LEARNING GUIDE TO:
BEHIND THE SUN
Also known as "Abril Despedaçado"
One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's list of the ten best movies to supplement classes in English Language Arts, High School Level. The film is also excellent for Health and Social Studies Classes.Age 12+; Rated PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality and some violence); Drama; 91 minutes; Color; 2001. Available from Amazon.com.
Note to Teachers: 21st century American teenagers watch this film with rapt attention. Its two protagonists are young, and students identify with their struggles. The movie is in Portuguese with English subtitles. Because of the film's compelling story and its ability to pull teenagers into its world, students don't have a problem with the subtitles.
Description: The year is 1910; the place is the sertão, the semi-arid inland area of Northeastern Brazil. 20-year-old Tonio is the middle son of an impoverished farm family, the Breves. He is next in line to kill and then be killed in an ongoing blood feud with a neighboring clan, the Ferreiras. For generations, the two families have quarreled over land. Now they are locked in a series of tit-for-tat assassinations of their sons: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — a life for a life. Embedded in this choreography of death is a particular code of ethics: "Blood has the same volume for everyone. You have no right to take more blood than was taken from you." The world of this movie is suffused with a sense of futility and stoic despair.
Under pressure from his father, Tonio kills a Ferreira son to avenge the murder of Tonio's older brother. This act marks him as the next victim. Tonio's younger brother is addressed only as "the Kid" by the family. Anticipating future loss, his parents haven't given him a name. The Kid is an imaginative and loving child, whose spirit will not break in the face of harsh parenting, brutalizing isolation, and numbing poverty. The Kid's love encourages Tonio to question his fate. When Tonio meets Clara, a charming itinerant circus girl, he gets a glimpse of life's possibilities. Will he be able to escape the cycle of human sacrifice on the alter of revenge? Can the cycle be broken?
The inspiration for the movie was the novel Broken April, by Ismail Kadare, which describes a blood feud in the mountains of Albania. The message is universal.
Benefits of the Movie: This film is useful in teaching: (1) some of the reasons why revenge has been rejected by modern developed societies and the rule of law adopted instead; (2) the international scope and moral bankruptcy of honor cultures; and (3) the literary devices of symbolism, motif, subplot, foreshadowing, and flashback. This Learning Guide supports lessons on all three teaching strengths of the film.
Honor cultures are prevalent in the Middle East and Central Asia. Vestiges of honor cultures continue to exist in the Balkans and in some parts of Latin America. Future voters who will make decisions about policy in those areas will benefit from an introduction to honor cultures. In addition, there are vestiges of honor culture in U.S. society particularly in the South and West, among teenagers, and in gang culture. For all of these reasons, the study of honor culture is important for secondary school students.
Possible Problems: MINOR. There is a brief, tender, and tasteful scene of lovemaking. There is no gore and no gratuitous violence.
Parenting Points: This entry is extensive, but the benefits of introducing children to honor cultures are substantial.
Before watching "Behind the Sun," tell your children that the people in the movie are living in an "honor culture" in which feelings of personal worth and social status depend upon how closely they adhere to a code which requires that they exact revenge on people seen as having dishonored them or their family. Honor cultures can be found all over the world. For the most part, Western societies have moved beyond honor culture values that survive only in some subcultures, such as gangs, and in a few countries of Southeast Europe and some parts of Latin America.
After watching the film, tell your children the following: In modern society the impulse for revenge is replaced by going to court and seeking justice. For example: "If someone hurts a member of our family, we call the police and ask the government to take them to court, rather than trying to settle the score with violence." In modern Western cultures, people act according to standards of right conduct set out in ethical rules like the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, or the Six Pillars of Character. Forgiveness is a strongly held value. These values are internalized (hopefully) in our consciences. People who do not act ethically are not held in high esteem.
