Ten Types of Australian Film

Garry Gillard

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Chapter 6: The Woman's Film

After [the McDonagh sisters’] last film in 1933 ... no woman was to make another major feature film in Australia until Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career in 1979.1

There are three reasons for not choosing to see the “woman’s film” as a significant type of Australian film. One is that, as Steve Neale, for instance, points out, this term is actually not much used now, although films are still being made which would traditionally be considered woman’s films.2 The others are that the woman’s film does not have any particular kind of style, and that it is composed of many diverse sub-types.3 Over-riding those objections, however, is the fact that Australian film-making practice, working with low budgets and small casts, and shooting on location, tends to result in human interest stories focussing on individuals and families. The other thing to note is the strength of women’s film-making in Australia, which continues to burgeon. While it is not necessarily the case that women will make “women’s films”, it’s not surprising that they often do.

My plan in this chapter is simply to take on board Mary Ann Doane and Jeanine Basinger’s three-point definition of the woman’s film. They suggest that the genre is defined by the centrality of its female protagonist, its attempt to deal with issues deemed important to women, and its address to a female audience.4 Basinger’s straightforward “working definition” simply states that:

A woman’s film is a movie that places at the center of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman.5

Doane identifies these sub-categories in 1940s Hollywood films: maternal melodrama (focusing on a mother’s joys and tribulations); love story (concentrating on the vicis­situdes of heterosexual romance); medical discourse film (with its focus on a physically or mentally ill woman); paranoid gothic thriller (centred on a wife’s fear of her husband’s possibly murderous designs on her).6 Let’s see in a moment if these sub-genres have any application to Australian features.

The “woman-centred film” has been recognised as an Australian film type since the seminal work of Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, who, in 1988, indentified a group of “films with starring or strong female roles”.7 Their list extends only from 1971 to 1987, whereas Tom O’Regan’s view of the “woman-centred narrative” takes in the period from 1918 to 1995.8 American critics, on the other hand, have had the “golden age” of the woman’s film of the 1930s and 1940s to examine.9 Steve Neale has pointed out silent predecessors of the woman’s film in what are called the “serial queen” series, emerging in the 1910s.10 And, indeed, films with strong women’s roles were also made in the silent period in Australia. Lottie Lyell’s earliest performance, in The Fatal Wedding (Raymond Longford, 1911), for example, is that of a woman who successfully abducts her own children, then escapes one after another of her enemy’s plots, before finally overcoming her and reuniting with husband and family. Lyell’s next film role was that of an even more remarkable woman, The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (Raymond Longford, 1911). Lyell was a fine rider, and the role gave her the opportunity to be seen in that capacity, dressed like a highwayman, before her arrest and transportation for horse-theft. In the colony, Margaret Catchpole works in a children’s hospital, and eventually achieves respectability and a successful marriage. Lyell was Longford’s collaborator as writer, producer and director, so it’s no coincidence that there are strong women’s roles in “his” films.

In the 1920s and 1930s the three McDonagh sisters, Paulette, Phyllis and Isobel, made a very significant contribution to women’s film-making, particularly in their four features, Those who Love (P. J. Ramster, Paulette McDonagh, 1926), The Far Paradise (Paulette McDonagh, 1928), The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1930), and Two Minutes Silence (Paulette McDonagh, 1933). Paulette directed, Phyllis was art director and business manager, and Isobel, as Marie Lorraine, played the lead role in each of the films. After the McDonagh production team broke up, there was very long wait for another female director, as Jane Mills points out, until Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career in 1979.11

