dance at the ball, and he does not take her home. So she turns to Jacob Coote, at first by default, and then with more enthusiasm as his fundamental vigour appeals to her. Whether she will continue with Jacob is of course left open at the end of the story, as it should be in a teen narrative, but the point is that she has made two completely different choices, and therefore demonstrated her capacity to exercise her free will. So we can leave her confident that she will continue to make considered choices in any imagined future.

As the failed John Barton is a member of the establishment, while the chosen Jacob Coote is the complete opposite, we may be meant to see the former as effete and doomed; or, more likely, simply that Josie has learnt to choose from among her own, rather than, say, aspire to marrying into wealth and “quality”. The class issue is also deeply interwoven with Josie’s school experiences, or at least their social aspects. The character at Josie’s convent school who represents the exclusivism of wealth is Carly, as represented in the fantasy scene in which she is shown as a model with her photo on a magazine cover. Her contempt for Josie is in respect not only of her relative poverty but also the fact that she is literally a “bastard”, having no father. It’s worth noting, however, that “class”, where the female characters is concerned, is on a different basis from the distinction between John and Jacob. Whereas the Barton family has been ruling class for generations (the name possibly chosen because it is in fact that of the first Australian prime minister), the Bishop wealth is very new money, based on Carly’s father’s income as a media personality. And Josie’s two girlfriends, who take her to Bondi in the first sequence of the narrative but come in for tomato day at the end, turn up each time in a late model Mercedes, suggesting that they are also privileged, but nevertheless not prejudiced against Josie on that basis.

It’s also worth saying something about Josie’s school as such, because it’s shown in such a approbative light. Its main representative is Sister Louise (Kerry Walker), the principal who, in the scene with Carly and father versus Josie (and, as it turns out, her father), is caring and sympathetic to the point of being ineffectual. Given that one of her students has just committed a serious and apparently unprovoked assault on another, she is surprisingly sanguine. Compare the Dean of Students (Jeffrey Jones as Ed Rooney) at Ferris Bueller’s school (in John Hughes’s film), who starts out representing the embodiment of evil, but ends up being somewhere beyond (comic) humiliation. Whereas the American film renders the school in an exaggerated, satirical style, the Australian school is quietly naturalistic.

Stylistically, Looking for Alibrandi is aimed to appeal to teenagers. In both its comic and dramatic aspects it not only works with issues that interest teenagers, but also represents them in a way that is appropriate to a teenager’s way of dealing with them. For example, surveillance is dealt with in comic mode, as Nonna’s secret agents: her CIA operatives, each with mobile phone. Also represented in an exaggerated way is studying for HSC exams, with the use of fast motion, and cutting between Josie’s studying and sitting an exam, using the motif of twisting various things in one hand. On the other hand, the tragic aspects of Josie’s relationships with boys (that is, with John Barton [Matthew Newton]) are shown with appropriate seriousness, as are the difficulties of the relationships with her mother and her newly-discovered father. Thirdly, the romantic aspects of Josie’s story are shown with the energy and excitement appropriate to the first experience of them: particularly when Jacob takes her home on his motorbike. The film’s editor, Martin Connor, has said that

... the teen film genre ... encapsulates the balance between comedy and drama. There’s a different type of pacing for those films, a slightly punchier momentary use of shots, not so lingering, tending to cut more on the line and more directly on the reaction.8

For an example of a literally “punchy” moment, we need look no further than Josie’s attack on Carly: the actual blow is shown for only a few frames, and there is an immediate cut to the consequences of the action. And for an extreme contrast, consider the way John Barton’s funeral is shot, beginning with a dramatic direct overhead establishing wide shot of the coffin, followed by medium closeups of the suffering pallbearers, followed by a longer take of the serried ranks of the mourners, both boys and girls.

Looking for Alibrandi may be one of the most “pure” teen films made in Australia, and yet it overlaps with other genres: comedy, drama, romance. The director herself “says she sees the film as drama with comedic moments”.9

Let us turn now to a consideration of a number of films which have teen aspects, beginning with drama. At the social-problem end of the drama spectrum are “westie” films like The FJ Holden (Michael Thornhill, 1977) with Sigrid Thornton making one of her first appearances on screen as one of the girls who gather in the Bankstown Square shopping mall. (The term “westie” refers to western suburbs of Sydney such as Bankstown, the most characteristically suburban area of Australia—although each capital city has its “western” suburbs—even if Perth’s are not actually to the west of the CBD. ) The main characters, Kevin (Paul Couzens) and Bob (Carl Stever), spend the film’s 105 minutes occupied with the eponymous car, stubbies of beer, and sex—in that order of importance (to them). The “social problem” in this film is what an earlier generation knew as “juvenile delinquency”, although that of Kevin, Bob and Deadlegs (Garry Waddell) is of a minor kind. What might have become of them is shown in another “westie” film, Idiot Box (David Caesar, 1996). In Caesar’s film, Kevin and Bob have, a few years later, become Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) and Mick (Jeremy Sims), no longer teenagers (and so this is not a teen film as such) and no longer “juvenile delinquents” but just terminally bored young men. Unemployment is obviously an issue here.

