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Posts Tagged ‘Dharavi’

A few weeks  after we moved to India I was having dinner with some new friends and was excitedly telling them about the new film project I was going to be undertaking. I mentioned that I was hoping it would me about five or six months and then I could do another project. I was a bit shocked when they all laughed at me. “Just don’t be surprised or upset if it takes you the entire year,” one of them said.

The crowd

I thought about that moment a lot yesterday at the screening of the completed film. It was only one month shy of being a year away from the very first meeting we had conceptualizing the film. And I realized that while those new friends had been right about the length of time everything takes in India, it had certainly been a ride that was worth taking the scenic route for.  The film has been a labor of love, patience, and immense growth.
The screening was held in a hall in Dharavi. I walked in and it was already packed. Every seat was taken and people were filling up standing areas in the back. The few fans were no match for the excessive heat, but no one seemed to mind. I spotted a lot of the women who had participated in the film- I wondered how they were going to feel, watching themselves on a screen in front of a couple hundred people in their community talking about their personal experiences with domestic violence. I looked around for S, one of the women I’d interviewed who was always notoriously late (her lateness had given me one memorable afternoon with her adorable and hilarious children). I couldn’t spot her.

Speech before the screening

We started with a few speeches and I was asked to say a few words (that were quickly translated for the almost entirely non-English speaking crowd). Then I sat and watched – I looked out at the sea of people as they took in the film. All I could hope was that the women in the film felt I captured their viewpoint as best I could.

When it was over we had a short question and answer session and then everyone escaped the heat to get outside for a photo exhibition that was going on in tandem with the screening. A number of women came up and shook my hand, saying thank you. A few others wanted photos. N, the head of the domestic violence center, gave me a big hug and told me how excited everyone was to show it  at all the upcoming meetings, events and trainings they hold- both in Dharavi and around Mumbai. “You don’t even realize how helpful this is going to be,” she said. It was the nicest compliment I could receive, since I already felt that they’d given me so much.

It’s hard to even begin to reflect on everything this adventure has taught me. I learned about the experiences of women who fight for survival and dignity on a daily basis without ever sacrificing joy or humor. I was able to see day to day life behind the statistics and news that I’ve read so much about. I was brought in, trusted, and treated like family by a group of women who could have closed themselves off to a stranger. They shared their stories with me so openly in order to help the organization they cared for so much. And, yes, with all the lateness and delays and rescheduled meetings they taught me to embrace their way of doing things, to have another cup of tea, and to take life with a bit more grains of salt.

So mostly I’m just grateful.

As I was leaving I spotted S. “I didn’t see you before! How did you like the film?” I asked.

“I came too late! Missed it. Oh well.”

And just like that, life returned to normal.

(And for those of you who want to see the actual film I’ve talked so much about, it’s embedded here. Finally!)

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White Out

“I don’t mean to be rude… but they let a white woman come in and film people’s personal lives in Dharavi?”

I sat back in my chair and watched as the editor scrolled through my footage in disbelief. It’s something I’ve gotten used to – after all, I am the unlikeliest narrator for this particular story.  A few months ago my only exposure to Dharavi was watching it in Slumdog Millionaire.

I was doing the final edit with a professional editor – color correction, audio tuning and all the other technical niceties. And as he worked he was full of questions:

“What do you wear when you go to Dharavi? You don’t dress Western do you?”
“How do you not get stared at?”
“Don’t they not want to talk about personal issues in front of you.”
“They let you into their homes?”

I couldn’t tell whether he was fascinated more by my being there or by Dharavi itself. One of the most interesting aspects of Mumbai is how divided the city is even when everyone is living on top of each other. A professional person, like an editor, who has spent their entire life in Mumbai, may have never actually been inside one of the city’s ubiquitous slums. For him that part of his country existed solely in the films he edited and in the movies he watched.

And for me, it’s a wholly different story. Being white is not a part of the narrative I can leave out – from the moment I walked into the hospital in Dharavi and had skeptical faces look me up to this final moment where an editor seems entirely confused by my ability to function in a slum as a white person. It’s so taboo to discuss race and yet it has such a profound effect on my daily existence here. Everything from shopping to walking down the street to performing any professional role takes a new shape as a result of my being a distinctly different looking minority in a country where most everyone is racially similar.

