2002 World Horror Con

Film festival review by Thomas M. Sipos




Horror Film Aesthetics

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Communist Vampires

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Nicolae Ceausescu

Commuist Vampires

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L'Internationale Song



I wrote the below article on March 25, 2002 for Horrorfind.com, which has since changed ownership and no longer carries horror articles. Thus, for the sake of horror film festival history (and assuming anyone cares), I'm reprinting my article as it first appeared nearly two decades ago.



The 2002 World Horror Convention will feature a Short Film Festival, which Jon Weimer, its founder, hopes will become an annual event.

This year a “panel of judges” (Jon, with some input from me) determined the entries to be screened at the festival. After their premiere screening on Saturday, April 13, 2002, there will be a Q&A with the directors -- then the audience will vote for a Winner.

[Update: The Audience Choice Award went to The Spooky Incident.]

As this is the festival’s first year, events were rushed. Jon hopes to have a more formalized panel of judges next year, and a larger selection of entries. We agreed on some films, not on others. The audience may feel still differently.

Here are my reviews, not only of the festival films, but of all entries. I will endeavor to avoid spoilers.

First, the five films selected for screening at the WHC film festival:



1. Daughter (dir: Eduardo Rodriguez; scp: Eduardo Rodriguez & Sean Garman; prod: James Sims; dp: Ben Cawood; music: Luis Ascanio; cast: Marcie Seklecki, Jennifer Ashlyn Qualey; Florida State University student film; 14 minutes)

A woman (Marcie Seklecki) awakes from a nightmare, alone in bed in a comfortable looking home. Everything seems fine, yet something’s not right. She frets for her daughter, yet when she checks, everything seems okay...

Art direction, lighting, sound, and acting are all excellent -- and more importantly -- mutually supportive. Director Rodriguez unites all elements toward a common aesthetic goal: building an atmosphere of gnawing unease, despite appearances of normalcy. The home is attractive and comfortable, but a little too empty, a little too pristine. Shadows are not obviously ominous, just enough to unsettle one’s subconscious. And although the mother’s initial fears appear unfounded, they feel justified, both to her and us.


There is gore. The film opens with blood splashing upward from her face as she awakes. We’ve seen this image in other films, and there are other clichéd images. But they’re as technically proficient in this student film as in any Hollywood studio (i.e. big-budget) effort. There’s also “water imagery,” which makes some sense if taken as sexual/birthing symbolism. Or maybe it’s simply inherent in the setup.

The two actresses (mother and child) are both natural, talented, and skilled.

Although we begin to guess the ending, its portrayal is especially imaginative and gripping. The special effects, both visually and aurally, are skillfully executed. And the film is not overlong, so we don’t guess too far ahead of the story.

A slick, striking, and memorable horror film [my top pick], by a talented cast and crew.




2. The Spooky Incident (dir/scp: Anthony Kern; cast: Fred Warner, Jack Darfese; 18 minutes)

A young apartment dweller is plagued by a hole under his sink. Then he loses his job, partially because he surfs for porn at work. Needing money, he agrees to take care of a yuppie couple’s cat (named “Spooky”) while the couple vacations. Then Spooky runs and disappears into the hole under the sink...

Some scenes initially appear gratuitous; repeated viewing is required to discern a single aesthetic purpose to them. Essentially, most scenes underscore the man’s frustration (sexual; job-related; the hole under his sink), all aggravated by the lost cat, which becomes a focus for his problems.

Even so, many scenes still seem at least partially gratuitous. The story’s subtext could have been clarified. Instead, director Kern embraces style over substance. There are some David Lynchian inspired shots: moving closeups of rusted pipes and wiring, dissolves through the building’s walls. The speeding subway, the jump cuts, saturated colors, vampiric goth girl, all seem to exist more for visual show-off than for any dramatic or thematic purpose.

Daughter's Rodriguez was also visually slick, but he was better at coalescing his elements into a cohesive story and theme.

Still, if The Spooky Incident was primarily intended to showcase Kern’s technical proficiency, at least he has much to showcase. The “film” appears shot-on-video, and some scenes display typically harsh, high-contrasty video/lighting, but many scenes -- especially when Kern gets fancy with his trick photography -- are both beautiful and impressive.

