TCFF 2017 Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri + Blue Balloons

It’s just two days left in TCFF and I’m playing catch-up with posting reviews! You might’ve noticed I’ve got to post a couple of things in a day at times… too many films too little time (both to watch and to review!)

Well, below are couple of reviews from Day 6 and 7.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
review by Andy Ellis

It’s described as a dark comedy, but writer and director Martin McDonagh’s newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has a lot more to offer. The film, led by Frances McDormand who plays Mildred who causes some small town chaos by using three billboards to ask local officials why they haven’t found her daughter’s murderer and rapist yet.

A subject such as this must be treaded upon carefully, and it’s done very well here. The humor comes from the fact that none of the characters hold anything back. Mildred has has no problem telling the local priest how she really feels, or anyone else for that matter. Sam Rockwell shines as Dixon,  a small-minded Sheriff’s Deputy with a short temper ends up costing him dearly in one key scene. If there’s a character who keeps his calm the best in the story it’s Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, the main target of Mildred’s billboard messages.

It’s also a film with a lot of heart in it as well, and it helps round out the characters. One scene causes causes Mildred to switch moods so fast you’ll realize that beneath that pissed-off no-nonsense barrier is a mother that just wants her daughter back. And this role may even earn McDormond some awards recognition, and then same goes for Rockwell.

The rest of the cast rounds out the story pretty well, too, with each one getting their own chance to shine—and they do. Lucas Hodges plays Mildred’s son Robbie who isn’t all on board with his mom’s methods, and Abbie Cornish plays the Sheriff’s wife Anne. Caleb Landry Jones has great scenes as Red Welby the owner of the billboards, and Peter Dinklage has a very small but memorable role. John Hawkes plays Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband, and Samara Weaving steals the show a couple times as Penelope, Charlie’s young girlfriend.

This film is a great mix of everything, and throws more than a few a surprises in there as well. The acting is superb and it’ll leave you wanting more. Now if only more films would grab a hold of you like this one did.


BLUE BALLOONS
Review by Ruth Maramis

This is one of the films with a Minnesota connection that I actually didn’t know much about. So I pretty much going in blindly about the story, other than the fact that the story deals with a terminal illness.

Right from the start, this film feels deeply personal. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but Blue Balloons is an honest, realistic story about a family gripping with the complexity of cancer. Written, directed and produced by Emily Troedson, who also acts as the eldest daughter Claire of the Kippson family, the story is told from her perspective. I like that it paints the day-to-day life of the family in a matter-of-fact, candid way… especially in the way Claire is questioning her faith and her existence in a devout Lutheran community.

Chari and Emily in Blue Balloons

The film’s pacing is a bit slow and really tries your patience at times. I have to say some of the acting by the supporting cast aren’t convincing (crying with no tears visible??), but overall it’s a well-crafted piece with genuinely poignant moments as well as interesting artistic choices. I wish there were more mother-daughter relationship being explored here, though I think the dynamic of the family is portrayed pretty well.

Chari Eckmann as Joanne

I connected most with Emily’s character and she did an amazing job juggling so many roles in the film. Being a daughter who dealt with an ill mother at a young age, there are parts that was hard to watch for me. I also have to commend Chari Eckmann‘s performance (as the cancer-stricken Joanne), her emotional transformation and deterioration throughout the film is believable.

Glad to see so many talented writer/director like Emily having their films at TCFF! I sure hope she continues to make films in the future.


There’s more films and festivities to be had at TCFF!

 

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Indie Film Spotlight: LET ME GO + Interview with writer/director Polly Steele

When I first heard about Let Me Go about a year ago, I was immediately intrigued. Not just in terms of its story, but I’ve always been a champion of #womeninfilm and this one has a female writer/director AND a terrific female ensemble cast! I really wanted to see the film at Bentonville Film Festival last Spring, but I had just wrapped my first short film Hearts Want so I timing was an issue. But thanks to Evolutionary Films for sending me the screener link that I was able to see it last month.

The film is based on a true story, and though films about the holocaust are a dime a dozen, writer/director Polly Steele told the story from an unconventional perspective. It’s a unique and compelling approach on a real life story from the past that’s still relevant today. I love the talented female cast who effectively portrayed three generation of daughters being affected by a horrific past. It’s a thought-provoking, heartbreaking yet beautiful film that I wish I could see on the big screen. If you get a chance to see this, don’t miss it. Not only is it an absorbing tale, it’s also a visually striking film with an equally gorgeous score.

Let Me Go is a film about mothers and daughters, it is about ghosts from the past and the impact they leave on the present. Developed from Helga Schneider’s true life story, it explores the effect on Helga’s life of being abandoned by her mother, Traudi in 1941 when she was just four years old. The film is set in the year 2000 following not only Helga and Traudi’s journeys but the next two generations and how Beth, Helga’s daughter and Emily her granddaughter are confronted with the long-term effects of Traudi’s leaving.

 

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Read my interview with Polly Steele on her journey into bringing Helga Schneider’s story to life on screen…

Q: There are so many films about the holocaust done already but your film tells a story from such a different perspective, that is from the family of the perpetrators, instead of the victims. Can you tell me what inspired you to write this story?

When I first found this story I had no idea what attracted me to it. Looking back it was probably the vulnerable face of a small child in the black and white photo on the back cover. This vulnerability echoed inside me somewhere and I read the book. I know that trauma arises from all sides in a conflict and Helga’s trauma is no less valid than anyone else’s. Helga’s story was a difficult story to tell after the war had ended, there was no space for stories like hers. Now that 75 years has past since the war, I think we can acknowledge that innocent children from all sides of a conflict suffer. We cannot move on from our own suffering unless we acknowledge the suffering of others.

Q: How did you first hear about Helga Schneider? Can you tell us the process of getting the rights to tell her story and how long it took you to write the script?