As I’ve grown more and more comfortable here – and as such less aware of the ‘Indianness’ of my surroundings – its become more and more apparent how much I stand out and how I will always have to justify my place here.  Even if I lived in Mumbai my whole life I would never truly belong. It’s the opposite of America where we are all immigrants and as such anyone can become American.  The more I feel like I belong and truly live here, the more that questions such as the ones posed by the editor sting at my sense of belonging.

But I can wear my outsider status as a badge of pride. I’m really lucky to have been able to see the things I’ve seen and get to know the people I’ve gotten to know. As I’m wrapping up the long process of making this particular film it’s been interesting to watch the footage with new eyes each time and remind myself that I’ve had an experience few outsiders get in India.

We still have screenings ahead to show the film – and I’m certainly curious how the women I’ve filmed will react to watching themselves – but at this juncture I’m excited to finish it and share it and move onto my next Indian adventure. Even if I’ll have to keep answering questions about how I got here.

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Kumbaya

A lot of the bad stories get told over and over again about Hindu-Muslim relations. There are a lot of truths in tales of rioting and murders. No one who has lived in Mumbai – or New York – could possibly try to minimize the devastation that can occur when religions collide.

But oftentimes these stories overshadow the day to day relations that are happening around us.

So one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about living here is watching people co-exist in a country that has seen so much turmoil over religion. From partition through the assassination of Indira Ghandi to the Bombay riots of 1992 up to the attacks here two years ago, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Yet I watch day in and day out as everyone seems to somehow make it work in a population where the majority (Hindus) are only 67% of the populace.

This has been most apparent to me in Dharavi, where everyone is literally living on top of each other and where there is incredible religious and cultural diversity. Dharavi was the horrifying epicenter of the Bombay riots 20 years ago but today it seems like there must be some improvement. I go into meetings and see Hindu women teaching Muslim women about their sexuality without any judgment. I see women wearing hijabs lay their heads on the shoulders of women in saris. I can’t explain it and I certainly would never profess to have a deep understanding of this community’s feelings about religion (that would be a bit naive) but I can only report what I see and it’s oddly comforting.

But the best thing to watch is what happens on 90 feet road on a Friday afternoon. In the middle of a crowded, dirty, hot and chaotic slum that is populated by a majority Hindu population, one side of the artery road is cleared for prayers. It causes traffic and confusion and adds time to everyone’s travels. But for just a few minutes hundreds of Muslim observers are given time to pray together in a place where there certainly isn’t space for a mosque large enough – or even homes large enough – to accommodate worshipers. It’s a small thing. But it’s not something I can imagine being allowed even in New York, the supposed home of liberalism and tolerance, where an out-of-the-way mosque’s construction was recently protested.

It’s a Pollyanna view. I’ve certainly also been privy to conversations detailing why our Pakistani neighbors on the 5th floor must be horrible or how Muslims don’t shower (no, really) and I’ve had to stand back and wonder whether I’ve been reverted to some bizarre version of the 1950’s in a racist but Indian state. It’s a reality. And there’s certainly a lot of religious turmoil happening outside of India (understatement of the century). But I’m going to keep believing that things are a little bit better than some might make it out to be

And its certainly a view that is reinforced by seeing it. So for now I’ll let some video do the talking for me. It really is a spectacular sight.

 

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About seven months ago I agreed to direct a short film about domestic violence prevention in Dharavi. From the moment the project was conceived and I agreed to take it on, I’ve been very nervous about how I could represent a place where I couldn’t even properly communicate to people. How would I possibly be able to tell their story in an accurate way?

Because of my desire to keep the film as honest as possible, I spent a few months going to Dharavi and shadowing the women I’d be filming. I got to know them through the translations and I decided that I would center the film on the lives of three of the women who worked for the organization, and tell the story through their stories.

It’s been a really long process- everything in India takes time, but working with NGO’s is an extra layer on everything. People are late, meetings get cancelled, filming gets moved, equipment isn’t procured in time and on and on and on. It shouldn’t take seven months to make a twenty-minute film. But that’s how long it did take – months of studying and researching, deciding, making decisions, hard drives breaking, making phone calls and filming over and over again in really difficult conditions without a lot of help.