Kern also makes good use of silence (the man daydreaming on the train; the couple “yelling” at him). George Lucas is a great advocate of paying meticulous attention to sound (his motivation for founding Skywalker Sound), whereas many directors still concentrate solely on visuals. Kern is to be commended for heeding Lucas (and Lynch) by making aesthetic use of both sight and sound. Kern’s “silences” are not arbitrary -- they allow us to perceive events more subjectively, from his main character’s introverted worldview. When the objective outside world is silenced, we more readily experience reality as the character does -- his mind disconnecting from others yelling at him.

The cast is competent. The “yuppie” actress (a bit part) resembles Seinfeld’s Julia-Louis Dreyfus. But most noteworthy is Jack Darfese as the gruff building super, who has the look and talent of a skilled character actor.

The Spooky Incident ends on a disappointing note, neither scary nor especially original. Much (albeit gratuitous) atmospheric buildup is wasted on a quick and arbitrary piece of silliness. But since most of the film is measurably better than its final half minute -- an ending not necessitated by previous events -- Kern would do well to rethink and reshoot the ending.



3. The Puzzle (dir/scp: Robert Harari; based on the short story “The Jigsaw Puzzle” by J.B. Stamper; prod: Robert Harari and Kimberly Roil; dp: Jason Contino; music: Robert Harari, Jeremy Ford and Short Round; cast: Courtney Bell, Elenor Theodorou, Chris Cridler, Greg Dahlem, James Bradley Thomas; 22 minutes)

I’d contacted Screamfest L.A. about WHC, and they contacted their 2001 festival entrants. One of them, Robert Harari, submitted his Screamfest L.A. entry.

This, essentially, was what I said of The Puzzle in my HorrorFind review of 2001 Screamfest LA.

An entertaining student film, The Puzzle is based on a short story, which shows. This is one of the more literate entries.

A young pharmacist is feted with a surprise birthday party, after which she finds a gift from an unknown guest: a jigsaw puzzle. It's a dark and stormy night. The electric power goes out. By candlelight, she completes the puzzle. The “surprise twist ending” is not wholly unexpected, but the film's effectively creepy atmosphere gives it punch.

The Puzzle relies heavily on atmosphere, building it with painstaking care, employing lighting, art decor, story, and character. The film begins on a cheery afternoon at the pharmacy, when the characters’ innocent banter reveal the pharmacist’s empty social life.

We cut to the pharmacist’s stark white apartment, its impersonal decor at first obfuscated by lively partygoers, but exposed after the partygoers depart. Her apartment is clean and tasteful, but apart from the party debris, appears unlived in. Alone in her lonely apartment, the pharmacist begins piecing together the jigsaw puzzle. The atmosphere of solitude grows ominous as an intensifying thunderstorm kills the lights. She continues piecing the puzzle by candlelight.

The Puzzle has the marks of a student film lighting project. But it does more than use lighting merely to create a dark and scary atmosphere; its lighting also affects and alters the mood of the scenes. And more importantly -- in a way that supports character, theme, and flow of the story. Lighting and art decor both underscore the pharmacist's empty life, leaving her open to the dark supernatural entry of the puzzle.

Shot-on-video, The Puzzle suffers some fuzziness and murkiness, although its videography is superior to some other entrants. One senses that director Harari did the best possible with available equipment, as the lighting and art decor are aesthetically motivated.

The Puzzle is literate and atmospheric, opting for old-fashioned spookiness over gory zombies or slashers. Characters are strong, doubtless rooted in the short story upon which this film was based.

Exposition feels long for a short film, with a brief payoff, but the exposition has a purpose: to build character and atmosphere.

Puzzle design by Joslin Photo Puzzle Co. at: JigsawPuzzle.com.



4. Plasticity 1.7 (dir: Brian Forrest; scp: Brian Forrest & Oliver Nowak, based on a play by Oliver Nowak; cast: Eric Forsythe, Shannon Convery; music: Paul Hartwig; dp: Brien Burroughs; support from Minnesota State Arts Board & NEA; 19 minutes)

We open on closeups of machine parts, while a man mutters nonsense. We soon discover that he is bloodied, connected to machine parts (visually reminiscent of such post-apocalyptic sf films as Circuitry Man and Hardware), and held prisoner by an angry young woman. They talk, and talk, and talk, and amid much vague and redundant verbiage (lots of talk of being “just parts”) we try and discern what the hell is going on.