Polly (right) meeting Helga in Italy

After reading the book, I flew to Milan to meet her, she only spoke Italian and a little French and I spoke English and French and so we used her agent to translate and we sussed each other out with a lot of looking into each others eyes. I think we came to an understanding that day and I felt that she entrusted me with her life story, I am very grateful to her.

After seven years of writing and re-writing the script, working with various different companies and even putting it aside for a while, somehow the right team came together, the energy changed and here we are having raised the money in a year and made the film the following year, but the whole process was 10 years in the making.

Q: How involved was Helga herself in making this film? I believe you flew to Italy to meet with her?

After meeting her the first time, we kept in touch, I would write to her asking her questions and she would write back . I would google translate and on it went. After a couple of drafts of being completely true to her story I made a leap to include the two youngest characters who are fictitious, because I was fascinated with inherited trauma. I made these creative decisions with Helga’s blessing. The two new characters are based on information given to us by Helga who wanted to protect the real identity of her close family members. She understands now that her story has continued to affect those who came after her and that is what the film focuses on. Ironically when I met her again just before we started filming she told me that the two new characters were very accurate relative to her own experience.

Traudi (Karin Bertling), Beth (Jodhi May) Helga (Juliet Stevenson) and Emily (Lucy Boynton) – Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Q: I love the idea of a multi-generation of daughters being affected and dealing with a shared past. Would you share about the casting process for Juliet Stevenson, Lucy Boynton and Jodhi May, as well as Stanley Weber as the only prominent male character in the film?

Juliet came on board very early on. She read the script and then we met and she followed the films progress always remaining committed. She was our rock.  Jodhi also met me early on in the process and committed whole heartedly, she was fascinated by the subject of inherited trauma and also stayed with us until we were green lit. Lucy I saw on a taped video that she did in L.A and immediately thought she had a special something, elegance, an innocent maturity if that is possible and a very natural look on the screen. Lucy could only confirm very close to shooting but thats because she was up for another film at the same time but luckily we got her! Karin was the last to join and the most difficult character to cast. No one wanted to be a hardcore Nazi… but then we cast our net wider and Karin was waiting in the wings in Stockholm and she is a Gem! I am very proud of all of them and Stanley Weber, and Eva Magyar, I think they all did an amazing job.

Stanley Weber in a still from the film

Q: This is the second narrative feature you wrote and directed. What’s the biggest challenge for you as indie filmmaker in terms of bringing your story vision to life?

These days making an independent feature is an incredibly difficult task…to get the stars to align is a rare and beautiful thing but I also believe that as a woman it has been even harder. This was not an easy story to tell, but I had an amazing team of people supporting me and the film. My producer Lizzie Pickering who has been incredible, raising money relentlessly, never giving up as well as our Executive Producers Georges Tsitos who kept us on track from the beginning and then Rupert Labrum who was our first serious investor and stayed loyally with us until the end and many more who subsequently joined. We gathered support by holding storytelling circles in peoples houses and inviting them to listen to a video of Helga and hear her story and then slowly, slowly the money came.

Q: There are some really difficult scenes to watch, especially between Helga and her mother. Can you tell me what’s been the most challenging aspect of filming this?

Filming any scene whatever the content is about making sure that the actors are 100% in the space and time and world that they are meant to be inhabiting, that way they are authentic and then we have done our job. The whole reason that the scenes between Traudi and Helga are different from anything that I have seen before on this subject is that Traudi makes us understand from her perspective what normal was for them in that extreme situation. It is untenable for us in our world knowing what happened, to accept what she says but it’s equally important that we realise what it was like in their shoes. Helga’s dearest wish is that the film may play a tiny part in preventing history from repeating itself.

Still from Let Me Go trailer – All images are courtesy of Evolutionary Films

Q: I love that the films are shot on location and it was stunningly shot by Michael Wood, set to a lush score by Phil Selway. Can you share about finding the locations in the UK and Austria, as well as the scoring process?

Michael Wood is an amazing D.O.P but then he also had the fabulous Alex Walker our designer to pair up with. The two of them did a beautiful job with few resources. David Broder our other producer found Minley Manor in Kent which was used for the old peoples home and then we decided that being in a few key places in Vienna was crucial, like the Judenplatz and so made the financial commitment to shoot in Vienna too. Michael understood very quickly what I wanted to do with the light in this film and the energy of the restless camera. I feel he achieved a great look and Alex also indulged my minimalist approach to spaces, allowing me to eliminate a lot of props and furniture so that we could really focus on the emotional intensity in some of the scenes. We had a great thing going between the three of us. I also want to mention Daniel Goddard who I have worked with for many years as an editor, he too completely understood what I was aiming for, he is a very sensitive and experienced editor and worked wonders.

Philip Selway has been amazing from the absolute beginning. He came on board before most other people and immediately started talking to me about the script. He was so supportive and also so positive about the story, he really understood the themes and spent a lot of time building up sound beds and themes laying the foundations for what turned out to be a stunningly beautiful score. Philip was key in keeping me true to my initial ideas.

Q: Last but not least, would you tell me some of films that’ve influenced you, particularly those dealing with WWII?

I actually grew up in many different countries but spent ten years of my childhood in France and was very influenced by French films. They have far more stories that are about the emotional journey rather than the physical one and that very much influences how I like to tell stories. I can’t say that I see this film as a WWII film and so never approached it like that. I just wanted to tell the story of a family , who had lost their men in the war and had to find their way in the world together, four women , carrying with them a secret that was so extraordinarily heavy, a secret that could have destroyed them all, but they were given a moment in time to let it go, to tell the truth and to let it go and in that way there is hope.
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The film is available in UK cinemas & digital download on September 15. Hopefully it’ll be available in the US soon.
For more info visit Letmegomovie.com


Thanks so much Polly for chatting with me!