Honor cultures, on the other hand, are not governed by ideas of what is right or wrong. A man's sense of self-worth and his status in society come from how strongly he defends his honor and the honor of his family. In honor cultures, prestige lies in how closely a man adheres to a code, which can be written or handed down verbally from generation to generation, that regulates how to take revenge on people seen as dishonoring the man or his family.
If your children are interested in these issues, you can ask and help them to answer Discussion Questions #s 9 - 14 and Question #1 under the Social-Emotional Learning topic "Revenge." Then ask and take your children through the answer to the Quick Discussion Question. Tell them that the institution in our society that substitutes for revenge is the court system. Finally, repeat the difference between modern Western societies and honor cultures.
WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes; and
Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: What does it take to break out of a cycle of violence on a personal basis, and on a tribal or national basis?
Suggested Response: In order to end a cycle of honor culture revenge killings, one of the people involved must be brave enough to resist the cultural pressures to continue. Such a person will understand how the values of the honor culture clash with more important values such as life, love, compassion, forgiveness, nurturing, etc. In this case, it required the innocence of a child to reach the level of understanding and wisdom necessary to break the cycle of violence.
On a tribal or national basis something more is required. The leaders and the people must have the courage to see what is really important and that their own group does not have a monopoly on truth and that wrongs were committed on both sides. It requires a recognition that the cycle of violence will lead nowhere and that higher moralities and loyalties take precedence over the desire for revenge. George Mitchell, a former U.S. Senator from Maine who negotiated a peace agreement in the decades-long struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, said that peace will only come when both sides are so tired of fighting and of the injuries and lost opportunities caused by the conflict, that they are willing to forget the past and agree to live peacefully.
This film should be mandatory viewing for anyone involved in an intractable conflict including: the Israeli/Palestinian/Arab mutual fratricide, any gang war, the India/Pakistan-Hindu/Muslim enmity, the war in Chechnya, the Tutsi-Hutu conflict in Africa, the repeated Slav/Bosnian/Croatian civil wars, etc. The movie demonstrates that, at some point, we must let go of the injuries of the past and simply move on.
Separate documents provided for lessons based on this film include:
The themes in this film can be described as follows:
Symbols, Motif, Subplot, Flashback, Foreshadowing and Irony
in "Behind the Sun"
Symbols: This film abounds with symbols. They include:
1. The oxen going round and round, especially when they continue on their own, symbolizes the condition of the Breves family: stuck in a rut of grinding poverty and endless violence in which they are doing the same things that got them nowhere in the past. The oxen and their endless trek without progress also symbolize the plight of anyone who adheres to an outdated, dysfunctional tradition, such as an honor culture.
2. The dead tree in the yard of the Breves homestead symbolizes the dead emotional life of the Breves family with its lack of parental love and its failure to nurture.
3. Swinging (at the Breves home and at the circus) symbolizes a release from the restricted and unsatisfying existence endured by the young people shown in the film.
4. The book with the mermaid story symbolizes the promise of a better world outside the limits of the Breves family with its impoverished emotional life and its dead-end feud.
5. The Kid's inability to read is a symbol of the restrictions placed by his parents upon his ability to lead a satisfying life — upon his future.
6. The fact that the Kid understands the message of the book without being able to read is a symbol of the Kid's intuitive ability to understand the truth despite the limitations of his environment.
7. Blindness and the inability to see are a symbol for the failure to see the right way to live. See Motif below.
8. The fork in the road represents a choice between the two alternatives open to Tonio: the village/restrictive tradition/death vs. the seashore and freedom from the death that awaits him in the honor culture.
9. The terrible dryness of the land symbolizes the barrenness of the honor culture and the limited life that it imposes on its adherents.
10. The harsh sunlight symbolizes the aridness of the emotional environment of the honor culture.
11. The rain symbolizes the love that releases Tonio from the sterile environment and the lack of nurturing of the Breves family.
12. The black armband shows that a person is marked for death. The action of taking off Tonio's black armband symbolizes rejection of the constraints of the honor culture. When the Kid puts on Tonio's armband, he is taking Tonio's place in the vendetta and freeing Tonio from any honor culture obligations.