Because Plasticity 1.7 falls under the subgenre of “horror-art film,” it carries a certain “Ahhhh!” factor. I too have a weakness for horror-art films (e.g., Company of Wolves, The Doctor and the Devils, Nadaj), but one must beware of surrendering to one’s weakness, and seeing more than is onscreen.

And Plasticity 1.7 is simply less than the sum of its ... parts. Based on a play, Plasticity 1.7 is naturally talky and static. And to its credit, of all the entrants, it has the most original story. But that’s partially because its vague metaphors and nonsense dialog never clarify into a substantive tale. This is one of those art films whose “Ahhhh!” factor is canceled by a greater "Huh?" factor.

Jon Weimer, who viewed the film seven times, offers one interpretation of events. He may be right, although I spot contradictory elements in the film that undermine his theory. I won’t spoil the film by relating any interpretive theories here. View it yourself at WHC, and determine if its meaning is clear, and if so, if the film merits an award.

I only hope viewers won’t confuse ambiguity with profundity.

Story aside, Plasticity 1.7 is technically slick. Its bio-mechanical images are provocative, if unoriginal. Fine acting and makeup. Excellent photography and sound mix. A haunting end score reminiscent of Enya’s New Age Celtic music.



5. Dwindling (dir/scp: Arnie Lerner, based on a story by David B. Silva; cast: Ann Dillon, Alex Savon; casting: Wright-Laird Casting; original music: Susan Clark and Sid Fendley; support from Kansas City Independent Film Coalition; super-8 film; 19 minutes)

A farmer’s wife regrets having so many children, so early in life. Regrets seeing her life passing so quickly. And only her eldest son is aware that her regrets are altering reality...

Based on a short story, this film isn’t particularly original. It reminded me of the old Twilight Zone episode where the astronauts return, and only one of them is aware that their numbers are "dwindling."

Credits indicate that, despite being shot in Kansas, a professional casting agency was retained. It shows. The film is very well cast. Everyone, children included, perform naturally. Ann Dillon looks like a weary, plain-living, midwest farmer's wife.

Dwindling’s credits boast original music yet its piano score sounds vaguely familiar, similar to music from Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. Possibly, Lerner and Burns were inspired by music from the same era. Clark and Fendley’s music helps set the appropriate mood, though its redundant use begins to annoy.

Worse is the film’s occasionally high-contrast lighting, which adds to an overall flat video look. (Surprisingly, the credits indicate this was shot on film.) Of all the entrants, Dwindling was among the visually flattest, which goes far in spoiling any atmosphere. A splatter film can make aesthetic use of harsh flat lighting, which conveys a documentary authenticity (Night of the Living Dead). But a subtle supernatural tale more often requires an ethereal atmosphere, and Dwindling’s cinematography fails to contribute.

Dwindling’s atmosphere is also hobbled by its occasionally flat soundtrack, at least when shooting indoors. That sort of hollow echo that could be mitigated with sound blankets.

The credits indicate that a crane was used. Lerner should have foregone the crane shots, which are unnecessary, and concentrated more on sound and lighting, which lack atmosphere. (One is reminded of SCTV’s Johnny LaRue, forever begging for a crane shot -- as though it were a magic bullet to improve his show).

Dwindling ends on a stronger note that Plasticity 1.7 or The Spooky Incident. The exchange between mother and son (before bedtime) implies the ominous. (Will the son awake in the morning? Is she aware of events and grant him a reprieve? Or not?).

Dwindling mines childhood fears of being unwanted. The cast and music go far in realizing the script’s potential, but better atmosphere could have added much.



There. Those are the five films that will screen at WHC.

I’d vote for Daughter, for overall excellence. The Puzzle and The Spooky Incident are my second and third choices, respectively. But The Puzzle falls short of Daughter’s technical proficiency, and its ending is weaker. The Spooky Incident is technically slicker than The Puzzle, but its ending is weaker still.

But ultimately, the audience shall decide the winner. [The Audience Choice Award went to The Spooky Incident].