But I loved it. I loved everything about working with these women. I loved their defiance of the only system they know. I love how they don’t even realize how amazing that seems to an outsider. I love the colors they wear and their children and the hot cups of chai they’re always shoving down my throat despite never having enough for themselves. I might even love (just a little bit) their penchant for always being late and changing plans and standing me up, since that’s a slice of India.

So as I wrote out the script and edited the pieces together I started to become very nervous again. Every word of narration was scrutinized: Does this fit their voice? Does it sound like the narrator is coming from a place above these women? Does it take too many liberties? Even though the narration only counted for less than two minutes out of twenty, I was so concerned with the tone. And I spent just as much time cutting together the words the women had spoken. Did they really want to share this much? Is it exploitative to show this much about the violence that they have faced? Am I including everything that would be important to them?

I wanted it to feel accurate. I wanted the women to watch their film and feel like it came from them. Because that’s what their organization is all about: they are focused on their community, on raising each other up and from building a new set of norms from within. They don’t have trained social workers parading into Dharavi telling them what values they should have. The women from Dharavi try to coax each other into fighting for the rights they deserve.

And I didn’t want to be that outsider parading in.

Yesterday we had a small screening of the rough cut of the film. It’s not done – I still need to add in the real music and do color and audio correction. But I wanted to show it to the woman, N, who runs the domestic violence center in order to get her feedback before finalizing it. After all, if she didn’t like it I would need to make some serious changes. I’d already shown it to B, the woman who runs the organization sponsoring the film, so B invited us over to her place to watch it again and get N’s feedback.

When everyone had sat down I, of course, started babbling like an idiot.

“Just keep in mind that this is a rough cut…”
“Oh and the music is being replaced with other music that’s being written…”
“We still need to do color correction…”
“We can change or add anything…”

Finally I looked over and saw B shaking her head at me, laughing a little. She knew I was nervous. I knew I had to start. So I pushed play.

Throughout the whole movie I kept trying to look at N out of the corner of my eye. Was she smiling? Was she engaged? Was she about to check her watch out of boredom? After twenty very long-seeming minutes, the film ended.

I turned and looked at N, just waiting to hear what words would come out of her mouth. I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to know what she thought.

“I really loved it. It was honest. It felt like the story came straight from them.”

I exhaled. Those were the magic words.

It really isn’t finished yet – I have all those polishes and tweaks to make. And I know when I’m sitting through the larger screening with all the women from Dharavi I’m still going to be just as nervous. But for the moment I feel like it’s a little bit of mission accomplished – all I wanted was for it to feel genuine and I’m really glad that’s what came across. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it here when it’s done.

Now I get to transfer my nervous and excited energy into something else: my parents’ arrival in India. I’m sitting here writing while they are in the air. I’m counting down the minutes (a lot more than twenty!). So next time I post you’ll get tales of parents and a trip to Rajasthan (where I will finally see the crown jewel of this country I’ve spent so much time in, the Taj Mahal). A lot of excitement for one week. Until next time…

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Dhīrē, Dhīrē

When I was at university I had two friends who were doing degrees in languages. They would always get stressed out when they had something due for a translation class. I never really understood what the big deal was. After all, if you speak two languages, shouldn’t translating be pretty easy?

I now would like to apologize for ever having such a thought. Because it is hard. Translating and finding the right words – without being overly literal and while capturing the essence of what someone is trying to say – is really hard. It’s even harder when you can’t do it yourself.

I have spent the last week finally starting the edit for my film about the women I’ve met and followed in Dharavi. It was already going to be a challenge for me – I only have access to a computer with Final Cut and I really am most comfortable on an Avid (I know this means nothing to those of you who who don’t edit, but I explained to it Daniel as such: imagine using excel, or some other program, on a PC for years. Then imagine getting a Mac and having to learn all new keystrokes and shortcuts. You know how the program is supposed to work, but you can’t make it work. VERY frustrating). But this challenge paled in comparison to the translating.

