Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes for an African Orestes

Intellectual Responsibility and Imagination

by Daniel Garrett Volume 13, Issue 4 / April 2009 20 minutes (4771 words)

“Long ago we learned to keep our mouths shut.
Where silence is good health, speech can be fatal.”
—Chorus, “Agamemnon,” Aeschylus’s The Oresteia

“It is therefore absolutely necessary to die, because, so long as we live, we have no meaning, and the language of our lives (with which we express ourselves, and to which we therefore attribute the greatest importance) is untranslatable; a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations and meanings without resolution.”
—Pasolini, “Observations on the Sequence Shot,” Heretical Empiricism

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s documentary Notes for an African Orestes is an exciting film: it offers excitement to the mind. Aeschylus wrote several plays about the house of Atreus, and the family’s troubled relation to love and politics; and the premise of Notes for an African Orestes is the Italian film director’s plans to make a cinematic work of Aeschylus’s plays about Orestes, of the house of Atreus, in Africa. In the documentary Notes for an African Orestes, a black-and-white film in which fragments have been gathered together to form an essay, an exploration, we see the ordinary people of Tanzania, and hear Pasolini’s comments about their rightness for roles in the proposed film. It is a way of acknowledging the character and beauty of the people. Pasolini also discusses how the story of Orestes—in which the desire for vengeance is mediated by reason, and fury becomes memory—is connected to what has been happening in Africa as there is a movement away from both colonialism and tribalism and toward modern democracy and nationality; and he asks African intellectuals in Rome what they think of that analysis, of his comparisons. Pasolini uses jazz interludes as part of the structure of his film, an interesting choice, as many people have said that film and jazz are the two most important arts of the twentieth century: modern forms of art, modern forms of consciousness. Notes for an African Orestes is a film essay of intellectual responsibility and artistic and social imagination, which can come as little surprise to anyone who knows Pasolini’s work or reputation.

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), a filmmaker, a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a painter, a critic and intellectual, was not only one of Italy’s most prominent figures for much of his life, he remains that, but, more importantly, he is a figure who belongs to the world. His work explores the history, tradition, and important ideas that both found and critique western civilization; and he ventured beyond the west. Pier Paolo Pasolini made films focused on ancient Greek art and culture (Edipo re, or Oedipus, 1967; and, Medea, 1969), important literature (The Decameron, 1971; The Canterbury Tales, 1972; and Salo, 1975), and on religious subjects (La Ricotta, 1963; and The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), as well as on modern life with all its contradictions, decadence, and repressed possibility (Accatone, 1961; Mamma Roma, 1962; and Porcile, 1969). Pier Paolo Pasolini was complex as a personality, philosopher, and political participant: he embodied the virtues of society and also its transgressions. His personal relationships with boys and men were scandalous and brought him into contact with the law; and his equally controversial art—carnal, intellectual, spiritual—focused on matters he considered personal and political; and his politics—his affirmation of workers, of the dispossessed— challenged the status quo. Pier Paolo Pasolini was hero; and he was other. Pasolini made documentaries on Palestine (Sopraluoghi in Palestina, or Seeking Locations in Palestine,1964), and on love and sex (Comizi d’Amore, or Love Meetings,1964), and on India (Notes for a Film on India, 1969); and his documentary on Africa confirms his commitments.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s formidable film work, which was sometimes ferocious in approach or effect, rested on a fine and firm foundation. Sometimes artists and thinkers are smart enough, and lucky enough, to have the right education for their work; and he was—Pier Paolo Pasolini had studied literature and art history at university. Pasolini studied in the city in which he was born, Bologna; and that progressive city may have been the perfect place for his birth. Is such a reading making his life a matter of fate? It is probably much more logical to say that Pasolini was a very conscientious and gifted man, and that his circumstances and choices aided and influenced his development. In Pasolini’s early life, Pasolini wrote poems in Friulian, the Romanic language of the northeastern Italian (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) region his family was from, before the move to Bologna (Bologna, part of the Emilia-Romagna region, is south of Modena and north of Ravenna). Pasolini self-published his first book of poetry, something that might give encouragement to struggling writers today; and he was a school teacher, bohemian, and communist party member; and he remained interested in, and sympathetic to, the life of the poor, desperate, and rebellious. Pasolini was mentored by novelist Alberto Moravia, and Pasolini in turn mentored Bernardo Bertolucci, the assistant director of Pasolini’s first film Accatone (Pimp) and the director of many other films; and Moravia and Bertolucci were longtime friends. Pasolini remained committed to both art and politics. (It is no wonder that Pasolini was a critical—not all-accepting—member of the communist party, as his brother had been killed by communists: one wonders how Pier Paolo could have joined the party at all. Mind and will must have been stronger than emotion. Or his passion for justice stronger than family feeling. However, while Pasolini could tolerate complexity, the party could not—Pasolini’s sexual attraction to men would alienate party members from him. Pasolini’s 1959 novel A Violent Life features a man with similar erotic desires as central character.) Pasolini’s films drew on a history rich in experience, ideas, and works—his own, which was part of a larger history, that of his world.