Let us now, as I’ve suggested, go through Doane’s categories, in reverse order, beginning with the “paranoid gothic thriller” (centred on a wife’s fear of her husband’s possibly murderous designs on her). This will not detain us long, as I can only think of a single example: the very weird To Have and To Hold (John Hillcoat, 1997). (It’s also the only instance of which I’m aware of an Australian fictional feature film set in New Guinea.) The “paranoid” wife is Kate (Rachel Griffiths) (actually she has every right to be afraid of her husband, so a more accurate word might be “fearful”). He, Jack (Tcheky Karyo), has lost his first wife Rose (Anni Finsterer) in circumstances which only become clear towards the end of the film. He meets the Mills and Boon writer, Kate, and, as the plot develops, proceeds to turn her into a replacement for the first wife, down to her hairstyle and a striking red dress. Kate becomes increasingly apprehensive due to Jack’s obsessive behaviour: he spends a lot of time drinking and watching videotapes of Rose, and he attacks and rapes Kate. The film ends with the third in the succession of Jack’s partners, a local woman this time, wearing the red dress and singing “his” song. The implications of this closure tend to undermine my use of this film as an example of this sub-type by revealing in the conclusion that the focus has really been more on the husband (not to mention the setting and the stylistics of the film!) than on the wife. Written and directed by a man, it almost inevitably takes the male point of view, and is finally more a portrait of a psychotic man than a paranoid woman. However, the plot does definitely follow the pattern of films like Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940).

Among “medical discourse” films in Australia (which focus on a physically or mentally ill woman), we might include Angel Baby and Lilian’s Story, which have been discussed in earlier chapters. For an example of an unusual take on this theme, we could turn to not one but two films about girls who lose the power of speech due to trauma. I dealt with The Quiet Room in Chapter 5, as a family melodrama. In Amy (Nadia Tass, 1998), the traumatic event is the death of the girl’s father, on an outdoor stage during a heavy shower of rain. As he is a musician, it seems appropriate—although very odd—that she can communicate only through singing.

Thinking about films which feature women who seem to be mentally unstable brings one inevitably to the work of Jane Campion, more than one of whose films have this focus. Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989) is perhaps the most outstanding example, with two characters who are troubled in this way: not only the title character, Dawn (Genevieve Lemon), but also her sister Kay (Karen Colston) appear to be suffering from traumatic shock, which may once again have something to do with incest. An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) is based on the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame, who was certainly diagnosed as being mentally ill, hospitalised and given electro-convulsive therapy, among other things (but is portrayed as sane throughout). And in Holy Smoke (Jane Campion, 1999), Ruth (Kate Winslet) is seen by her family as being so much in need of help because of her obsession with her Indian guru that they seek help from as far away as the USA, in the person of P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel). In all of Campion’s films, because we are allowed to have insight into the women’s point of view—think also of The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)—they are never merely mad in isolation, but rather the people at the centre of a crazy family of one kind or another, and happen to be the ones identified as needing help.

Turning now to love stories (“concentrating on the vicis­situdes of heterosexual romance”), we have a large selection from which to choose, a number of which, like Love Serenade and Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996), signal this theme in their titles. I mentioned Love Serenade in the context of crime in Chapter 3, but it is much more importantly a woman’s film. The two sisters Vicki-Ann and Dimity are in competitive pursuit of the same man, “sexy” DJ Ken Sherry—really a sleaze-bag whose sexiness is mostly to be found in the Barry White songs he plays, songs with sexually explicit lyrics. But whereas Vicki-Ann uses the more devious ruse of providing food (the way to a man’s heart?), Dimity simply takes her clothes off, in order to “ease his loneliness”. As well as Barry White’s lines, Ken has a clichéd few of his own, which he dispenses over the airwaves and also to the sisters. Perhaps this is what leads to his death, as he is rambling on with some of his personal philosophy about love and life when Dimity shoves him off the silo. So, as it perhaps should be in what I suppose is a feminist woman’s film, these particular women, instead of getting the man, (wilfully) lose him.