The words had already been ‘translated’. I had written a script based on this translation. I’d had all the interviews transcribed fully in Hindi and then translated so that I could write this script. But even while writing the script and putting it together I was keenly aware that this ‘translation’ was a guideline at best. If you read it out loud it sounded like a person whose grasp of English wasn’t very good. It was often overly specific, which meant the translator was probably being too literal. But alternately it was frequently vague, as though the meaning had been lost. I just couldn’t sure how bad the translation was until I got a Hindi speaker to listen and compare.

I also had a second challenge facing me: my translator had quit. It’s not an interesting story (well, it kind of is… but its not really my business to write about it!) – she quit because she was unhappy with her job in general and another opportunity came up (Ie: it had nothing to do with me or this project!), but it was definitely a blow. She had been there every step of the way. She had conducted the interviews. She would know what the intentions of the subjects were because she had sat there in person and listened as they spoke.  But she wasn’t coming back.

So instead, the organization sponsoring the film had another person, K, come to help me.  I had spent a lot of time with K initially because in her role she actually does a lot of work with the domestic violence prevention center that the film is about. So at least she’s very familiar with the subject and all the people we are following. I figured it would be alright.

But right from the beginning it was clear that this was not going to be an easy ride. I’ll give you some examples:

Translation: “And then I got an explanation that will you work over here”
Actual translation: “And then I was offered a job”

Translation: “It was there in some place on my inside to do work in social sector but I did not know how to do.”
Actual translation: “It was always in me to do social work, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”

Translation: “Sometimes when we talk in groups if we say even one word then that can break the group.”
Actual translation: ” When we speak with the different community groups, if we say something that can be construed as offensive, that can cause people to leave the group.”

You get the picture. So every single sentence had to be re-thought and re-worked. We had to really consider what it was that the person was trying to say. A word’s literal meaning might not translate properly to English. So for each sentence – or even half of a sentence – we had to sit, think about it, debate over every word and then write it in and put the subtitle on the video. For a film that is 20 minutes long every 5 second chunk took two to five minutes of discussion, deliberation and editing.

We sat like this for two full days. K would always ask me, “What do you think she meant?” and I would have to laughingly remind her that I don’t speak Hindi and couldn’t give insight into the meaning. I could only help through suggesting words once she had already told me what the gist of the sentence was. At times it was incredibly frustrating: how can we put that sentiment into one sentence? How can this translate properly?

My favorite Hindi phrase is “dhīrē, dhīrē” (roll your r’s when making the sound) which literally means “slowly, slowly.” I use it a lot in rickshaws when I’m near the place I’m going but not quite sure exactly where it is. But it also has a certain calming effect- maybe I just like the way the words sound. For me, it gives the phrase a double meaning. Everything in India happens slowly, slowly. You have to say it twice to emphasize that its not merely slow, it just might take a little bit of time to get it right. So, dhīrē, dhīrē, we got it done. We slogged our way through but in the end, we had the makings of a movie.

Slowly but surely might be the proper translation.

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Wait and See

I don’t think many Indians will be offended if I say that they have a very loose relationship with time. For Westerners used to deadlines and punctuality it can be a bit frustrating to realize that if you live in India, you will never again have a meeting start on time or see almost anything completed when it originally was supposed to be.

Most people here would just say, “that’s how it is here. You decided to live here. Deal with it.” And I do. Most of the time it drives me a bit crazy. Other times it leads to incredible amusement.

I bring all this up because in the time that I have been working on my film with the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi, nothing has happened on time. The women I am following are incredible, hard-working, defiant, and always — always — late. When they’re not late they are re-scheduling or pushing things back. It’s not laziness or avoidance or procrastination. It’s just the way things are done. But when you’re making a film it can get a little bit tiresome. For every day we’ve planned to film, at least half have been rescheduled. All have started at least half an hour or an hour late. But, as everyone reminds me, this is how it is here. You can’t change the system you chose to work in.

I bring all this up because we are finally done filming. After two months of discussions, two months of shadowing and research, one broken hard drive and three months of filming (whenever we could), we were ready to finish up with one last meeting before starting to edit. I needed video of a game the women sometimes use as a tool for discussion so we had set up a meeting to film it. And I should have known that for my last foray I would get to go out with a bang.