HEARTS WANT in the press – only hours left on Kickstarter

Ok here’s the last Kickstarter post you’ll see here… Y’know what, whatever happens I’ll be so relieved when it’s done. If you think it’s tough making a film, well, try launching a Kickstarter campaign 😉


We’re still only 75% funded with mere hours left as I’m done posting this. I’m a glass half-full kind of person so I’m extremely grateful for our backers! Of course I’m not gonna lie I’m nervous we won’t meet our goal… and if you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, it’s an all-or-nothing campaign which means if we don’t meet our goal we’ll get nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

But hey I’m optimistic 😬 … [well what choice do I have]… and I’m super grateful for my friends who have been so supportive, both financially and also in spreading the word about my Kickstarter campaign!

THANK YOU again Paula, Shivani, MarkNostra, and Dan for your tremendous support on various social media channels!

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I was invited to be a guest on The Film Pasture podcast [thanks Vern!] Link below:


I’m also honored to be featured on Top 10 Films site run by my pal Dan Stephens [thank you Dan!]. Read on if you’re curious about my filmmaking journey…

It’s fun being on the other end of an interview once in a while 🙂


If you listen to InSession Film podcast later this week you might hear about Hearts Want there too (thanks JD Duran!)

 


Just a quick note on what I’ve been watching…

Well I managed to see War For The Planet of the Apes and I LOVED it! The three ‘Apes’ films now stands one of my favorite cinematic trilogies ever. It’s such a compelling journey of this genius ape, living in two worlds whilst trying to save its kind from extinction… it’s such a heart-wrenching, poignant story that’s strangely relatable. Definitely one of my faves of the year.

I haven’t got around to seeing DUNKIRK just yet, for sure we will next weekend. The press screening happened to hit on the day I’m meeting with my composer for the film, so obviously that takes priority.


Ok folks, I’ll be sure to post a review sometime this week (from our awesome contributor Richard of Cinemuse Films). I also have a couple of interviews with a MN-based director and a female filmmaker whose film just screened at Edinburgh Film Festival. So stay tuned!

Just days left on HEARTS WANT Kickstarter campaign

Can’t believe we’re in mid July already! Time sure flies in the Summer time… and time seems to fly even faster when one is running a Kickstarter campaign.

Yep, it’s just 9 days to go until our campaign ends folks… and we could really use your help in crossing the finish line. We are still hoping to submit this film to Twin Cities Film Fest soon to be eligible for 2017 run in October, so time is of the essence. If you’ve always wanted a chance to be a part of a female-led indie film with talented indie filmmakers and actors, this is your chance!

Watch this video from our leading man Peter Christian Hansen on why you should back our film…

Minnesota theatre goers might’ve seen Peter on stage in various productions, including at the Guthrie. He’s also the artistic director of Gremlin Theatre), as well as the leading man of the Australian indie sci-fi Project Eden whom I interviewed last February.

Did you check out the rewards yet?

On top of the automatic rewards of feeling good for being a big supporter of indie film [natch], there are also actual rewards!

My hubby and co exec-producer Ivan had been working tirelessly to make props for the film just a week prior to filming! This is NOT the film poster, but rather a poster of the play within the film that’s called Hearts Want where the lead characters Jacques & Lily reunite for after seven years apart.

Check out this time lapse video of Ivan’s poster sketch:

My hubby also created these theatre posters that’s posted on the wall of Lily’s dressing room:

Check out the various updates posted on the Kickstarter page… including meeting the mostly-female crew who were super fun to work with on and off set.

As a longtime supporter of #womeninfilm I’m extremely grateful for the chance to work with so many amazingly talented women in the Minnesota film community!


You can follow the journey of Hearts Want film on Facebook, Instagram and also Pinterest!


 

Week In Review: A comedic play, Spider-man Homecoming and podcasting

How’s your weekend everyone? Well it’s been quite a whirlwind week for me, but a fun one nonetheless. I didn’t get an extra day off for Fourth of July, but still a four-day work week is better than five 🙂

I did manage to see a fun play on Friday night, a French farce called Don’t Dress For Dinner. It’s actually the opening night of the theatre company run by my lead actor Peter Hansen, in which he also starred in with five other actors.


I also got to see one of its rehearsals last week which was really fun to see. I had never been to a play rehearsal before and the fact that it’s a comedy is even more delightful to watch. Oh as if I hadn’t been busy enough w/ my film AND Kickstarter campaign, I also helped redesign his theatre website. (yep I need a vacation real bad!)

Saturday was a hot day, so after a scorching afternoon going to Art Crank in NE Minneapolis, we cooled off watching the new Spidey flick.

I have to admit I wasn’t all that enthused to see this so if it wasn’t for my hubby’s insistence, I probably would’ve waited for its VOD release. Fortunately it ends up being a pretty decent flick which is NOT an origin story, thank goodness!

It’s fun to see Peter Parker being a proper teenager and Tom Holland is perfectly believable in the role. Some of the banters between him and his BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) seems too cutesy with all the ‘awesome’ which at times doesn’t ring true. But as the film progressed it didn’t bother me and they do have some fun memorable moments. Our young’un hero is far more eager to be a hero than in past interpretations but I’m glad actually gets to do something heroic and does it on his own account.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this film so I was pleasantly surprised to see Michael Keaton as the villain. He’s definitely one of the best villains in the plethora of Spidey movies I’ve seen over the years. My fave is still Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 2 and Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is right up there with him. I like villains who are more of a tragic character, not an all-out monster hellbent on destroying the world. I enjoyed watching Keaton as a cross between Batman and Birdman when he’s wearing the birdlike costume, but his character actually has some depth. There’s also a pretty bizarre father-daughter storyline here that I did not see coming.

The movie starts out pretty light, Peter’s fanboy-ing over Tony Stark also gets overdone, but the movie actually grows darker with a genuine sense of dread. I am however quite puzzled by the hype over Zendaya in this movie. Not because her acting wasn’t good but her character barely registers here to even make any impact. Yes I appreciate that she’s not just another love interest but I wish the slew of writers actually gave her something to do. The movie does hint that she perhaps will have a larger role in the inevitable sequels.