I had admired the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini very much when I was a younger man, and I enjoyed his films The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and The Thousand and One Nights (1974); and I recall that, years ago, when I saw those films again, I joked with an acquaintance that the explicit sexuality of the films pleased me and that I found them very uplifting experiences. I had read about some of Pasolini’s other films—such as Teorema (1968), in which a young man seduces every member of a bourgeois family, and Medea (1969), the story of a gifted woman’s betrayal by her lover, the father of her children, featuring a conflict of civilizations—but I do not think that I saw any of them; and in time Pasolini left my consciousness. When the Museum of Modern Art had a screening recently of Pasolini’s Notes for an African Orestes, I saw it and was very glad I did: I was impressed that Pasolini took classical Greek culture seriously, that he had the humanity and vision to connect it with Africa, and that he respected African thinkers enough to engage them and get their responses to his project. I was impressed by his intellectual seriousness and his political commitment—I was impressed by some of the things that had drawn me to him long ago. (I should have remembered that this was a man interested in the broad view.) I have read that Pasolini traveled during the 1960s in Africa with Alberto Moravia to make plans for a film on Orestes, but Notes for an African Orestes was not completed or shown until 1970.

The Aeschylus plays that intrigued Pasolini and which concern the house of Atreus are called The Oresteia, or The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus; and they consist of “Agamemnon,” and “ “Choephori” (or, “The Libation Bearers”), and “The Eumenides.” The story of the house of Atreus begins with two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, and Thyestes seduces Atreus’s wife and is banished—and upon his return, Atreus slays Thyestes children and secretly feeds them to Thyestes as part of dinner. After Thyestes is told, he curses the house of Atreus; and, Atreus’s sons are the king of Argos, Agamemnon, and Menelaus. In the Orestes plays, Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra, following her killing of her husband Agamemnon who sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, for victory in war, the war waged with Troy after Helen deserted Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus for the Trojan prince Paris. The goddess Athena convenes a tribunal to judge Orestes, and he is acquitted.

In the Aeschylus play “Choephori” (or “The Libation Bearers”), following the death of Agamemnon, and before Orestes kills his mother, the chorus are the slave women of Argos and the chorus speaks “Evil for evil is justice/ And justice is holy” (The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, Ted Hughes translator, Farrar, Straus, 1999; page 96); and Agamemnon’s daughter Electra pours a libation over her father’s grave, asking for the dark earth’s powers to awaken, and for her brother Orestes to avenge her father’s death (97-98). That is a call for the furies, for vengeance. Upon Orestes’s return and his reunion with Electra, Orestes, beginning to suggest a rather brutal self-determination, states, “This wound that drains our race needs a strong surgeon./ No other can prescribe/ For a haemorrhage so internal./ We must find the means in ourselves” (115). That statement indicates that Orestes thinks he must act in a way that will avenge his father’s death and bring the turmoil in the house of Atreus to an end. Clytemnestra dreams of giving birth—to a large snake she cradles and kisses, pushing its fangs onto her breast, mixing milk and blood; a premonition of her death at the hands of her son. Before Clytemnestra is killed, she warns Orestes of the curse of the furies that will rise with her death. Athena (sometimes, as in the Hughes translation, called Athene), in the play “The Eumenides,” finds twelve wise men in Athens to judge Orestes, a court that will last beyond his trial, the beginning of jury trials, though the chorus of furies worries that if Orestes is freed other children will wash their hands in the blood of their parents. The court is divided, and Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes, and placates objection by saying the time for brute force is passed and the day of reason and mercy has arrived. The furies are transformed by Athena’s words from cruelty to kindness.