The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) is a film directed by Gillian Armstrong and produced by Jan Chapman, with a script written by Helen Garner, so it’s to be expected that it will also represent strong women. It’s much more complex and more serious than the fanciful Love Serenade, but also happens to concern two women who have an interest in the same man. The more central character, Beth (Lisa Harrow) is in an established relationship with her French husband, JP (Bruno Ganz) when her sister Vicki (Kerry Fox) returns from overseas to live in Beth’s house. Beth goes away for a trip in the country to try to get more in contact with her grumpy old father, played by Bill Hunter. While she’s away, Vicki and JP begin an affair which by the end of the film has turned into a partnership: they have moved in to another place together and are miserably contemplating cleaning it up, as they come to terms with what they have done. It is not completely unforeseen, as Beth and JP have been having their temperamental differences, but of course it has shattered the communal family world which the film sets up in the first half hour. So, how will Beth (who is in her late 40s?) recover, and what will she do? The last scene shows her looking from her house across the suburb to the spire of a nearby church: she says she has often wondered exactly where the church is, and sets out to find out. Whatever misgivings you may have about this particular choice of symbol, it is at least clear that it means that Beth is going to go courageously on, and not just sit on her hands and abandon herself to despair.

Muriel’s Wedding (P. J. Hogan, 1994) might not seem to have anything in common with Chez Nous at first sight: the latter is like a serious European art film, while the former is one of the handful of films which seemed to define Australian cinema as “quirky” in the early 1990s. But in the present context, it can be seen as having a similar plot structure. In each case a woman has become involved in a serious but uncomfortable commitment with a man. And in each case the film ends with the central woman moving off in a new direction. In the case of Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), the problem is ... everything: her family, her overbearing father, loser brothers, suicidal mother, bitchy girlfriends, her weight—her only chance is to escape into marriage. The plot finds her a “green card” marriage to a South African swimmer. However, she discovers that her one true friend, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) is more important to her: she is the one with whom she mimes to ABBA at Hibiscus Island (where she has gone in the hope of being accepted into a community of her peers). When Rhonda finds she has cancer in her spinal column, Muriel decides to leave not only her husband but also Porpoise Spit (her native town) and go off to make a new life with her.

Turning now to our final sub-genre, the “maternal melodrama (focusing on a mother’s joys and tribulations)”, we come to some extent into that area of overlap with the “social problem” film and the “melodrama”. I’ll just pose the question without trying to answer it: why are “maternal” issues so often seen as “social problems”? In other words, why does the state seem to want to have control over motherhood? A film in which such a question seems to arise is Evil Angels aka A Cry in the Dark (Fred Schepisi, 1988). This is a portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain which is sympathetic to her and therefore critical of the various apparatuses—mainly the mass media—which demonise her as a uncaring mother and therefore probably a murderer.

We could continue with one of the important “quality” revival films, Caddie (Donald Crombie, 1976): interesting, in this context, because it was directed by a man, although (partly) supported financially by the Secretariat for International Women’s Year. It is, however, generally seen to a large extent as being Joan Long’s film, because she wrote the screenplay—based on the pseudonymous autobiography of a Sydney barmaid, published in 1953. The central character (played by Helen Morse) has no other name than the rather demeaning one given her by Paddy Reilly (John Ewart) which identifies her with a Cadillac. Although regarded in the USA as a most luxurious car, it’s still only a possession and a way of getting from one place to another, just a means to an end, and so not a flattering choice of name for a woman when seen in that light. However, “Caddie” has sick children and the time is 1925-1932, into the beginning of the Great Depression, and she has to (and does) make do as best she can, after she has to leave her two-timing husband. She falls in love with a Greek migrant, Peter (Takis Emmanuel), but he has to return to Greece and she has to fall back on her own meagre resources—but with the help of some of the locals, including a “rabbit-oh”. Consonant with the historical actuality, this represents a mother on her own, in a situation where the state has allowed itself to become unable to assist even such worthy citizens as this one.

Another “quality” film with a similar theme is Cathy’s Child (Donald Crombie, 1979), in which Michele Fawdon plays a Maltese mother whose child has been taken out of the country by the Greek father. Contested custody is also the subject of Careful He Might Hear You (Carl Schultz, 1983) and Fran (Glenda Hambly, 1985) which were both discussed in Chapter 4. Teesh and Trude (Melanie Rodriga, 2002) was also dealt with there: like Fran, it’s an intensely social-realist film, and one which extracts every bit of available power from the trials that the two mothers undergo, the courage with which they face up to their situations, and the small but heroic triumphs which they retrieve from adversity.