Despite me feeling blasé about this reboot, this movie ends up being pretty enjoyable. There are a couple of thrilling action sequences though the finale is still way too loud & bombastic. Casting-wise, Holland fits the role nicely and he seems to have fun doing it. There are fun moments of Peter poking fun at members of the Avengers which is in keeping with him being a 15-year-old kid. It was pretty fun seeing Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his chauffeur/personal assistant ‘Happy’ (Jon Favreau) as part of the story too. I’m not exactly clamoring to see more of Spidey movies though, but I suppose if they gotta make ’em at least they don’t suck.


The weekend is topped off w/ my first time doing a podcast! It was fun being a guest for an episode of The Film Pasture, hosted by my friend Vern from Vern’s Video Vortex with film blogger Kristen Lopez. Vern was kind enough to invite me to discuss our picks of Top 5 Female Filmmakers and let me promote my short film Hearts Want which I can proudly say has a strong woman of color in the lead and done by a mostly-female crew.

I will post the podcast here once it’s up. As you know I’m a big supporter of women filmmakers and having just written/produced my first film, naturally I have even more respect for those who’ve made it in the male-dominated film industry.


Well, did you see anything good this weekend? If you’ve seen the newest Spider-man movie, what did you think?

A film blogger’s journey into indie filmmaking – writing/producing ‘Hearts Want’ short film

It’s been forty plus years in the making. No, no, it didn’t take me 40 years to write the script, though if I had written something as an infant I might’ve been a literary genius by now.

Some of you know my life’s been consumed by my short film project lately. Well, I had just launched the Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film, so I thought I’d share the journey of how I got here…

It feels as though I’ve been wanting to make a film for as long as I remember. Even in grade school, whenever the recurrent question ‘what do you want to be when we grow up?’ came up, I always proudly answered that I wanted to be a screenwriter. Yep, even long before I knew what a screenwriter was! For some reason, I had always had this longing to follow my late dad’s footsteps, who worked in the Indonesian film industry long before I was born.

Life has an interesting way of working out. So no, I didn’t end up going to film school or anything remotely close to it. I had been a longtime film fan, but I didn’t even start blogging about film until well after I graduated college. Little did I know that this wee film blog finally led me to realize my lifelong dream!

How it all began…

Thanks largely to Twin Cities Film Fest and being a press member with a couple of PR companies, as a film blogger I had the privilege to interview various indie filmmakers. There’s nothing more gratifying and inspiring to learn from filmmakers who love making films and passionate about the craft. Whilst blogging about film, I’ve also been writing all kinds of film concepts, but nothing has been fully fleshed out until the one I started writing about a year and a half ago…

The journey of making Hearts Want truly has been a whirlwind… and it’s not over yet.

So yeah, the reading became the catalyst for this short. I still can’t believe how far we’ve come since the script reading back in January… and how well the two-day shoot went despite barely having any pre-prod time. When people say your first film is made w/ your blood, sweat and tears… well they aren’t kidding. This is a passion project w/ a capital ‘p’ and it’s a personal one for both Ivan and I. My hubby is not only the exec producer, he’s also a prop master, stage hand, behind-the-scenes photographer, video editor (for our Kickstarter video)… all that on top of juggling his full-time day job and lending emotional support during the most stressful times of making a film.

The people who’ve inspired me…

As I mentioned in my Kickstarter page, I’ve been a long champion of #WomenInFilm and am constantly inspired by female filmmakers who’ve thrived in a male-dominated industry… powerful filmmakers such as these…

and this…

I’ve also been blessed with meeting fellow directors in person whose work have inspired me… Emily Ting who directed Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, Ashlee Jensen who co-wrote/directed Project Eden Vol I, Pamela Romanowsky who directed The Adderral Diaries, Rebecca Weaver who wrote/directed June Falling Down, and Kate Nowlin who wrote and starred in Blood Stripe, just to name a few. (Also shout out to Remy Auberjonois, Kate’s husband and Blood Stripe‘s director who narrated my script reading! I’m forever grateful to them for having inspired me to finally take the leap and make my first film!

My own film also wouldn’t have been made without the help of my two producer friends, Kirsten Gregerson and JoJo Liebeler

With Kirsten & JoJo at the script reading in January

… as well as my two amazingly-talented leads Sam Simmons and Peter Christian Hansen who’ve stuck by me despite all the various setbacks during pre-production…

I also have to thank Noah Gillett, another actor from the script reading who also reprised his role in the film.

… and of course, my phenomenal MN-based crew!! Thanks Jason & co! Check out the bio of our cast/crew on Hearts Want‘s IMDb page.

I also want to shout out to people who’ve lent support during filming, from helping with the company move, catering, being extras and help with networking, etc. I appreciate you Noah Gillett, Shawn Dunbar, Becky Kurk, Dani Palmer, Emily Fradenburgh, Whitney Khan, Holly Peterson, and Briana Rose Lee.

Special thanks to my dear friends Julie Tan and Vony Bedford for coming to set and be extras on day 1. Vony’s cutie-pie daughter Chloe is ‘Brigitte’ in the film (you’ll see who she is when you watch it) 😉

But the journey isn’t over yet…

If you’re familiar at all with the filmmaking process, principal photography is only half the battle. As I learned in my crash course, filmmaking is always more difficult and more expensive than you ever thought it would.

So yeah, consider helping us cross the finish line, even if it’s just helping spread the word that would mean a lot to us. The ultimate goal is still to make a feature film of Hearts Want, so if you help support us now, you’d also help bring us closer to making that huge-but-not-impossible dream a reality! 😀

Would you consider making a pledge or spread the word about the campaign?