A different kind of social problem is dealt with in Blackrock (Steven Vidler, 1997), a film loosely based on real life events surrounding the rape and murder of Newcastle teenager Leigh Leigh at a surf club party.10 Once again there are two best mates at the centre of the story, Jared (Laurence Breuls) and Ricko (Simon Lyndon). At a party on the beach, Jared happens to observe the rape of 15-year-old Tracy (Boyana Novacovich) by a group of boys including his best friend, and he then has to decide what to do about it. This would not usually be thought to be a teenpic, but it is worth mentioning here because it deals with an issue often thematised in movies about teenagers: the question of loyalty to the group, as against doing the “right thing” as an individual. Teenagers may sometimes see their values as being different from and opposed to those of their parents in particular and society in general, and teen films often work through the moral impact involved.

Perhaps a more common problem among teenagers is that of homelessness, so it was not surprising when Mallboy (Vince Giarrusso) was released in 2000, once again raising a problem that had previously been aired in films like Mouth to Mouth (John Duigan, 1978). Kane McNay is the “mallboy” of Giarrusso’s film, Nell Feeney the mother who tries to keep him off the streets: the film is also a family melodrama, shot in a naturalistic style. Mouth to Mouth, on the other hand, although also dealing with homeless teenagers, tends to overlap rather with the art film, being shot, as Raffaele Caputo writes, in

... an art brut style: gritty surface, disconcerting compositions, episodic development, rapid cutting of sequences (as opposed to the distinctive use of long takes in his [Duigan’s] later films), atonal use of natural sound, and juicing baroque sensibilities out of minimalist acting.11

In the 1980s—if not across the board—John Duigan looks like the Australian specialist in the teen film, with four out of his nine films in the period 1978-1990 in that genre, the other three (in addition to Mouth to Mouth) being One Night Stand (1984), The Year My Voice Broke (1987), and Flirting (1990). One Night Stand is a drama with fantasy elements (with references to Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1926), but in its teen aspects it has something in common with Secrets (Michael Pattinson, 1992; the cast includes Noah Taylor). While the earlier film deals with the powerlessness of people in the face of a nuclear attack, in which the young people are trapped under the Sydney Opera House, the later one is much more trivial: the teens are merely trapped in the basement of a hotel in which the Beatles are staying, having failed to get upstairs to see the Fab Four. But in both cases, the isolation gives the film-makers the opportunity to allow the teenagers to consider their place in the world and their relationships with each other. Secrets may perhaps be seen as having been partly suggested by John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, which was released only a few years before, another film in which several teenagers are confined together for a certain time, giving them the opportunity to talk about themselves at length and in some depth.

The Year My Voice Broke was the first film in which Noah Taylor worked with Duigan; it was also the first of three in which he worked with Ben Mendelsohn; and the first of several in which his character’s name is Danny. (“Danny” seems to be writers’ favourite name for young male characters: Ben Mendelsohn’s in The Big Steal, Nadia Tass, 1990, is also given that name. Noah Taylor has, according to Richard Lowenstein, said that he will never again play anyone called Danny, after He Died with a Felafel in his Hand, Richard Lowenstein, 2001).12 In The Year My Voice Broke, Danny goes through the rites of passage usual in a country town, at one point trying hypnotism in his attempts to relate to the opposite sex—in a way anticipating another Noah Taylor character being in touch with his inner prophet in The Nostradamus Kid (Bob Ellis, 1993). Ellis’s film is only marginally a teen movie. It’s so dominated by the lugubrious Ellis’s uncredited voiceover that it’s more like a biopic than a teen flick—despite the standard disclaimer that the characters are fictitious and any resemblance is coincidental etc. Though the representations of teenage existence in the Seventh Day Adventist camps may be true to life, they are not typical of the kinds of experience usually associated with coming of age, at least not in your typical teenpic.

Flirting is more in romantic mode than drama, foregrounding the relationship between the two central characters, the same Danny Embling (Taylor) from the earlier Duigan film, but three years older, and Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton). Danny is Taylor’s usual extremely self-conscious misfit, and Thandiwe is African, and they are drawn together partly because of their outsider status at their respective single-sex schools. Each has to struggle to find their place in society.