High Tide (1987) is a Gillian Armstrong film, which means it has a pedigree requiring serious consideration. Like Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods, 2000), which we’ll come to in Chapter 10, it encompasses three generations of females. In the middle of her life, Lillie (Judy Davis) rediscovers her child she earlier abandoned, Ally (Claudia Karvan), who has been brought up her grandmother, Bet (Jan Adele). The male characters in the film are merely adjuncts to the main interest: Frankie J. Holden is an Elvis impersonator and Colin Friels Lillie’s current love interest. The main interest centres on whether Ally should stay with her grandmother, or whether Lillie should take up again the responsibilities (and possibilities) she gave up.

The final film for consideration in this chapter is Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1999) with a fine screenplay by Louis Nowra based on his own play. Once again, in this film, we have three generations of women, although we never see the older mother. Radiance is what they call in the theatre a three-hander: there are parts for only three principal actors—the other parts are “walk-ons”. So that means that there are three principal perspectives in Perkins’ film, those of each of the three woman. Each of them is looking at the “same” thing: the family to which they belong and its recent history—but each of them sees very differently. In Doane and Basinger’s terms, this is a woman’s film par excellence, as defined by the centrality of the female protagonist(s), the film’s dealing with issues seen as important to women, and therefore its address to a female audience.

In Radiance there is no one female protagonist: there really are three equally important characters. On the other hand, there is hardly any other character: certainly the men in their lives are never seen (except a lascivious priest, briefly). The issues deemed important to women in Radiance include: relationships between mothers and daughters (Mae and her mother; Cressy and Nona); absent fathers; rape; relationship with property, the domestic space, and the extra- or anti-domestic space (under the house).

One widely accepted view of what happens when a film is screened is that the most important element is the audience.12 According to this view, the film comes into existence as you perceive it, take it in, organise it, make sense of it. And of course that is a process that is going on throughout the film, from—in this case—the striking of the first match, to the purple Falcon finally driving off up the road. At any given moment, your sense of the film as a whole is provisional, temporary—until the story concludes and you can assemble your best understanding of the relationship of all the parts to the whole.

Depending on how the story is told, you can either be given more information than the characters, or you can make the same discoveries as them as the story unfolds. The first of those two types of story-telling is called “omniscient” narration (“omniscient”, from Latin, means “all-knowing”). The second type is called “restricted” narration. In the first case, you are allowed to know more than any individual character: one easy way to convey that is to use a voice-over. In the second case, you only come to know something at the same time as one or more of the central characters.

You might want to note that suspense can operate in both of these modes of narration. In omniscient narration you may know what’s going to happen and you’re anxiously expecting to see just how and when it will happen. In the case of restricted narration, there may be an indication that something is going to happen, but here the expectation is the more general one of finding out what it is.

Now what about Radiance: do we have some idea early on about what is going to be revealed by the end of the story? I would say not. There is the suggestion in the opening that there is going to be a fire at some point, and there is some mention of a ghost, but the references are rather cryptic: we are not meant to understand what Mae is referring to, and we can instead admire the fine cinematography which allows us to watch lighted matches flipping over and over in slow motion.

So the first real perspective we are offered to share is that of Nona. In the first scenes of the film proper we see her taking a pregnancy test, finding that it’s positive, and ringing the home where she expects her mother to be. So we can assemble an understanding of her situation at the outset of the movie: she is pregnant, and she wants to have the baby at home, with her mother. That’s her view of things at the outset, a perspective which is going to have to change radically as the narrative develops—in respect of at least two of its major components.