 

Guest Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016)

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Directed By: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 2 hr 7 minutes

The diversity of Holocaust-themed movies has increased over recent years as filmmakers try different storytelling approaches to keep alive our collective memory of what happened. One film that has divided the critics is The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016). While most of this genre uses graphic realism to confront large-scale human carnage and moral dystopia, this beautifully filmed story tells how 300 Jewish lives were saved by the owners of the Warsaw Zoo.

The film opens in 1939 with stunning photography of an idyllic existence in the charming Warsaw Zoo. Owners Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are devoted zoologists who love their animals and each other. There are many touching scenes of physical affection that portray trust and understanding across the human-animal divide. The peace is soon shattered by Nazi bombing and there are many disturbing scenes of animal destruction. Soon after the Nazis arrive, the Zoo’s best breeding specimens are sent to Berlin under Hitler’s zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). With Nazi soldiers needing housing, the Zoo is under threat but saved when Antonina obtains Heck’s support to convert it into a pig farm to feed Nazi soldiers. He becomes a frequent visitor to the Zoo and his sexual overtures towards Antonina means she must keep him charmed to save the Zoo. As the atrocities against Polish Jews escalate, Antonina and Jan hatch a plan to use garbage trucks to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to freedom via Zoo tunnels. The story focuses on the dangers of hiding the Jews and the horror facing those who are loaded into cattle-trucks for transportation to Hitler’s Final Solution.

The critical ambivalence towards this film dwells on its aesthetic treatment of the opening scenes and what some argue is Chastain’s saintly characterisation of Antonina. While the cinematography is superb from beginning to end, it does adopt an excessively sugary style in the pre-Nazi-occupation part of the story. The opening scenes of Antonina cycling through the zoo, personally greeting the caged and free-roaming animals, smiling and waving to all of humanity, are both beautiful but incongruous for the story we know is about to unfold. From the extraordinary scenes of Antonina saving a new-born elephant in front of its distressed parents to the harrowing escape scenes, the film almost deifies the heroine for her goodness towards others. But these are directing issues rather than acting. Chastain’s performance is excellent across the range of emotions she portrays and she is a glowing beacon of light in a film that could easily have been depressingly bleak.

The Zookeepers Wife is a worthy addition to an honourable genre that includes the multi-award winning Schindler’s List (1993). It communicates the larger Holocaust narrative while keeping its carnage and dystopia off-screen. In an age of audience desensitisation, it is ironic that viewers can be emotionally touched more deeply by the death of animals than humans. This is a story of courage and triumph, told from a woman’s viewpoint, with top-tier production values in filming, acting, and narrative. It is also an important part of Polish history. Antonina and Jan were decorated as national heroes and the re-built Warsaw Zoo still stands as a legacy to their achievements.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Zookeper’s Wife’? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF Review: In Between (2017)

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Directed By: Maysaloun Hamoud
Written By: Maysaloun Hamoud
Runtime: 1 hour 36 minutes

There aren’t many female-led films in Hollywood that aren’t cheesy romantic comedies or Lifetime Network-levels of stupid femme fatale stories. Fortunately, there are some that break the mold, including In Between. Writer and director Maysaloun Hamoud has created a film featuring three women with unique, compelling stories.

In Between follows the lives of three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv. Layla (Mouna Hawa), a carefree party girl by night and shrewd lawyer by day, has recently started a relationship with a young man whom she eventually realizes isn’t quite as accepting of her wild lifestyle. Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a bartender with dreams of being a famous DJ, suffers through her conservative Christian family’s attempts at finding her a husband while she develops a romance with another woman. Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a devout Muslim and university student working toward a degree in computer science, struggles to maintain her independence and work toward her own dreams while her controlling fiance pushes her to abandon her big city life for an obedient, domestic one.

This movie’s greatest strength is its three lead characters. They are all so well-written and well-acted. The flatmates have wonderful chemistry, especially polar opposites Layla and Nour, who develop an almost sister-like bond throughout the movie. Both Layla and Salma are refreshingly unapologetic about their lifestyles while still being incredibly likable, and Nour never gives up her sweet, demure nature, even after escaping her abusive relationship. She does come out of her shell a bit by the end of the movie, but her personality isn’t drastically changed, which I really like; in too many movies, they have the “shy” character do a complete 180, so it’s nice having a character who becomes a stronger person without giving up who she is.

That said, this film had one major problem: its pacing. It never stays on one character’s conflict long enough to establish the problem. For example, we only see Salma’s home life once at the very beginning before everything comes to a head toward the end, and there isn’t even hint of any romantic interest until right before that, so there’s not much time for the tension to build when she brings her new girlfriend to visit her family. Layla’s plot line feels similarly rushed; she mentions about halfway into the movie that she and her boyfriend have been dating for a while now, but nothing has indicated that passage of time, and when it becomes apparent that she is too liberal for him, it feels like it comes out of nowhere because no time was spent establishing that earlier in the movie. The majority of the focus of the film is on Nour, which is understandable as hers is the storyline with the highest stakes, but that doesn’t excuse the other two women’s plots being rushed.

Despite some lack of focus, In Between is an impressive film that is worth checking out. Maysaloun Hamoud shows a lot of promise, and I hope this is the beginning of an illustrious career for her.

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Have you seen ‘In Between’? Well, what did you think? 

TCFF Documentary Spotlight: ‘Word Of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise’ + Interview with director Kiersten Dunbar Chace

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One of my most anticipated TCFF documentaries is playing today and I can’t be more thrilled that I got a chance to connect with the filmmaker to talk about her film. I always love films that immerse me into a world that’s far away from where I live, and gives me a chance to learn a bit more about the struggles they are facing. A large spectrum of the South African population includes the indigenous, Asian, European, Indonesian, Phillipino, Indian of India, and many others. In the Western world, we mostly hear about the Black/White struggle in South Africa, but nothing about the minority ‘Coloured’ people, as they’re called in that region.