The second film in which Taylor and Mendelsohn worked together, with Taylor again in the lead, and with Mendelsohn following the love interest, is Lover Boy (Geoffrey Wright, 1989), in which Taylor’s character is involved in a inappropriate liaison with a woman three times his age. It’s a melodrama, with a tragic ending. Like Geoffrey Wright’s 1995 film Metal Skin, it has a “westie” setting—only here it is the western suburbs of Melbourne which provides the setting for both films.

One pattern to follow in thinking about teen movies in the Australian context is to look at the careers of actors who began work as children or adolescents. As I said at the outset, actors in teenpics are, for obvious reasons, almost exactly the same age as the characters they play, and casting directors will make use of young actors with developing careers for roles in teenpics. We have already looked at several films in which Noah Taylor appeared; his contemporaries include Miranda Otto, who played his main love interest in The Nostradamus Kid, the rich girl, Jennie O’Brian. Earlier, she was the main character in Emma’s War (Clytie Jessop, 1988), as the daughter (of Lee Remick’s character) who has to deal both with her disturbed mother and the real (Second World) War—whence the pun in the title.

Kylie Minogue’s first film, The Delinquents (Chris Thomson, 1989) is not actually about juvenile delinquency, despite the title; nor even a teen film: it’s more a woman’s film and a melodrama. Nicole Kidman’s first film, by contrast, was made when Kidman was barely a teenager herself. (She was born in 1968, the same year as Minogue.) Bush Christmas (Henri Safran, 1983) is based on the Rank Organisation’s 1947 original, directed by Ralph Smart, and stars Kidman as a resourceful youngster on the trail of some horse thieves. If Bush Christmas is a rural teen film, Kidman’s other 1983 release, BMX Bandits (Brian Trenchard-Smith) is its urban cousin: the scenery is Sydney not the bush, and the chases involve action and adventure with bikes. If there is such a thing as a “young teen” sub-genre, these films would belong there. Rather than dealing with the (“older teen”) transitional issues canvassed earlier, they are simply action-adventure movies intended to give a sense of empowerment to a young audience, as the characters take on and overcome evil adults.

Vince Colosimo made two films with the team of writer Jan Sardi, cinematographer Vincent Monton and director Michael Pattinson: Moving Out (1983) and Street Hero (1984). Both are based on Sardi’s background as a schoolteacher, and deal with the problems of an Italian-Australian adolescent, as an interpreter between family and society, and in relation to pressures brought to bear by that society, as a “wog” and trainee mafioso. Sardi later wrote Secrets: his scripts obviously have a somewhat didactic function.

Ben Mendelsohn was born in the same year as Noah Taylor (1969; Taylor, slightly the younger, was actually born in London). It was not until The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) that Mendelsohn got to play the lead, in a straightforward romantic comedy opposite Claudia Karvan, but also involving cars. Karvan herself (born 1972) was a child star in Molly (Ned Lander, 1983)—Molly is the name of the dog in the film. It’s ironic that, having played Ben Mendelsohn’s girlfriend in The Big Steal, it’s only three years later that Karvan plays the grownup to Alex Dimitriades’s (born 1973) teenager in The Heartbreak Kid (Michael Jenkins, 1993). She’s his high school teacher, so it’s inappropriate for them to become romantically involved, but of course they do.

To return now to the overlap between teen and other genres: the action-adventure mode is exemplified by the experience of Sigrid Thornton’s character in Slate, Wyn and Me (Don McLennan, 1987): she’s the “me”, Blanche. Having witnessed a bank robbery which went wrong, resulting in the murder of a policeman, she is abducted by the eponymous Slate (Martin Sacks), the tough guy, and Wyn (Simon Burke), the nice guy, and she spends the rest of the film with them. One of the questions posed by the plot is: which of the brothers will Blanche choose? But the answer is spread out over a large amount of Australian countryside, so that the film becomes a road movie as well. (Simon Burke is another example of an adult actor who began working in his youth, notably in The Devil’s Playground, Fred Schepisi, 1976, and The Irishman, Donald Crombie, 1978.)

A different kind mixture of road, action-adventure and teen excitement is experienced in Breaking Loose (Rod Hay, 1988). This is a Phil Avalon Production, a follow-up to Summer City (Christopher Fraser, 1977), which was also produced (and written) by Phillip Avalon, and the film which launched Mel Gibson’s cinematic career. The films also have surfing in common—and exploitation of the teen experience. Films like these are examples of another fringe sub-genre, which might called the “teen exploitation” movie, and in which the target audience is not only or not primarily teenagers. Such films make use of what are supposed to be typical teenage experiences to create what is simply entertainment for a general audience, with action, sex and music.