More generally, we might say that Nona’s is the perspective of one who has left home and who now has a reason to return, expecting to find there much of what she remembers as having been there. This is one of the great archetypes in narrative, going back a few thousand years at least, for example, to the Odyssey, the story of Ulysses’ return home to Ithaca and his patient wife, Penelope. And in Australian cinema, as the last millennium drew to a close, there were for some reason many films which showed their characters returning to a changed or changing home—including the film in question.13

The next perspective we become aware of is that of Mae—the one who stayed home with the aging mother and who had to deal with the problems that developed as a result. But although we know, as soon as we see Mae, that she has something on her mind which places her in contrast—if not actually in conflict—with Nona, we have to wait until well into the story before there is a full revelation of what she knows. It is not until Rachael Maza’s big scene on the beach with the bottle of vodka that we really understand how her character sees the family home and the mother at the centre of it. Hers is the burden of the eldest child, the one who has to deal not only with an aging parent, but also—in this case—with the consequences of her mother’s less-than-perfect relationships.

The reunited sisters’ discussion leads naturally to the topic of their third sibling. She is introduced through a prop: the CD of the opera Madame Butterfly, with Cressy’s photo on the cover. This establishes the basis of a very different perspective on home and family on the part of a sister who has not only left home, but has also “made it” in an international setting. And indeed the way her character is introduced suggests a distant and guarded perspective. Cressy arrives by taxi, looking well-groomed. In her first closeup we see her looking at the house through her sunglasses. Next she is shot through the lattice of the verandah, offering only a partial view of her—which might suggest either that there is something she does not want to confront, or else that there are some things about her that we have yet to learn—or both. But it will be more than an hour of screen time before we hear about her view of what went on at the “Queenslander” house—a perspective from underneath, and one which will change forever Nona’s understanding of who she is.14

So, by the end of the exposition—that part of the narrative which establishes basically who the characters are, what their relationships with each other appears to be, and what their goals seem to be—we have come to understand that there are three very different perspectives here about what “home” and “family” mean. The development of the narrative is mostly to do with expanding our own perspective on the meaning of those ideas, as we discover more of the facts about the family of the three sisters.

The film’s major revelation is that only two of the three women are literally sisters. Yet its other—even more significant—revelation is the important ways in which they are “sisters”, in an ideological sense, in the sense of those things that draw them together and give meaning to their lives, apart from family. There was until recently a group of Indigenous women singers who specialised in three-part harmony: they called themselves “Tiddas”—from the Koori word for “sisters”. This is the kind of meaning of sisterhood which I think we are moving towards at the end of the film, as the three conspiratorial women take to the road together.

The director has said that, although Louis Nowra wrote the original play—and then the film—about three Indigenous women, “they could be three Caucasian women”.15 But, as Nowra and Perkins are well aware, there are important indications—apart from their appearance—that they definitely are Aboriginal. Firstly, we are told quite clearly that both Mae and Cressy were taken away from their mother by well-meaning but misguided authorities: they are some of the Stolen Generation. Secondly, we come to understand the subtle workings of the prejudice suffered by Indigenous women: Father Doyle, the priest, is patronising and uncharitable about the mother at her funeral service; and we learn that she was labelled a “witch” and tormented by local boys in the habit of stoning her roof. And thirdly, it is a “Black Prince” whom Nona hopes her father will turn out to be: an Indigenous man travelling the rodeo circuit.

The major change in perspective for Nona—and therefore also for us—is when it is revealed who her father and mother actually were. This comes at the climax of the film, when the house is in flames—along with Nona’s illusions. It turns out that the house is not a home, that it does not in fact belong to the mother, and that it was the scene of the rape—by a white man, not a Black Prince—which resulted in Cressy’s conception of Nona. So the change is not only in our perspective (Nona’s and ours) on the meaning of property, but an even more radical change in relation to family. And all of this in the context of a revaluation of the nature and position of Indigenous people in a society dominated by non-Indigenous people.

There is a physical—cinematographic—change in perspective in the film which symbolises the attitudinal change which is required. I’m thinking of the scene in which Nona goes under the house—and the camera goes with her. There is a theme about ghosts running through the film: it’s announced in the opening moments by Mae, as she strikes those matches. Nona under the house plays at being a ghost, making “ghost” noises and banging on the floor with a crab net. She looks at herself in the mirror—again, a different perspective—and says,

MAE: Here comes the midnight ghost. Here’s the bogeyman.16

What no-one yet recognises, even though it’s staring Nona literally in the face, is that the bogeyman is in fact coming—in the sense that she is soon going to learn the horrible truth about the father who (partly) made her the person she sees in the mirror. And he does turn out to be something like a bogeyman. At one point in the screenplay, Mae tells Nona, as a joke:

MAE: I have no idea what planet you come from.