The following films will not be screened at WHC. Here is what the audience missed:




6. The Terrible Old Man (Canadian; dir: Bob Fugger; scp: Steve Abbott, story by Steve Abbott, Bob Fugger, Jordan Pratt, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; cast: Rene DeFazio, Rock Moran, Todd Sanderson; 33 minutes)

Lovecraft’s short-short is thin on plot and characterization. Fugger hews faithfully to what there is, but updates and expands it with details and new dialog.

Fugger’s film opens with three young thieves driving an old sedan, putting distance between themselves and the cops in another town. The soundtrack blares hard rock music. They plan to “lay low” with one’s uncle, until “the heat cools off.” At a small town diner, they spot a bizarre-looking old man -- paying for lunch with gold coins. Naturally, the thieves decide on one last “big score” before hiding out with the uncle. That night, they break into the old man’s decrepit house...

This film is produced by Canada’s Titan Entertainment, whose website credits Fugger with music videos. It shows, as The Terrible Old Man’s music is well-chosen, unlike many films which seem to slap on a generic rock score without thought as to how the selection interplays with the visuals.

The actors range from good to very good, the worst being the “terrible old man” who tends toward hamminess -- and his “scary makeup” could have been more realistic. There is also a cop and a waitress (who resembles singer Bonnie Tyler’s 1970s look), both of whom perform well.

But the main cast consists of the three thieves, who are standard gang types (the short-fused hothead, the nervous nelly with a soft spot, and the badass leader who keeps both in line).

The standout performance comes from Rene DeFazio, who plays the badass gang leader. He conveys restrained menace mixed with cunning, knowing when to push hard, when to hold back. Despite his silly pencil-thin goatee, he’s as charismatic and competent an actor as any current TV or low-budget film badie. He is well cast for the role.

The nervous nelly (Todd Sanderson) was cast against type, and it doesn’t work. Not only is Sanderson a big guy, but his shaved head and goatee are those of a man who considers himself tough. And people would indeed be intimidated at first sight, which he’d notice and thus take confidence in. So casting him as a scaredy cat didn't work for me.

Sanderson does generate some sympathy with his concern for others, but it’s an inconsistent concern. (And what's with that John Travolta accent? -- whom Sanderson already vaguely resembles.) Additionally, Sanderson’s MTV hand gestures appear stiff and unnatural, as though they don’t feel right for him. Did Fugger instruct Sanderson on the hand gestures, or did Sanderson think them appropriate to his character? The problem is, because Sanderson appears uncomfortable with the hand gestures, they break character. We see the actor beneath the character.

The third villain, Rock Moran, is the short-fused hothead. He’s smirky and smartass, and does a serviceable job at it.

The villains’ verbal interplay is sometimes enjoyable, but screenwriter Abbott’s lines fall short of Pulp Fiction’s sharp banter. Much of The Terrible Old Man’s dialogue is banal, and the villains’ bickering grows annoying.

Which brings us to this film’s worst element: it’s overlong and padded. It needs trimming. The villains' squabbling would be sharper if the edits were tighter. (Of course, if the lines were smarter, we wouldn’t mind the squabbling as much).

The colored lighting inside the old man’s house is proficient and atmospheric. The special effects are competent.

You won’t see The Terrible Old Man at WHC, but you can learn more at: TitanEntertainment.com.



7. Suicide, Inc. (dir/scp: Manual De Seixas Correa; cast: Yuri Lowenthal, Marianne Veehoff; NYU student film; 10 minutes)

A despondent novelist suffering writer’s block yearns for suicide. Failing at several attempts, he see a TV ad for Suicide, Inc. So he checks in...

Suicide, Inc.’s strongest aspects are its slick production values, its atmospheric lighting and cinematography -- the sort of technical proficiency one would expect from an NYU student film. (My old “Sight And Sound” professor, Nick Tanis, is listed in the credits.)

Even before the end credits, I spotted an “inside joke” that gave this away as an NYU film. Suicide, Inc.’s address is 721 Broad Street, and NYU’s film school is at 721 Broadway. No doubt, that elicited chuckles when screened in class. Too bad Suicide, Inc. isn’t clever in other areas.

Apart from its journeyman craftsmanship, the film boasts pedestrian acting and a bland story, though mercifully short.