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kierstenchaceKiersten Dunbar Chace (Producer, Director, Editor) founder of Chace Studios/Mondé World Films, is an award winning indie film producer/director and human rights activist/advocate who for the past 21 years has focused her lens on South Africa. In 2009, Chace produced her first feature length documentary film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured – Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope which explored the legacy of apartheid from the viewpoint of the Cape Coloured people. The film won an Audience Choice award at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival (Bermuda Int’l Film Festival) and was featured at several US, International Film Festivals and in over 60 major Universities. In September 2014, Chace’s film was one of two selected to present at the prestigious academic conference Migrating the Black Body: Visual Arts and the African Diaspora in Hanover Germany. Her role in the conference will be documented in the upcoming book by the same name.

Most recently, Kiersten was invited to be an observer at the United Nations in Geneva in September 2015 when a Shadow Report was presented/submitted to the Int’l Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination citing South Africa as being in violation of the UN CERD treaty/convention. The film was used as a supplemental neutral piece to help educate UN members on the history of the Coloured people of South Africa.

A documentary film that gives voice to a community questioning the future of their mixed-race/indigenous identity in the new South Africa. Blending poetry, landscape imagery, and rare archive footage with a collection of powerful, indigenous voices, Word of Honour is an introspective look into South Africa’s young democracy as well as a meditation on what may be looming on the horizon. (All South African cast and crew)

TCFF screening: Sunday | October 23 – 3:45pm
Runtime: 73 min

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Q: What inspired you to become a documentary filmmaker?

My inspiration was South Africa. In 1995, I helped produce a US concert tour for the popular South African vocal group the Christian Explainers. During that tour, one of young women in the group, in a somewhat fearful confession, shared a secret with me “Kiersten, in my country I am not considered black, I am Coloured.” Like many Americans I was stunned by her use of the term Coloured, but she kindly requested that I maintain an open mind. That was not a difficult task, however, with that open mind I felt this so-called secret would have been a great opportunity to educate Americans about the absurdity and injustice of the apartheid system; beyond the black/white rhetoric perpetuated by Western media. It also saddened me that they had to endure and maintain this awkward situation of telling people they were black South Africans, when culturally and linguistically they were not. Their reasons were centered around the use of the term Coloured in America and they were also embracing and putting into motion Mandela’s promise that they were now part of the majority alongside black/Nguni South Africans. So over the course of the next two weeks Suzanne shared the rich culture and history of her people and I listened closely with great interest.

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“Danny Brown, Elsie’s River” – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace

Soon after that 1995 concert tour, I was invited to South Africa to visit Suzanne and my other friends. It was on that trip that I began learning more about this community and culture and for the next 5 years I traveled across South Africa meeting various non-profits and developing new friendships. In 2000, I began organizing group cultural tours to South Africa including Open Arms of Minnesota’s first visit, which ultimately led to the development of an HIV/Aid’s nutrition program at the new JL Zwane Center in Gugulethu. No matter how hard I tried to explain the history and culture of coloured South Africans, Americans were always drawn into the exotic tribal cultures of Southern Africa which are the common images portrayed of the African continent in Western media. I learned quickly that Americans don’t want to travel to South Africa to be visually reminded of impoverished communities in their own backyard per se, and that is the image they see when looking at Coloured townships.

Ten years’ post-apartheid, 2004, I organized another American tour group to South Africa. It was on that particular journey that I recognized how quickly the Coloured communities were deteriorating structurally and economically. Foreign investments and donations targeting disadvantaged communities were not filtering into Coloured townships due to their lack of knowledge and various government agencies bypassing Coloured townships. It was then that I knew I had to step up and educate the globe about this community and their existence. To accomplish this, I chose film as my instrument for change.

Knowing very little about the film industry, I went to Daniel Pierce Bergin in 2007, a senior producer at TPT/PBS in Minnesota and asked for his mentorship. His support of my project propelled my confidence greatly. He also connected me with a monthly event called Docuclub at IFP Minnesota where I met the talented Producer and Director Melody Gilbert, who gifted me and many other aspiring filmmakers in the Twin Cities with her years of documentary film knowledge. She gave me the tools and insight I needed to be a documentary filmmaker and in 2009, I release my first feature length film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope.

"Freedom Farm Informal Settlement" – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace
“Freedom Farm Informal Settlement” – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace

Q: How was your background as a humanitarian activist play a part in getting this film made?

After the completion of my first film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured in 2009, I was surprised at its impact not only in South Africa but other mixed-race communities around the globe, academia and the United Nations. For example, in 2011, a Non-Profit organization in Johannesburg, South Africa used the film to petition the South Africa Broadcast Company to ask them to invest in Coloured television and radio programming. In 2014 I was invited to screen the film at a private academic conference in Hanover Germany ‘Migrating the Black Body: Visual Arts in the African Diaspora’ where 30 top professors gathered to present their academic research papers. Nearly half of the conference attendees were not aware this community even existed. I also learned that several universities over the years altered their curriculum to include this film. And in 2015, I was invited to participate as a human rights observer at the United Nations in Geneva where the film was used to educate UN rapporteurs. It is my goal to return to Switzerland again in March 2017 with the Advocates for Human Rights based in Minneapolis for additional UN training.

Through these experiences and the continual movement of my first film, I came to realize that my role as a human rights advocate was materializing before my eyes, unexpectedly. There is no doubt that these experiences along with the support of community leaders in South Africa gave me the confidence and motivation to produce Word of Honour. So yes, my human rights activism played a major role in this latest production.

Q: ‘Word of Honour’ is a sequel to your 2009 film… it is extremely rare to see a documentary sequel, would you speak about the differences between the two?

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Image Credit: Antoni Commodore

I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope (filmed in 2007/2008) explored the legacy of apartheid from the viewpoint of the mixed-race/indigenous Cape Coloured/Khoisan people of South Africa, whose largest population resides in Cape Town (approximately 60% of the total population). After 10 years of witnessing the decline of this community and trying to teach Americans about a marginalized people who identified themselves by the term Coloured, I focused the film on history and identity.