A more serious exploration of the connexion between teenage life and the beach is to be found in Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981). In this case, the point of view is supposed to be that of the girls who are ignored or treated as objects in the Phil Avalon universe (Abigail is, for example, the top female star in Breaking Loose). But, although Debbie (Nell Schofield) is seen in the closing sequence of the film doing what the boys do, riding a wave standing on her surfboard, this is one of the few moments of female empowerment in the film, during most of which the two central girls’ existence is subject to various kinds of unpleasantness, and not only from boys, although the way they are used by them for sex is graphically banal.

Sex may also be one of the subjects of teen-centred comedy, as in, for example, Love in Limbo. This is set in Western Australia in the 1950s and centres on the efforts of three boys to lose their virginity, to do which they are even prepared to drive all the way from Perth to Kalgoorlie’s famous Hay Street brothels. One of the film’s set-pieces, as mentioned in Chapter 8, has one of the boys in a prostitute’s bed, ready at last to achieve his goal, when the proceedings are interrupted by the incursions of two of the woman’s colleagues for a discussion about the possibility of going on strike. More serious is the main character’s attempts to get his relationship with his mother right, while she herself does the same with the men in her life. Ken (Craig Adams) seems to be developing the beginnings of a serious interest in women’s clothing as well as what it conceals, even in his widowed mother’s case, and he treats ladykiller Max (Martin Sacks) as something of a rival. For the most part, though, a comic tone is sustained, helped enormously by the exaggeratedly colourful nostalgic decor, and even by Russell Crowe’s “Welsh” accent.

Despite its emphasis on style, however, Love in Limbo looks like serious social realism when compared with Young Einstein. This completely over-the-top film was part-written, part-produced and directed by Yahoo Serious, who also stars in the film as the eponymous hero, Albert Einstein, archetypal genius, who, despite what you may have heard, was born to be an apple-farmer in Tasmania, where he invents rock’n’roll as well as relativity, falls in love with Marie Curie and saves the world from the atom bomb.

I’ll return to the main exhibit for this chapter, Looking for Alibrandi, to conclude the discussion of the teen movie in Australia, and to pose the question, in what way is this film distinctively Australian. Firstly, it deals with one of the important public topics of the day: multiculturalism. This is a government policy which encourages the maintenance of “ethnic” mores and the existence of recognisable national groups at the same time as social integration. Alibrandi portrays an instance of this policy as highly successful, in a final scene in which Josie’s family and community accept her Australianness, while she—and her ocker boyfriend—celebrate her “ethnicity”. Secondly, it deals with the question of social class in precisely the form in which it is mainly in evidence in Australia, namely, as based on wealth. The two kinds of school, fee-paying and government, are shown to be radically different, mainly through the representative characters of the two boys, John Barton and Jacob Coote, but also in the scenes with Carly and her nouveau riche father. Again, this tension is neatly resolved, through the convenient suicide of John, leaving the field clear for Jacob, and the victory of Josie’s barrister father over Carly’s (meritocracy defeats plutocracy). Finally, in terms of style, although it has its moments of fantasy and of humorous exaggeration, the film is predominantly naturalistic, neither particularly melodramatic nor over-the-top or gross-out comic. Without wishing to make the claim that such characteristics apply to a representative range of Australian teenpics, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that these values and these stylistics are typical of a large number of Australian films.


1 Steve Neale 2000, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London & New York: 124.

2 Adrian Martin 1989, “The teen movie: why bother?” Cinema Papers, 75: 10-15; this quotation: 12.

3 Neale 2000: 121; quoting Thomas Doherty 1988, Teenagers and Teenpics : The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, Unwin Hyman, Boston: 74; emphasis in original.

4 Neale 2000: 110.

5 Neale 2000: 118-124, quoting Doherty 1988: 195.

6 Urban Cinefile, accessed 2000:

7 Joel Pearlman 2000, “Releasing Alibrandi”, Cinema Papers, 135, October/November: 35.

8 Libby Tudball, Pauline White & David White 1999, Looking for Alibrandi Study Guide, ATOM ,, accessed 5 March 2004.

9 Urban Cinefile, accessed 2000:

10 Kerry Carrington 1998, Who Killed Leigh Leigh? A Story of Shame and Mateship in an Australian Town, Random House, Sydney. Amanda Lohrey 1998, “Crimes of the clan”, review of Who Killed Leigh Leigh?, The Australian Book Review, November 1998: 4-6.

11 Raffaele Caputo 1995, “Mouth to Mouth”, in Scott Murray ed. 1995, Australian Film 1978-1994: A Survey of Theatrical Features, 2nd edn, OUP/AFI/Cinema Papers, Melbourne: 19.

12 Richard Lowenstein, Q&A session, Perth premiere of He Died with a Felafel in his Hand, Luna Leederville, 17 August 2001.

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