It’s a cute but commonplace story. We've seen it before: odd clinics with secret agendas or methods. Stephen King’s “Quitters, Inc.” comes to mind. And there's one about a travel agency run by aliens -- probably several like that. But most of those fictional agencies hide behind front operations. Suicide, Inc. states their business up front, thus removing a potential “surprise twist ending” and diminishing suspense. The agency, and the film, is what it claims to be.

The story might have been improved with a more conspiratorial atmosphere or plotting, rather than the clinic blatantly advertising its services on TV. One of last year’s Screamfest L.A. entries, Fatal Kiss, featured a vampire clinic advertising on TV -- but Fatal Kiss’s black comedy offered surprise twists beyond what the clinic promised. Suicide, Inc. is less clever, less funny, and no big surprises.

Lead actor Yuri Lowenthal sports a British accent that just doesn’t sound right. Maybe he is British, but his accent wavers and sounds affected -- sounds a little too “Hugh Grant.” Many beginner actors affect accents for no good reason, for no reason pertinent to their character. Often they confuse “creating a character” with affecting an accent. Southern accents are popular, rednecks and belles. So too drunken slurs. Method teachers warn of the beginner’s weakness for assuming the accents and mannerisms of an admired actor. James Dean was said to have affected the mannerisms of Marlon Brando.

I wonder if Lowenthal is a big Hugh Grant fan, or simply an American who decided that making his character British was “more of a stretch.” Unless he really is British, it was a pointless stretch.

Actress Marianne Veehoff, playing the nurse, is pretty, but performs blandly. Not awful, but not particularly inspired.

Storywise, Suicide, Inc. begins with an okay setup, and concludes on a weak payoff. It proves yet again that competent production values do not alone a film make.



8. End of the Line (dir/scp: Randy Smith; cast: John Steven Rocha; Florida State University student film; 6 minutes)

Early one morning, David enters his kitchen and answers the phone. The voice on the phone is friendly, but quickly grows ominous. He reveals that he killed David’s wife, that he will kill David, and that he’s watching even now. As they talk on the phone, David frantically searches for the killer, who must be hiding somewhere in his house...

Yes, it reminds one of Scream, which I thought an overrated suspense film rather than ground-breaking horror.

End of the Line is not great, but it’s clever, its editing and mobile camera keep events moving briskly, and the film is of appropriate length. Despite its pedestrian setup, its shocker ending surprised me. Not as striking as Daughter’s ending, but better than that of such overall superior fare as The Spooky Incident and Plasticity 1.7 -- and better than the endings of The Terrible Old Man and Suicide, Inc..

John Steven Rocha’s acting was pedestrian, but serviceable. No worse than Suicide, Inc.’s Lowenthal and Veehoff -- and End of the Line hails from Florida State University. FSU film students presumably have a smaller acting talent pool to draw from than NYU students -- though Daughter is another FSU film, and it does fine on all counts.

End of the Line is a slight film, but technically competent and with some entertainment value.



9. Wild (dir: Jon Weimer; cast: Ann Shaughnessy, C. Wayne Owens, Jon Weimer; 5 minutes)

Credit Short Film Festival Founder Jon Weimer with wanting an independent third party to help judge his film.

We open on streetwalkers enticing passing drivers. In his car, a large man (C. Wayne Owens) hears radio news reports of another murder. He slows to hire a sweet young hooker named “Wild” (Ann Shaughnessy). They drive to her basement pad...

Sound and videography leave much room for improvement. Shaughnessy is decent enough in her limited role, no more. Her squeaky voice lends a girlish innocence that contrasts with her inner evil. Her voice and appearance evoke British actress Sammi Davis (Lair of the White Worm, Mona Lisa).

Some of Weimer’s direction (Shaughnessy’s knife dance) "tries too hard." Her voice was contrast enough. She should have performed her role more straight, even frightened. Owens too is decent in his limited, wordless role. Weimer performs well enough in his brief cameo.

The ending is a variation on a common twist (the perceived victim turns victimizer), albeit unexpected.



10. The Outsider (dir/scp: Aaron Vanek; based on “The Outsider” by H.P. Lovecraft; cast: Herb Lichtenstein; 6 minutes).

A risen corpse seeks his former love. Told in voiceover narration, and occasional flashbacks, as the corpse plods home...