The Aeschylus plays focusing on the house of Atreus are about murder and vengeance and the evolution of justice; and the history of the western world, of Europe, in Africa is one of exploitation and violence, including slavery and murder, and the eventual acquisition and control by Africans of the levers of official government. Is the institution of democratic practice enough to make justice and forgiveness possible? In Notes for an African Orestes, we see Pasolini in Africa, mostly in Tanzania but also in Uganda, looking for casting and locations (he thought of using sites in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Kampala in Uganda, as Athens). Pasolini has a severe handsomeness, and, attentive, he speaks quickly and smartly, as he explores the culture, commenting on how the transformation of the furies, the Erinyes, into the Eumenides, the benevolent, is a metaphor for African political experience. Tanzania, between Kenya and Mozambique in eastern Africa, near the Indian Ocean, and rich in iron, coal, diamonds, gold, and gas, was formed as a nation after Tanganyika and Zanzibar won their independence from England in the early 1960s, and Tanganyika and Zanzibar united in 1964. The country has more than one-hundred tribes, making up the Bantu people, who speak Swahili and English in addition to diverse Bantu languages. The Tanzania that Pasolini visits is poor; and it remains poor. It is an irony that many people farm (coffee, tea, cassava, corn, cotton, nuts, tobacco, wheat), but that less than ten percent of the land is conducive to farming. It might be easier to think of Tanzania as a probable place for a Greek play if one recalls that few Greeks participated in democracy—those who did were like a village within a town. If one thinks of democracy as a dynamic process involving consciousness and choice, one can see how promising this could be for Africa, which, following colonialism, has seen so many despots (such is the case for Uganda, which Pasolini considered for his proposed feature film).

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes for an African Orestes is dense to near-dizziness with energy and ideas, and dazzling details and movements, as Pasolini draws attention to important questions: How to make the desire for vengeance part of consciousness, not motivation—not to be acted on, only remembered? How to absorb African spiritual beliefs into the modern world? (Pasolini projects the Erinyes as plants and trees, suggesting an African animism—that there is spirit alive in living things.) What are the threats of capitalism (and also socialism)? Notes for an African Orestes is a “most unusual and beautiful film,” declares Maurizio Viano, author of A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice (University of California Press, 1993; page 251). Notes for an African Orestes is a documentary about the construction of a fiction. It is about making art as a reflection of politics. It is a film in which there are few Europeans: other than Pasolini, the Africans are at the center of the film screen, both objects and subjects. What form might democracy take in Africa? What is its spirit? However, the film, while it engages idealism, is not a romance. It acknowledges the difficulties of history and life in Africa, its exploitation, its splendid geography, its air of solitude, its violence. There are scenes of war—actual footage from the war in Biafra. (Corpses litter the landscape; and we see an execution. The images of death are disturbing. Do we object to being shown the evidence of the violence men have done, rather than objecting to the violence men have done and do?) One of Pasolini’s beliefs is that the less admirable parts of history and humanity must be acknowledged, accepted as fact.