13. The fact that "the Kid" is not given a name by his parents symbolizes that they had given up believing that this child would live long enough to be a real person.
14. The fact that the Kid was given a name by the man who ran the itinerant circus is a symbol of how people free of the honor culture can provide the caring and information needed to escape a dead-end life.
15. The seashore symbolizes a life free of the constraints of the honor culture.
Motif: Vision/blindness/glasses: There are several references to the inability to see. In his innocent wisdom, the kid unknowingly paraphrases Ghandi when he narrates, "An eye for an eye and the whole world will be blind." In another allusion, the kid says, "In the land of the blind, one-eyed people are said to be mad." The grandfather of the Ferreira family is blind and his grandson looses his glasses and is unable to see as he shoots at the figure with the black armband, who turns out to be the wrong target. The vision/blindness motif has added depth because the blindness of the grandfather and his grandson's loss of his glasses as he shoots are potent symbols of the inability to see the right way to live.
The Clara Subplot: At the same time that Tonio and the Kid are moving toward freedom from the constraints of the honor culture and the restrictions imposed by their family, Clara is moving out of her life as an itinerant circus performer under the thumb of her stepfather. (Since the stepfather demands that Clara sleep with him, their relationship is apparently sexual and therefore constitutes child abuse.)
The subplot is interwoven with the main plot. When they encounter Clara and her stepfather, both Tonio and the Kid begin to realize that there is a life beyond their impoverished existence. Meeting Clara starts both of them on the road to freedom. For Clara, her attraction to Tonio provides the push to leave her stepfather and the circus. The goal for both Clara and Tonio is a life free of the restrictions of their families. The themes of the Clara subplot echo the themes of the main plot.
Foreshadowing: The Kid loves it when Tonio pushes him in the swing. It is one of his few pleasures. Swinging is also a symbol of release from the characters' restricted and unsatisfying lives. After Tonio has killed the man from the Ferreira family, the Kid insists on taking Tonio's place as the person who pushes the swing and that Tonio take his place as the person who swings. The scene foreshadows the Kid taking Tonio's place in the vendetta that leads to Tonio's escape from the cycle of retribution. When the swing breaks and Tonio pretends to be dead, only to arise again, laughing, the movie foreshadows that while Tonio is supposed to die, he does not. The foreshadowing is not complete because it does not show that the kid will die in place of Tonio.
Flashback: Almost the entire movie is a flashback. The movie opens with the Kid walking down a road, wearing Tonio's black armband and Tonio's floppy hat. This is just before he is shot. He tells his story, which comprises the bulk of the film. As the Kid tells the story, the scene shifts back to the time before Tonio kills the man from the Ferreira family. Then, within the larger flashback, the Kid has a dream about when his brother Ignacio was killed. This, too, serves as a flashback within the larger flashback.
References to Recurring Themes
in Religion and Literature
The Kid is a savior figure, someone who sacrifices his life for others. The father never learned the lesson of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, one of the foundational tales of all Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Abraham is asked by God to build an altar and to prepare his first-born son, Isaac, for sacrifice. God is testing Abraham's commitment and obedience, demanding that Abraham sacrifice what he values most. At the last minute, God pulls back and tells Abraham to take his son off the alter. For a culture and a religion that was in competition with tribes that engaged in human sacrifice, this passage from the Bible is a statement that the God of Israel would not require human sacrifice. His only requirement is a devotion of the same magnitude as those willing to sacrifice their children. The passage is also a statement that Judaism and all of the religions that evolved from it recognize the importance and sanctity of human life. It also is an instruction that since not even God would ask a parent to sacrifice a child, parents should not sacrifice their children to any other belief, such as the code of an "honor culture." The Breves and the Ferreiras follow the false god of the honor culture that requires the sacrifice of their children.