I arrived in Dharavi by myself because my translator couldn’t make it – after all, this was the third time this particular meeting had been rescheduled and she had another work commitment. But since it was just a meeting (ie: no interviews) I figured I could watch and film on my own, and S, the woman I was following that day, has an English-speaking husband. The meeting was supposed to start at 3:30.

When I got there I called S’s husband. He said they were running half an hour late and to just go their house. I’d been there before for the interviews so I made my way into the winding lanes of their neighborhood. Normally when I go into residential Dharavi I’m with my translator or one of the women we’re following. Going alone makes me a little bit like a circus freak. Everyone stops and stares and wonders what this odd white person is doing making her way through the narrow passages and thin sidewalks. I imagine most assume I’m lost. But eventually I make it to S’s house and climb the rickety vertical ladder that leads up to her one-room home.

My head popped up through the entry-way and I saw four little faces staring back at me. S’s children, hanging out at home alone, were suddenly very interested in the person coming through their trap-door.

“You are aware my mother is not here?” I looked over at S’s eldest daughter N. The last time we met, when I was interviewing S, she hadn’t let on that she knew English. I tilted my head and looked at this tiny ten year old with two white bows on either side of her head. She was clearly responsible for watching all her younger siblings in their small 6 foot by 8 foot house with just a small television to entertain them.

“I know she’s not here,” I finally responded. “She’s on her way and asked me to wait. I didn’t realize you spoke English so well.”
“I’m learning it in government school. I’m good at it,” she said, while looking me up and down. She didn’t say anything else, she just continued to watch me, as though she was wondering what I’d do next. I decided to start setting up my camera since she didn’t have any more questions.

After a minute, she asked, “your phone is very expensive, yes?” I looked down at the iPhone in my hand. It’s hard to explain to people here that you can get it cheaply in the US – in India it costs around $800. But then, even spending $99 on a phone would be expensive here. I didn’t know how to respond so I just handed it over to her, so she could play with it. She pushed the button and looked intently at the screen.

“Who is this?” she asked, about the picture that comes up when you first turn on my phone.
“Those are my parents. They live far away so I keep a picture of them on my phone.”
“Your mother has very yellow hair. Why don’t you have yellow hair?” I didn’t really know how to answer, but it didn’t seem to matter. N had already figured out how to slide the phone to show the main screen and she was scrolling through my apps, clicking on different games. I turned back to the camera.

I hadn’t noticed that N’s siblings were fascinated with the camera sitting on its tripod. N indicated that they wanted to take photos so I switched the camera into photo mode and showed them what button to press. I sat back and watched. N was absorbed in a card game on my phone while her siblings giggled away taking photos. Most of the time they were standing too close to the camera, but the flash and the resulting blurry picture usually made them laugh more.

After awhile I looked up at the clock. It was 4:15, already 45 minutes had gone by and no one was here.

“What is this picture?” N asked, snapping me out of my thoughts. I looked over. She had opened the folder that contained all the photos I’d taken with my camera. She was holding up a picture of Phoebe.

“That’s my dog,” I replied.
“She is cute,” she said, while laughing a little bit at the picture.

N proceeded to go through all my pictures. She wanted to know why I had taken every one. Why do I take so many photos of flowers? (I like to email them to my mom). Why does my dog look different in these pictures? (she had a haircut). Who is that person and where are you? (I’m on a beach with my brother). Is that a picture of your mother when she was younger? (No, that’s my sister). Is that what snow looks like? (Yes, it is).

She got the most amusement out of a video of my friend’s dog I had taken at Christmas. The dog is a french bulldog and N seemed to think she resembled a cat. She had all sorts of questions about the size of the dog, why its ears were like a cat, why it was jumping around so much. I tried to answer every one but I just kept thinking that this girl was really something. I’ve been in enough schools to know that she probably sits in a class with crumbling walls and 40 students packed in with one teacher. And yet she’s managed to learn almost perfect English by an age when a lot of girls have already been taken out of school. Here she was, wanting to understand every photo of this strange life of a person entirely foreign to her. I couldn’t help feeling like it all wasn’t fair – an inquisitive young girl in the US would have every chance in the world. I wondered whether she’d even be allowed to grow up and avoid getting married so young like her mother and perhaps even go to college. Maybe since her mother works with a progressive organization she’ll be able to push her daughter out of the cycle.