Extended voiceovers rarely work, especially in purple prose. The writing must be literate, but not dated or overwrought. It worked for Vincent Price reading Poe (he was the master at it). More recently, and with modern prose, it worked with Agent Dana Scully’s X-Files opening monologues.

But writer/director Vanek heaps anachronistic purple prose on us -- for the film’s entire length. Okay, he’s chosen to avoid all dialog -- but in that case, silence would have been better at creating atmosphere than voiceovers.

Worse, the narrator’s delivery sounds uncomfortable in his mouth. He stumbles over some words, rushes past others, without rhythm or feeling. No Vincent Price here.

What is it about Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” that inspires beginner filmmakers to make a pretentious mess? Back in film school, I too, soon after reading it, was inspired to create a pretentious purple voiceover mess.

Not that Vanek adheres closely to Lovecraft (nor did I). He also borrows from Poe.

Another error: the “surprise” ending is no surprise because the corpse makeup is visible early on -- so why bother with a POV shot? Why “spring” this ending on us as though it were some horrific surprise? Doesn’t Vanek realize everyone saw it coming from the start? The story itself (revenant corpse returns, ignorant of its decay) is common enough for horror fans to spot, but Vanek also reveals the corpse makeup early on. If he thought we didn’t notice, because the narrator was shot from behind, well, then Vanek was seriously wrong.

Even so, it appears that great care, and some skill, went into crafting the corpse makeup -- but rather than a corpse, it looks like a vampire, or some demon thing. What’s up with that?

Vanek’s cinematography is better. His interior lighting is bright and sharp, albeit sometimes flat. His outdoor shots are nicely atmospheric. His art direction also shows promise. Care and skill went into costuming and set design.

Now that he’s gotten “The Outsider” out of his system, he should discard purple voiceovers and concentrate on crafting tight, sharp dialog.



11. My Necronomicon (dir/scp: Aaron Vanek; cast: Page Hearn; black & white; 2 minutes)

Another Lovecraft film, by Vanek.

A nervous trench-coated man scurries home, opens the Necronomicon, and begins reading. Blood spills along the walls, upward. Fascinated, he touches, and dissolves into another dimension, screaming...

Again, Vanek’s cinematography and special effects are admirable. Actor Hearn is properly nebbish in both appearance and movement. He is well-costumed for his role.

Alas, at 2 minutes (including credits) there is no story. A vignette, no more. Slick, but slight. Too slight to elicit interest, or provide entertainment value.



12. Turkey VI: Armageddon (dir: Rachel Walens & Katie Tipson; scp: Rachel Walens; cast: Emily Mandelbaum, Uri Pomerantz, Rachel Walens; 20 minutes)

Turkeys exact revenge in this unfunny parody of horror and action films.

The worst entry. Far and away, the worst. Mind-numbingly dull. I was stunned when, upon clocking it on my second viewing (I viewed each entry twice), I saw it only ran 20 minutes. Seemed so much longer.

I can forgive ineptitude, but not sloppiness, something tossed together as though the “artist” didn’t give a damn. When an artist asks someone to read, or view, or listen to their work, they are obligated to offer their best effort, however poor.

This “cast” had all the appearance of friends goofing off with a camera, rather than trying to entertain or enlighten an audience. Shot at Stanford, all involved appear to be students (pray God, not film students), and all seem to be having a rollicking good time, yukking it up with bad puns, sophomoric innuendoes, screwball expressions, and painfully inept and pointless accents. One young Asian “actor” plays a college dean with an accent that morphs between British, 1930s Hollywood blueblood, German, and Swedish. His is the highlight performance.

Writer/director Walens pushes nepotism into criminal extremes by casting herself. She thus spreads her already micron-thin talents down to subatomic levels.

Were it not painful enough watching goofball college cutups hamming it up with limp rubber turkeys, the end credits further assault the audience with a barrage of unfunny wiseass “jokes” (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this is not).

Every other entrant, no matter how flawed their film, tried their best -- tried hard. It shows in what did work.

But the goofballs behind Turkey VI made no effort. This is just a “home movie” among friends, of no interest to anyone other than the participants. That’s all well and good, but it’s boorish to foist one’s sloppy home movie onto an audience, and rude to enter it in a festival alongside hardworking artists with serious aspirations.



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