To use this film to teach about devices of fiction, see Discussion Questions #s 1 — 8. Most of these can be assigned as discussion prompts. See also Assignment #5 .
BUILDING VOCABULARY: blood feud, vendetta, Balkans.
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Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
For lecture notes which summarize the information contained in the Helpful Background Section, click here.
In an "honor culture," social pressures require that men aggressively, sometimes lethally, avenge injury or insult to themselves or to their families. A man's sense of self-worth is derived from how other people view him rather than on how his behavior conforms to a code of conduct that emphasizes ethics and internal integrity. Sometimes, these cultures have an elaborate code of conduct, often oral, that regulates how and when the revenge takes place. In Albania there is a written code called "the Kanun."
Honor cultures arose as patriarchal herding societies evolved from earlier hunter-gatherer groups. When a family's wealth was contained in a herd that could easily be stolen, no man could afford to appear weak, or vulnerable. Therefore, all insults had to be answered forcefully, sometimes with lethal force. Much more than the family reputation was at stake.
In the modern day, honor cultures are usually dysfunctional and backward when compared to modern Western democracies. At times there is no proportionality in the response to imagined insults required by the code of conduct. Thus, women are killed for adultery or shunned if they are raped. Men are killed for insulting words. Honor cultures usually restrict the lives and rights of women.
Honor cultures are strong in the Middle East and Central Asia. Vestiges of honor cultures continue to exist in the Balkans and some parts of Latin America. This film involves a vendetta in the northeast of Brazil. Broken April, the book on which the film was based, describes a highly structured code of endless reciprocal retribution in the Balkans. The following passage from a popular travel magazine refers to the Greek island of Crete:
The most spectacular part of Crete is sprinkled with blood feuds. Whole families vacate their hometowns to save sons and lovers from the effects of these feuds; indeed, [one family] had cursorily abandoned [the village of] Loutro. Their longtime restaurant there is now run by strangers. Livaniana has been depleted by feuds. Its neighbor, Aradena - poised on the edge of one of Crete's most regal gorges -- is now deserted for the same reason. "Beauty and the Blood", by Christina Nehring, Condé Nast Traveler, July 2005.Modern developed societies have recognized the danger of an emphasis on revenge. Punishment is the province of the criminal and civil justice systems. People who are injured must rely upon the state to bring criminal or administrative charges, or themselves seek money damages in the courts. Taking justice into one's own hands is liable to result in jail for the would-be avenger. To put it simply, "payback" is not condoned or permitted in modern developed societies. Often, especially when the criminal or civil justice system doesn't work, victims have no other recourse and are required to accept their injury. This is preferred to an endless round of retribution and violence.
A parallel and related concept is the awareness that forgiveness is essential from a social and moral standpoint. Perhaps the best example is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which the perpetrators of crimes to support or oppose Apartheid were exempted from criminal prosecution if they confessed their crimes and apologized. See Truth and Reconciliation Commission article from Wikipedia.
Vestiges of honor culture customs and thought are part of the history of Western Civilization. Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the West, was deeply concerned with the evils of revenge (see the Learning Guides to Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet). Duels were fought until the early 1800s. One of our most important Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a duel in 1804. Feuds were not unheard of in the 1800s -- witness the Hatfields and the McCoys. See Hatfields-McCoys and The Hatfield and McCoy Feud. The problem of vendettas in certain parts of the U.S. was severe enough that Mark Twain made it the subject of satire in his book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The lure of defending one's honor is still with us as the continued popularity of revenge sagas and even such classics as Cyrano de Bergerac demonstrate.
The danger of cultures with misplaced conceptions of honor has again been shown in the "payback" culture of the gangs that plague depressed areas of major cities. In addition, it is a characteristic of subcultures of teenagers, in gangs and out, that self-worth is derived from how other people see a person. As they mature, adolescents move away from their dependence on peer group approval toward an internalized moral compass.