But of course, all the dramatic thoughts going on in my head were once again interrupted by a question.

“I like this camera on your phone. Can I take a picture of you and my sister?” I agreed and her four year old sister sidled up next to me on the table where I was perched. N snapped the photo and both she and her sister giggled with delight.

“Do you have email?” I asked. “I can send it to you?” N shook her head.
“Not yet. I do not have it yet.”

I was liking her optimism.

By now it was almost 5pm and I was about to call S again. But a few women started arriving and filling up the room. Within a few minutes the small room was holding eighteen women and seven children. When they started the meeting I knew I needed to begin filming, so I lifted a child off my lap and uncrossed my legs. Two women had been sitting next to me on top of the table and their legs were crossed and over mine, so I had to extricate myself. There was no personal space and I had to sort of smash myself up against the wall in order to try and get the camera to see the whole room. N still had my phone and when I looked over she was showing the video of my friend’s dog to one of the women.

It was 5:30pm by the time we started filming, two hours late. But at least on this occasion, I’d certainly had an interesting time waiting.

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Your Level Best

I saw a mouse run by and I jumped up – then almost as quickly I froze, trying to stop every instinct in me from screaming and running out of the room. I am like a child when it comes to mice; they cause me to act in a completely embarrassing irrational manner. But here, in R’s small one-room home in Dharavi, I knew I had to keep my cool. I knew how much R fretted over what we would think of her home. I knew that it was generous of her to allow me – a foreign, white person who clearly did not live in a 5 foot by 5 foot room – to watch and film her life.

So I sat down. I sat back down on the floor. The same floor and corner where I’d just seen a mouse run from. I could not embarrass this person who had been so open with me. So the interview began again, and I tried, with every fiber of my shaken being, to not look around for the mouse.

As I sat there, listening to the Hindi that I couldn’t understand (we were on our second round of the interview, since the first had been lost with the hard drive), I started to wonder: how on earth can I evaluate my standards for this film?

I’ve always tried to have every piece I’ve ever worked on look as professional as possible. I remember I one time got in a fight with an anchor who told me that for one shot in my piece my tripod wasn’t level – I’d tried to argue that I was constantly shifting to try and get a moving shot and I was standing on ground that was sloped. I was so angry that anyone would assume I hadn’t tried my best.

The thought now just makes me laugh. There will barely be one shot in this film that is level. We’re working with a camcorder because nothing bigger will fit in the room. Our tripod probably cost $20 at most and so any panning shots are usually done by hand, since the tripod is too jerky. We have only one light, and it conks out after an hour.

Not to mention that I can barely get a clear shot of anything – if we’re in a small room, even if I press my body up against the wall, I’m still not going to be able to get a full picture of the room. There’s just not enough space.

And everything is a distraction – During R’s interview we’d had to constantly stop and start over because her children would speak or laugh, or bang into something. Two of her three children were at home and they had a very difficult time keeping quiet. There wasn’t a place for them to sit, since R was being interviewed sitting on the bed. There wasn’t anything for them to do since there was no other room to go in and they obviously didn’t own anything to read or play with quietly.

I’d tried to keep R’s son quiet by playing a silent version of peek-a-boo but he kept laughing too loudly. So finally I pulled him onto my lap, where he fidgeted and tried to put chewing gum in my hair. He also kept declaring that he wanted chewing gum, which he said in such a cute way that I could barely contain my own giggle. It’s safe to say that some of that might come across in the background of these interviews. Oh well.

I’ve been really lucky to work in some great newsrooms with amazing equipment. So to say that shooting this film is a challenge is an understatement.

But somehow I am starting to get the feeling that this might be the best thing I’ve ever done. There will be children, and banging pots, and shouting neighbors and crows and shouts of ‘chewing gum’ in the background of a large portion of my interviews. A lot of the shots might be dark and grainy because we don’t have enough light. Nothing will be level (sorry to the anchor who doesn’t approve). Every time I had to walk with someone it will be shaky. Yet the content will be unique and interesting and honest.

Mouse be damned. Somehow, it’s all going to work.

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