In Notes for an African Orestes, one sees different aspects of African reality—the poorest of the poor and also an African university, with modern architecture, and a library, that suggest modernity and a better future, but even there exists contradictions: at the time, the university was paid for by the Chinese communist government, who were no doubt interested in encouraging the country’s socialism and having access to the country’s natural resources; and the books that are available were imports. The knowledge and perspective of the Africans were not being published in books in Tanzania (that would change in subsequent years but not very much, with more textbooks than creative literature being published, and blame attributed to editorial favoritism, slight royalties, copyright infringement, lack of training and support for writers, and the paucity of a reading culture). These contradictions are part of the substance of Pasolini’s findings. Obviously, we are seeing in Notes for an African Orestes a society in transition: a suitable subject for Pasolini’s aesthetic concerns and political inquiries. Writing about Notes for an African Orestes in the book Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity (Clarendon Press/Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), Robert S.C. Gordon wrote that “the sophisticated combination of narrative information on the proposed final product, pure observation, speculation on how narrative and landscape might be spliced together, and open discussion of the contemporary political relevance of the myth to Africa, powerfully promote the transitional form. The autonomy of this improvised form challenges its assumed status as signifier by drawing instability or process into itself as signified…,” making the film part of questioning discourses (page 223).

Pasolini said that documentaries have a style without style, a seeming contradiction, but a way of acknowledging that the materials are less open to strict shaping than that of many other kinds of film. Even with other films, dramatic narrative films with invented stories, Pasolini acknowledged filmmaking as a dynamic process: documentaries made that process discernible. Pasolini even sees screenplays as both a structure and a process—a medium of change, with the revolutionary potential of going beyond expectations for form or grammar. “The concrete element in the relationship between film and literature is the screenplay,” wrote Pier Paolo Pasolini in his 1965 essay “The Screenplay As A ‘Structure That Wants to be Another Structure’” in Heretical Empiricism, translated by Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett (New Academia Publishing, 2005; page 187). Screenplays assumed both language and visuality, and alluded to a potential film, wrote Pasolini; and, as signs can be oral, written, and visual, the screenplay, like symbolist poetry, evokes all aspects of signs. The screenplay is a bridge of signs. In Pasolini’s essay on the structure of screenplays, in which he says cinema is another language, Pasolini refers to Italian and Bantu (a large population of Bantu people live in Tanzania, which Pasolini visited for his 1970 Notes for an African Orestes): “If on one page we see the Bantu text and on the other the Italian text, the signs of the Italian text that we perceive execute the double carom that only extremely refined thinking machines such as our brains can follow. In other words, they convey the meaning directly (the sign ‘palm tree’ that indicates the palm tree) and indirectly, sending us back to the Bantu sign that indicates the same palm tree in a different psychophysical or cultural world. The reader, naturally, does not understand the Bantu sign, which for him is a dead letter; however, he perceives at least that the meaning conveyed by the sign ‘palm tree’ must be integrated, modified…How? Perhaps without knowing how, by that mysterious Bantu sign” (191-192). Pasolini, who notes that an international film style exists, and that the Italian relation to classicism remains indefinite and sensuous, states that we are used to suspending our grammatical habits when faced with another word-oriented language but not used to, or easily able to, suspend our cinematographic habits.

Of course, film expectations being what they have been and are, appreciation for the film Notes for an African Orestes is not absolute. The rambling, speculative nature of the film has inspired some to question its structure. (“In my films the sequence shot is practically absent!” said Pasolini in “Quips on the Cinema,” Heretical Empiricism; page 226.) One can find casual dismissal of Notes for an African Orestes as a kind of home movie; as an intellectual self-indulgence. The often clueless film critic Janet Maslin wrote in the January 2, 1981 New York Times that “Mr. Pasolini’s plans for the film are sometimes rigorous, sometimes like free associations. Deciding to take the Temple of Apollo and ‘depict it metaphorically’ as a university, he proceeds to the notion that Orestes can be presented as a student. Then he grills a group of African students about the idea, ‘You are all students, and so what I would like to ask you now is, do you feel a little like Orestes?’ The answer is not translated, which is probably just as well.” She thinks she’s being amusing: not understanding that rigor and free association describe the creative process; not knowing that Pasolini’s asking young African intellectuals if his premise is valid or farfetched, if it is relevant to them, is as honest a gesture as he could make. Maslin’s commentary seems an example of judging others by what you do not know.