To use this film to teach about Honor Cultures and revenge, see Discussion Questions #s 5 — 7 and 8 — 17. See also Assignments 1 - 4. Assignment #1 makes use of TWM's chart: Comparing Honor Cultures, Gangs, and the Military.
Using the Novel Broken April
To underscore the point that the problem of vendettas affects many different cultures, students can read several chapters from Broken April. The book is considered to be an authoritative source on blood feuds in Albania.1 Reading from the novel will confirm, expand, and substantially strengthen the lessons of the film.
The blood feud is still followed in many parts of the remote mountains in Albania and ruins many lives each year.2 Albania is a primarily Muslim country (58%) with a large Christian minority population.
In Albania, the imperative of the vendetta is part of a complicated code of conduct, "the Kanun." Handed down from generation to generation since the Middle Ages, the Kanun governs many aspects of life in the highlands of the country. There are experts in the Kanun who are requested by villages to judge and mediate disputes such as those relating to land and those that arise in the vendetta process.
Broken April grips the reader from the very first page. The story is chilling and in places almost poetic. The book weaves together two stories. One focuses on Gjorg, a young man caught up in a blood feud. Gjorg's story is told in Chapters I, II, V and VII of the novel. After Chapter II teachers will need to tell the class that Gjorg has seen a beautiful woman from the lowlands in a peculiar type of carriage. He thinks about her constantly and spends the short period of the ritual truce trying to find her.
The following passage from the novel demonstrates how codes of vendetta make people insensitive to the horror of murder. The reader has learned that Gjorg lived in a small mountain village. He agreed to murder the man who killed his brother after pressure from his family, led by his father. Gjorg's first attempt only wounded the man, resulting (under the law of the Kanun) in a large payment of money by Gjorg's family to that of the victim. On the second attempt, Gjorg lay in wait behind a ridge. After shooting his target, Gjorg approached the body ...
. . . The dead man had fallen in a heap. Gjorg bent down and laid his hand on the man's shoulder, as if to wake him. "What am I doing?" he said to himself. He gripped the dead man's shoulder again, as if he wanted to bring him back to life. "Why am I doing this?" he thought. At once he realized that he had bent down over the other man not to awaken him from eternal sleep but to turn him on his back. He simply meant to follow the custom. ...When Gjorg returned home after the killing he had this encounter with his father:
"There's blood on your hands," his father said. "Go and wash them."In the morally inverted world of the blood feud, the focus is on the question of whether the killing is performed by the rules while the remorse and disorientation experienced after committing the murder is itself seen as a sickness.
For lecture notes which summarize the information contained in the Helpful Background Section, click here.
"Blood-sickness" strikes men involved in vendettas and causes disorientation, depression and psychosomatic illness. In Broken April it is a symbol for the soul's revulsion at the system of ritualized murder.
1 See, e.g., Wikipedia article on the Kanun and THE KANUN IN PRESENT-DAY ALBANIA, KOSOVO, AND MONTENEGRO from the International Society for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations, by Tanya Mangalakova.
2 See Blood Feuds Blight Albanian Lives as well as Eyewitness: Albanian Blood Feuds, both from the BBC.
Important elements of the novel are maintained in the film. The bloodstained shirt of the victim is hung out as a constant taunt to the next killer, who will in turn become the next victim. Both Gjorg in Broken April and Tonio in "Behind the Sun" reflect on the sense of their lives being broken into two parts: the seamless time until the period of murder and truce; and the time that comes after, the very short time of life left to them. In the novel it is April broken in two.
In both the novel and the film, the continuing course of the vendetta is mandated by the patriarchs of the families, men who have somehow been spared the death-in-youth that they are inflicting on their sons. This is a classic example of old men dreaming up conflicts for young men to die in, to paraphrase Senator and Vietnam War critic George McGovern.