Nona replies, more seriously:

NONA: The Black Prince has gone back to his own planet. The dark side of the moon.

Mae’s reply is even more serious:

MAE: That’s where they’ve all gone. [Pointing down at Cressy] Your father. Mine’s in purgatory, I think. [To Nona] Yours is in hell, the very pit of hell.17

The dark space underneath the Queenslander house serves as a convenient image here. Not only is it the actual place where the rape of Cressy and conception of Nona occurred, it can also stand for the “dark side of the moon”, or purgatory, or “the very pit of hell”, the place where bogeymen belong, or, in this case, fathers.

So where do mothers—especially Indigenous ones—belong? In Rachel Perkins’ second feature film, One Night the Moon (2001), a musical, the white father, played by singer Paul Kelly sings, “This land is mine”. The black father, played by Indigenous actor Kelton Pell, sings, “This land is me”. This metaphor is rendered literally true in Radiance. The mother’s remains, which have been turned by cremation into something like the land (as in the words of the funeral service “dust to dust”), are scattered by Nona onto the land, becoming part of it. The particular piece of land is specifically chosen by Nona as having had a strong appeal for the mother. Nona explains the mother’s attachment to the Island:

NONA: [We’ll scatter her] on Nora Island. She would have loved that. She always wanted to go back [to Nora Island].18

Earlier she says:

NONA: [pointing to the chair] Mum was sitting in her chair looking at Nora Island when she died. [Making a joke] We should claim it. The Japs have a tourist resort there now.19

The screenplay says that Nona is “making a joke” about making a land claim, but it is fairly clear that the film is not. Returning the mother’s ashes to the land, and to land to which she felt an attachment is clearly meant to make us think of the attachment that Indigenous people feel they have to the land, and after the legal judgement called Mabo (which established the validity of native title), to suggest that we see the scattering as symbolic of something like making a native title claim. It is this connexion with the land which makes this film so strikingly Australian.


  Jane Mills 2001, The Money Shot: Cinema, Sin and Censorship, Pluto, Sydney: 181.

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

  Karen Hollinger 2002, “From female friends to literary ladies: the contemporary woman’s film”, in Steve Neale ed., Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, BFI, London: 77.

  Mary Ann Doane 1987, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, and Jeanine Basinger 1993, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, Knopf, New York, as summarised in Hollinger 2002: 77-90.

  Basinger 1993: 20.

  Hollinger 2002: 78, referring to Doane 1987, np.

  Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka 1988, The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a National Cinema Vol. 2., Currency Press, Paddington: 66.

  Tom O’Regan 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London and New York: 172.

  Molly Haskell 1974, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Penguin. Mary Ann Doane 1987, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. Jeanine Basinger 1993, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, Knopf, New York. Christine Gledhill 1987, Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, BFI, London. Linda Williams 1984, “Something else besides a mother: Stella Dallas and the maternal melodrama”, Cinema Journal, 24, 2, Winter: 2-27.

  Steve Neale 2000, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London & New York: 191.

  Mills 2001: 181.

  David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson 2001, Film Art: An Introduction, sixth edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, for example.

  Catherine Simpson 1999, “Notes on the significance of home and the past in Radiance”, Metro, 120: 28-31; Catherine Simpson 2000, Imagined Geographies: Women’s Negotiation of Space in Contemporary Australian Cinema, 1988-98, PhD dissertation, Murdoch University, Perth.

  Catherine Simpson 1999, “Suburban subversions: women’s negotiation of suburban space in Australian cinema”, Metro, 118: 24-32.

  Urban Cinefile:

   Louis Nowra, Radiance: The Play + The Screenplay, Currency Press, Sydney, 2000: 112.

  Nowra 2000: 91.

  Nowra 2000: 96.

  Nowra 2000: 89.

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