The well-dressed and somewhat somber, sometimes smiling, African thinkers in the film—Africans studying in a Rome university, students of confidence and candor—offer critiques that are much more pointed: they remind Pasolini that Africa is a continent, not a country; that Europeans brought many things to Africa but that democracy was not one of them (the Europeans did not have democracy as a goal for the Africans in various nations to study, seek or find—their intentions were exploitive of the resources and people). Pasolini is forced to confess that he is interested in democracy as a form (it is not surprising for an aesthete to want order; or an order that promises individual rights). In A Certain Realism, Maurizio Viano indicates the importance of mythology to Pasolini, a fact that cannot help but affect the practicality of any politics he might suggest for those in Tanzania, Uganda, or elsewhere, though Pasolini was astute about both art and politics. Aesthetes value beauty, the beauty of animate and inanimate objects, and the beauty of ideas, as much as justice.

Did Pasolini think of Africa as primitive, irrational? (What else is the root of all religion but primitive feeling and thought made into spiritual and social practices—given form, given words and images and rituals, for the address and alleviation of emotional and moral concerns?) Is seeing a European achievement as a goal for Africa, or African nations, a prejudice? Is seeing (Greek) democracy as attractive, as necessary, as a fulfillment of an African nation’s potential a racialist view? Or is it an understandable humane, and philosophical, ambition, a sign of empathy and expectation, rather than disregard? European arrogance—and, European cultural domination: those are often the charges when a standard identified as European is brought to bear on people who are not European. However, we—and, we are many people in most parts of the world—use various scientific discoveries, various tools and implements, that do not originate in our own families, cities, or nations. Why not implement ideas and ideals that are equally fine? Why limit ourselves to perpetually doing or thinking everything on our own, on doing everything over, such as reinventing the wheel, just so that we can claim the results as entirely our own? Decades after Pasolini conducted his survey of Africa for his African Orestes, we have seen the results of African self-determination in places such as Uganda, and the results have been the most outrageous lawlessness and murder, and great poverty for many citizens.

“The reality of the human world is nothing more than this double representation in which we are both actors and spectators: a gigantic happening, if you will,” wrote Pasolini in his article “The Written Language of Reality” in Heretical Empiricism (page 204): not, either/or but both, just as in the Aeschylus plays many of the characters are both cruel and wounded, with their awareness of their wounds usually being the thing that gives them license to be cruel. It is important to move beyond the victor/victim paradigm: important, as the paradigm is not true to life always; and important because the paradigm can be murderous or deadening if it is the only perspective that is used to interpret reality. By seeing the development of African society as carrying democratic potential, and useful historical and spiritual knowledge, things that could connect with, draw from, and even instruct western culture, Pier Paolo Pasolini offered an interpretation that could be confining or liberating—but, it seems to me, it is an interpretation that is liberating.

Do we want to be liberated? Is it easier to pretend that the old victor/victim paradigm and the old violation/vengeance paradigm are the most useful? Do we want to think? How much are we willing to learn, to know? What will we no longer refuse to remember? What must we learn to forgive? “It is in the editing that stylization takes place,” declared Pasolini (Heretical Empiricism; 230); well, it is in the editing that consciousness is shaped as well. In Notes for an African Orestes, Pier Paolo Pasolini is restless, not satisfied with the inherited assumptions regarding Africa nor even with his own best assumptions. He is open to new knowledge; and in the film gives us a model for facilitating that—going to the subject under concern (Africa), documenting what he finds (beauty, contradiction, need, possibility), comparing that with what he knows, with the insights of art and ideology, asking others for their perspective. “Using high-contrast black and white film, Pasolini exhibits his usual skill in the choice of faces: his reflections on the black physiognomy of Greek myth are captivating. The visual translation of the Erinyes, a sequence of thirteen shots of trees and plants bent by the wind, is also shown with great aesthetic effect. The images of laborers in the fields and of objects such as utensils and boats lying in the solitude of a black sun are torturously elegiac,” wrote Maurizio Viano (A Certain Realism; 253). How can anyone not see an affirmation of Africa—its land, its people, its potential—that does not deny truth in Notes for an African Orestes?