The film also illuminated their diverse ancestry, how they suffered (180 years of slavery and a vast number of forced removals), and their contributions to South African society dating back to the mid 17th century to the dawn of democracy in 1994. So INBIC was historically driven and educational. That film won an audience award at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in Bermuda, sits on the shelves of nearly 63 major universities around the globe.

My latest film, Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise, focuses on the first 21 years of democracy – post 1994. It is less historical and more focused on the socio-economic struggles and the marginalization of this community due to discriminatory government policies. It features communities all across South Africa, not just Cape Town. In addition to the difference in storyline, the production value of Word of Honour is much greater and it is structured differently. More artistic yet the focus remains on the voice of the people.

You are correct. It is very rare to produce a documentary sequel. But as I mentioned before, my purpose for entering the film industry was for advocacy purposes, not awards, and as you will witness in this new production, clearly my work was not completed within South Africa. Especially after viewing Jimmy Manyi’s public statement in 2011 about Coloureds being ‘over concentrated’ and ‘should spread in the rest of the country if they want jobs’ my friends, community leaders and myself, became very concerned. Hence the making of Word of Honour. Since I already had a decent university presence with the first film I wanted to continue the dialogue around race, identity and human rights. With the two films together, we have created a more holistic perspective, identified and exposed the root of the problem, and documented a specific time in history that will last for generations.

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Q: What motivated you to shine a light on the complexities in identity/ history of the people in South Africa?

There are a lot of misperceptions about South African history internationally and within South Africa. As recent as 2015, trial attorneys who were attempting to justify their client’s discriminatory practices, claimed that coloured South Africans did not suffer as much under apartheid and should not benefit from Affirmative Action policies. This depends on how you define apartheid. Many scholars will argue that the system of apartheid was implemented the moment the Dutch arrived in South Africa and formally legalized in 1948. But others will argue the opposite and define apartheid as only starting in 1948. So it was important for me to focus on history as it relates to their identity, how this community evolved, what they endured and as reflected in this new film their struggle to fit in the new South Africa.

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Q: How many people did you end up interviewing for your film? (Vast area that is covers)

For 21 years, I have developed friendships with community leaders, business leaders and political activists all across South Africa. In our discussions, each person was very adamant in sharing their regions unique needs; that their struggles were very different from Cape Town (the largest population of Coloured’s in South Africa). Combine those strong regional or provincial sentiments alongside a lack of unity nationally amongst their leaders, I personally wanted to see if the socio-economic issues facing the coloured communities were different between the various provinces and townships. In the past, I had travelled across South Africa but with a very different purpose. So to observe the country from behind a camera lens with the intent to further educate the globe about this community, including South Africans, I wanted to see if I could capture the similarities versus the differences as well as affirm or nullify the psyche of disunity that seems to be embedded in national rhetoric amongst community leaders.

So our film journey included six of the nine provinces, thirteen cities, drove approximately 7000 km’s, interviewed 27 people and brought home close to 200 hours of footage. All but one of our production locations was pre-planned and budgeted. That one unplanned ‘spur of the moment’ location was Riemvasmaak, a tiny desert community near the Namibian/South African border where we literally knew nothing about this area historically or culturally, nor did we know a single soul who lived there. However, what we captured in 3 short hours (in the middle of the desert) ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the film and possibly one of the most important in terms of using an historical event as a reflection of what the future might be for this community if government policies continue on the path of racial quotas.

Q: Would you share a bit about your collaboration with David Grant, a prominent figure in MN arts/film/writing?

davidgrantI actually met David through a shared interest in genetic genealogy five or six years ago. I was the founder of the Cape Coloured DNA project at Family Tree DNA and we were introduced by a distant blood cousin from Arizona who also shared similar DNA with one of my former cast members in South Africa. Soon thereafter I learned of his gift for writing as well as his respected presence in the Twin Cities arts community. After one long breakfast meeting in South Minneapolis, I knew this was the person I needed to collaborate with.

With Word of Honour, I was taking a riskier more creative approach to my storytelling. I didn’t want this project to be cookie cutter journalistic type documentary film so I searched for someone who would take my artistic vision and goals and help build the storyline. With an arsenal of powerful poetry, rare Mandela footage, great interviews and beautiful landscape imagery I needed someone to help create a piece that made people think outside the box and engage the heart. Being a seasoned writer David understood all of these important elements and was instrumental in guiding me through some difficult storyline and structural decisions.

Q: Who have been some of the people who’ve inspired you, both in term of history/culture or cinema. Any documentarian whose work you admire?

I’m a great admirer of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and books. He inspired me in my artistic direction, to not be afraid of taking risks and to be confident in your artistic expression. Not everyone will like your work but in the end you were staying true to the vision or your film. Another person who inspires me is Al Milgrom. A longtime friend and walking encyclopedia of film. Our long conversations and his passion for film inspired me greatly.

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“Near Polokwane” – Image Credit: Kiersten Dunbar Chace

Q: While traveling around South Africa, what was your greatest take-away from this production in comparison to your other journeys 20 years ago?

There were actually several key take-away’s on this journey but the greatest would be discovering how many Coloured communities across South Africa endured forced removals. I knew of District Six, South End and Sophiatown but I was stunned how many others there were. Nearly every major city in South Africa, including small villages, has a history of forcibly removing Coloured communities.

On a more positive note, I was encouraged by the economic progress in the Eastern Cape province near Mandela’s Qunu home where I spent some time back in the early 2000’s. This was a pretty impoverished area back then but today that has changed. The energy there was uplifting. I just wish I could say the same thing about ‘one’ coloured township, sadly it does not exist.


Thank you Kiersten for taking the time for the interview!

For more info on the film, please visit Word Of Honour‘s official site.


TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: ‘June Falling Down’ + Interview with writer/director Rebecca Weaver

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One of the perks about covering film festivals is we get to watch a plethora of independent films and discover new filmmakers! One of my most anticipated indie films playing at TCFF is June Falling Down… a story of love and loss, set in a small town in Wisconsin. 