COMPREHENSION TEST/HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT
1. Describe two important themes of this movie. Use less than three sentences to describe each theme.
2. Give an example of a flashback from this movie.
3. There are many literary/cinematic symbols in this film. List six of them and describe what they represent.
4. The Kid loves it when Tonio pushes him in the swing that hangs from the dead tree in yard of the Breves family. After Tonio returns from the circus, the Kid insists on taking Tonio's place as the person who pushes and that Tonio take his place as the person who is swinging. This is an example of the literary device called "foreshadowing." What event does this scene foreshadow?
5. Tonio's black armband is a sign that means something to the characters in the story as well as a literary/cinematic symbol for the viewer. One of the characters does something to the armband and that action is both a signal to the characters in the movie of a change in Tonio's status and also a literary/cinematic symbol. Answer both of the following questions: (1) What does the black armband mean to the characters in the story? and (2) What is the significance of what happened to the armband both to the characters in the story and as a literary/cinematic symbol?
6. The literary/cinematic symbol of the fact that the Kid isn't even given a name by his parents relates to an important theme in this story. Describe what the symbol means and the theme to which it relates.
7. The character of the Kid has been said to be a "savior child." What is meant by that? Describe another "savior child" who is central to one of the three most important Western religions.
8. Describe the subplot involving Clara and discuss its connection with the main story.
9. Once the Kid had been killed, should Tonio have taken revenge on the killer and then run away? Give the reasons for your response.
10. In the circumstances in which the Breves family found themselves, what was the first responsibility of the parents?
11. The Kid's father said that honor required an "eye for an eye" until everyone was blind. The Kid commented that, "In the land of the blind, one-eyed people are said to be mad." What are the filmmakers trying to tell us through this dialogue?
12. Every war involves older men and women asking young people to sacrifice their lives. In effect, the parents are placing the children in harm's way. What does this story tell us about decisions to go to war?
13. What would Jesus Christ have said about the Christianity practiced by the Breves family? What does that tell us about how religion should be practiced?
14. Give two examples of types of activities that have aspects of an honor culture and that have occurred in Western European and U.S. society at some point after the beginning of the nineteenth century (1800 to present).
15. Geography questions:
a. What continent is Brazil located in?
b. What is the primary religion in Brazil?
c. Where is Albania located?
d. What is the primary religion in Albania?
16. What does it take to break out of a cycle of violence on a personal basis, and on a tribal or national basis?
17. After the older brother Ignacio has been killed, the mother prays for revenge, asking God for the blood of the killer. The camera pans to a shot of the shrine at which she is praying, and we see a picture of Jesus. What are the filmmakers trying to tell us in this scene?
EXTRA CREDIT QUESTION: Assume that when Tonio reaches the seashore, he searches for Clara, but he cannot find her. Briefly describe the next five years of his life.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
This test/assignment is collegel level and high school teachers should feel free to reduce the difficulty level by deleting or modifying questions. The test/assignment consists of 17 questions with twenty points. Question #1 counts for two points and question #3 counts for three points. For a version in word processing format click here. For an answer key click here. The information covered in this test is contained in the Helpful Background section. For lecture notes which summarize the information covered in this test, click here.
For suggested answers: click here.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
1. There was something especially wrong with the revenge engaged in by the families in this story. What was it?
2. Without changing the personality characteristics of the main characters, describe how you would change the ending of the film so that the tragedy does not occur. What happens to all of the main characters in your treatment?
3. How would you describe the relationship between the brothers in this family?
See Questions 6, 10, & 12 in the Comprehension Test/Homework Assignment.
4. Do you think that Clara will look for Tonio on the beach? State your reasons.
For suggested answers: click here.
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. For convenience the Pillars of Character involved in this film are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See Question #s 6, 10, & 12 in the Comprehension Test/Homework Assignment.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
1. Identify two characters whose actions embodied the concept of caring in this film and describe your reasons for that conclusion.
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
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MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, and Cyrano de Bergerac.
Links to the Internet:
Assignments, Projects and Activities: Most of the Discussion Questions are good essay prompts.
See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
Bibliography: In addition to websites that may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated July 18, 2015.
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