Maurizio Viano claims that “A twelve-minute sequence of music and singing is a courageous attempt to bestow a diegetic status on the sound track, something vaguely reminiscent of what Godard had done two years earlier in One Plus One (1968)” (A Certain Realism; 254), but I did not like the jazz music interludes, featuring vocalists Yvonne Murray and Archie Savage, and a too-loud saxophonist, Gato Barbieri: one aspect of the music was a sung recitation of Cassandra’s prophecies, but the musical accompaniment is abrasive, and I was not sure that was entirely intentional. The most significant embodiment in the film of jazz, which is marked by improvisation and collaboration, is not the music, but rather Pasolini’s encounters with African students: in which one man faces a collective, as a soloist faces a band; in which multiple consciences or forms of consciousness interact, as a group of musicians do—with the prospect that they all will hear something new.

The individual’s relation to the group—family, organization, nation—is one of the most significant subjects in any society. Is the individual respected? Does the individual help or hinder the group? How to negotiate changes and conflicts that affect all? Democracy itself is a beginning, and a process—and, as with much else, the ideal is not the same as reality. In the republic of Tanzania, with a legal system based on English common law, democratic elections were held in the early 1970s, but the country went through a long period of one-party rule, with democratic elections returning in 1995. The last elections were held in December 2005; and the next will be held in December 2010; but though there are more than twelve registered opposition parties, there remain complaints that the opposition is divided and weak, and election results have been contested in the courts.

The dramatic feature film that would result from Pasolini’s explorations as shown in Notes for an African Orestes—with its mix of ancient Greece and modern Africa, of strong women and beautiful men, of a modern Orestes, a traditional Masai Agamemnon, a chorus of ordinary citizens (farmers and street sellers and even beggars), of ecology as factor and force—would be, very likely, something avant-garde, something akin to Derek Jarman’s mix of the present and the past (the documentary itself is that). Pasolini’s project allows him to bring past and present together, Europe and Africa together, myth and history together, and art and politics together: together as object and subject, for mutual interrogation, for the possibility of reconciliation. That is a wildly ambitious and hopeful vision: it can inspire or shame us all.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was an exceptional and exemplary figure; and he was a troublemaker. Before he was killed, Pasolini was reported to have said that leading Italian Christian Democrats should be arrested for encouraging corruption in Italy; and to have begun investigating the Mafia’s ties to prostitution. However, Pasolini’s death was immediately attributed to a sexual liaison gone bad. Questions remain (the man condemned for Pasolini’s murder recanted his confession). Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, and his death, and his art, were all of a piece. In 1967 Pasolini had written, “Death effects an instantaneous montage of our lives: that is, it chooses the truly meaningful moments (which are no longer modifiable by other possible contrary or incoherent moments) and puts them in a sequence, transforming an infinite, unstable, and uncertain—and therefore linguistically not describable—present into a clear, stable, certain, and therefore easily describable past (exactly in the context of a General Semiology). It is only thanks to death that our life serves to express ourselves” (“Observations on the Sequence Shot,” Heretical Empiricism; 236-237). It is a declaration one wants to argue with, even as one recognizes its terrible wisdom, as Pier Paolo Pasolini always seems to have been a man who was transcendent—if transcendence has anything to do with freedom of mind and spirit, with effort and its accomplishment, with beauty, insight, and pleasure.

Essay Submitted August 2008

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 13, Issue 4 / April 2009 Essays   gay lesbian   italian cinema  

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