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June tells the story of a young woman living in California who returns home for her best friend Harley’s wedding, a year after her father’s death. Once there, she must confront the rush of memories of her father’s cancer and the fact that Harley and everyone else in her life has moved on without her. It’s as much a family drama as a romantic one, with a compelling and heartfelt portrayal of family dynamic. The theme of loss and learning to let go is one I can relate to. In terms of losing a loved one, it’s not something one simply ‘get over,’ which this film touches upon. The scenes of June with her father in the flashback scenes are particularly poignant, whilst her at times testy relationship with her mother feels grounded and relatable. The scenery of Door County, WI, is gorgeous, it certainly adds to the warm, small-town vibe that also makes for a naturally romantic setting.
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June Falling Down marks Rebecca Weaver‘s feature film debut. She previously wrote, directed, as well as acted in two short films, Winter Guest and Cam Companion (Wisconsin and Las Vegas Film Festivals, 2015). She studied theater at Northwestern University and dramatic literature at New York University. Raised in Wisconsin, she currently resides in Los Angeles and is writing her next feature.

Check out my Q&A with Rebecca below on her personal connection to the story, filming in her favorite part of the world, her challenges as a female filmmaker working on her debut feature, and more!

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Q: The story of June Falling Down is a personal one for you, as you also lost your father to cancer like June did in the film. Would you say that the film was semi-biographical in a way? What made you decide to turn your story into a feature film?

This is definitely semi-autobiographical – with an emphasis on the “semi.” I lost my dad to cancer a month after I turned 22 and after that it was all I could think about for years. So it’s almost like the story had to come out of me. At that time I had friends growing up and continuing with their lives, graduating from college and some getting married, getting professional jobs, while I dropped out of school for a while and really wasn’t emotionally growing up at the same rate – because I was stuck in my grief. That was the inspiration for the movie.

But that being said, I also took a lot of elements from my life and really exaggerated them and created characters that could tell the story externally of what it felt like to lose a father and go through that. For example, June is a very different character than me, even though I play her. She’s very tough and arrogant and at times rude to people and I’m naturally a more introverted, nicer person in real life. I swear! But it was important to have a character that wears her heart on her sleeve so blatantly because that’s just more interesting in a film.

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Q: Given the setting of a small town in Wisconsin, it almost felt like a love letter to the state you grew up on. Would you comment a bit on that and how you choose the filming locations, etc.?

Oh, I 100% wrote this movie to be set in my favorite place in the world – Door County, Wisconsin. I wrote the script imagining my family’s home and I even wrote in the exact names of the local pizza restaurant and bars, all of which we ended up using. It’s funny how growing up as a restless teenager I couldn’t wait to leave Wisconsin, but over the years I’ve missed it terribly (I live in LA now) and I realize how deeply the land and the people there are a part of me. And you so rarely see the Midwest portrayed in films with intelligent, culturally-aware characters and gorgeous landscapes. So it was really important to me to show my home as the beautiful place I know it to be.

Q: Would you share one of the most memorable experiences making this film?

I remember shooting the wedding reception scene with our full cast, about fifty extras, and a blues band playing in an old town hall. I was walking through the crowd filming everyone dancing, and in the original footage you can hear me laughing as the camera moves through the crowd. I was just so grateful and in shock that we were doing this. I couldn’t believe that I had written this movie and somehow, through sheer will, we were making this dream into reality. I was so touched by all the people that had come out and were supporting us by being extras. There were candles lit and a white cake from Costco that my mom helped us find, and everyone was having a blast. It was so unlikely that we were pulling this off. It was such an emotional moment that all I could do was laugh. I’ll remember that forever.

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Q: As you wore triple hats in this film as a writer, director and actor, what’s the biggest challenge that you encounter in the filmmaking process?

Trying to juggle everything was really the hardest part. To be honest, writing, directing, and acting were the fun parts. They were all a lot of work, but because I love them they were much easier. But organizing, scheduling the shoot, raising money (we did two crowdfunding campaigns plus credit cards), and slogging through post-production were all really really difficult. I guess when it comes down to it, the invisible administrative work surrounding making the movie was what really killed me and wore me out at times. I definitely need a producer next time! Even an assistant would be heaven.

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Q: I asked another female director about this last year… Given that the gender disparity in the film industry is such a hot topic these days, would you comment about your own experience as a female filmmaker working on your feature debut?

I actually feel like I’ve kind of hit the jackpot having an indie film come out at this time when there’s extra attention being brought to female filmmakers. And personally I have been frustrated for years about the portrayal of women in film and that certainly helped motivate me to create a character like June. I remember a while back when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were becoming famous, several years at least before Bridesmaids, and thinking to myself, there will be a place for me, things are changing. So I’m glad that there’s a ton of dialogue about women in film now. (There’s also a part of me thinking, why has it taken so long for this conversation to really get going…) And I’m also really glad that nothing about me being female or having a female lead hurt me in making this movie as far as I can tell. But that’s what’s so amazing about independent film now with crowdfunding and cheaper cameras – you can tell the story you need to tell without anyone’s permission other than your own.

Q: Lastly, who are your personal cinematic heroes who inspired you? Please share some of your favorite films as well.

I love Richard Linklater’s work. The Duplass Brothers. Nicole Holofcener. Lately I’m just astonished by Jeff Nichols. Midnight Special and Mud killed me. He’s a pure artist. I also love The Piano, I love Almost Famous. It’s hard not to be obsessed with Fargo. There’s something about filmmakers that really know the details of their worlds that I love. I don’t watch movies for special effects and camera moves. I want to feel that the filmmaker loves their characters and just humanity in general. I love tragedy and sweetness paired right up next to each other.


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Don’t miss the second TCFF screening of June Falling Down on
October 28, 2016 7:25 pm

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