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Tim Robbins and Derek Luke – The Two Sides of Catch a Fire

Updated: May 2, 2023

Derek Luke and Tim Robbins star in "Catch a Fire."

Derek Luke and Tim Robbins star in “Catch a Fire.”




In any revolution, there are many foot soldiers – normal people who are pushed too far and play a vital role in the changing world values.  The people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu may have played a larger role, but there were many others who helped them get their word out to the people.

Patrick Chamusso is one of these small, vital stories who played a huge role in the fall of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.  Chamusso was a completely apolitical worker at Johannesburg’s largest refinery.  He loved his wife and children and football.  Everything changed when he was mistakenly picked up to be questioned on a terrorist bombing.

Chamusso was tortured by the police and when he could not give information he did not have, his wife was also imprisoned and tortured.  Eventually the police realized he was innocent and set them free.

This experience changed his viewpoint and Chamusso approached Joe Slovo – one of the few whites in the revolution, with a plan to destroy the refinery which symbolized South African affluence and oppression.

Because of his plan, Chamusso ended up spending eleven years on Robben Island, the South African prison colony which also held Nelson Mandela.  When apartheid was finally dismantled, Chamusso was freed along with all the other inmates of the island.  In the years since, he has built an orphanage to house poor African children.

Over the years, he was periodically contacted by Shawn Slovo – daughter of rebellion member Joe and now a successful screenwriter – about getting Chamusso’s story on film.

“Her father approached me when I was released from Robben Island.  He told me that his daughter wants to write something about you,” Chamusso recalls.

However, over the years he assumed that it would never happen.  “I forgot about it,” Chamusso acknowledges.  “Especially when the man who spoke with me – Joe Slovo – died in 1995.  I said everything is gone.  His children are going to forget about me.  They might be doing a movie about Mandela or Zulu or about Winnie Mandela – those famous people.  Usually, they never write a story of a person like myself.”

Now, fifteen years after his release, Patrick Chamusso’s story is finally reaching movie screens.  Playing Chamusso is American actor Derek Luke, who previously starred in Antwone Fisher, Friday Night Lights and Glory Road.  At first, the subject of the film had his doubts about the casting, but he quickly was swayed.

Derek Luke stars in "Catch a Fire."

Derek Luke stars in “Catch a Fire.”

“Derek Luke did wonderful work,” Chamusso says.  “When I was told the actor is coming, I was not expecting a person like Derek Luke.  I was expecting somebody like Denzel Washington or Cuba Gooding or maybe Samuel Jackson.”  Chamusso laughs.  ”A big actor.  But, according to my class – lower class – I said, okay, he’s not a big actor, I don’t know him, but let me just meet him.  I met him and we spoke and I didn’t really like him [at first], but after fifteen minutes I knew – no, the man is good.”

Chamusso’s nemesis, South African policeman Nic Vos, was played by Academy Award winning actor, writer and director Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, Bull Durham).

Stars Tim Robbins and Derek Luke sat down with us in the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York to discuss their film.

Could you relate to Patrick’s ability to forgive after being abused so horrendously?

Tim Robbins: I can admire it.  I can relate to it.  I hope that I would have the same generosity of spirit, presented with the same challenge.

Derek Luke: We were on the set and there were two technical advisors.  There was Tim’s, his name was Henke.  My guy was Neff.  Neff had a life mirrored to Patrick, Henke was an actual torturer who has gone through truth and reconciliation.  We’re trying to do this scene and I don’t know the name of the torture, but it could have been called the Helicopter, because helicopters, when you’re elevated on your toes and held behind your back…  So anyway, we were having problems doing it.  So these two guys walked in.  Henke was just almost… you know, as if you’re in the room and someone’s trying to do something and it’s oh, no, you do it this way.  Henke just nonchalantly, unconsciously, grabs Neff.  Neff’s eyes bulged.  I looked and I asked Neff, how can you forgive this man?  He said, “Because the power is not in the hand of the oppressor.  I was the victim, but I’m at peace.”

Tim Robbins: You know, it wasn’t pleasant.  I had to spend hours with Henke.  I didn’t like it.  He’d keep pissing me off at times and I had to hold on to that.  It wasn’t my job to admonish him.  We’d get into discussions and at times I’d feel like he was rationalizing something and I’d try to bust him on it.  But I realized that I’ve got to get him for who he is.  I can’t have a debate with him.  That’s not my job.  In a way, it’s the kind of thing – I used to be able to do a lot more when I wasn’t famous.  But, I would run into a guy at a bar and he’d say some racist thing to me and instead of getting into a debate with him, I would let him know that it was okay for him to say that, in an effort to find how deep he would go, in a way to find the heart of the hatred.  I remember a couple of times at bars just throwing back stuff at him, in an effort to try to discover something about the nature, the core.  I kind of had to do that in South Africa, too.  I had to let them know it was okay to show me who they really were.

You were very young when apartheid ended.  How much did you know about that time and place before getting involved in the movie?

Derek Luke: Very little.  My dad is from Georgetown, Guyana, South America.  When I told him I was coming to do the film, I got really excited and angry at the same time.  Because I said I’m going to South Africa and I say, have you been, because he traveled the world.  He said, “I couldn’t get in.”  I say, what do you mean you couldn’t get in?  He said, “Yeah, I tried to go in the 80s, but I couldn’t get in.”  I was like, you knew about this?  And you didn’t tell me?  To me, that started a whole new revelation.

Tim Robbins stars in "Catch a Fire."

Tim Robbins stars in “Catch a Fire.”

How did you get into the mind of someone as vicious as Vos?

Tim Robbins: Well, you know, it’s a complicated role.  Africa is so complex.  I felt like my job was to find the humanity in this guy that we’d consider, from our safe distance, to be the evil guy, as I did, in the 80s when I was marching and going to rallies to free Mandela, against apartheid.  I didn’t really understand or give much thought to who the oppressor was.  When you land on that soil and you meet all these people, you have to invest in them some kind of humanity.  You can’t just say you’re evil and that’s the end of the story.  So you have to discover the journey from Holland, fleeing religious persecution, landing in the south of Africa, Capetown.  Being forced out of there by the British.  Landing in an unsettled area that later will become Johannesburg.  That entire journey, in covered wagons, is historic for them.  It’s their Diaspar.  You start opening their mind to their story and understand they were pitted one against the other by the British.  Only the British can do this idea of triangulation, or divide and conquer.  You know, let’s make those two fight so we can take all the money.  (laughs)  They did that there as well.  So I guess what the short answer is, ultimately it’s a tragic story.  These police officers were caught up in the story and on the losing end of this particular history.  It doesn’t justify or rationalize anything they did, it’s just someone had to do that job at that time and they all, I think, understood at the time that they were doing it, that there was something wrong about apartheid.  Their choice was enforce the law, do the job, or leave.  To leave would be to abandon your country or family.  To be a traitor.

You mentioned earlier that your character was a bad guy and it was a difficult role to get into.  What was it that drew you to this project?

Tim Robbins: A couple of things.  [Director] Phillip Noyce, whose work I really like.  I felt it’s a special person who has really successful movies – Patriot Games, A Clear and Present Danger – then decides to do The Quiet American.  And then decides to do Rabbit-Proof Fence.  Or is it the other way around?  I know how Hollywood works.   They’re all going, “All right!  We’re on it.  Action-adventure, here we go!  Do another one.”   And he goes, “You know what?  No, thanks.  I’ve got this story I want to tell.”  So, immediately, before I met him, I knew there’s got to be something special about him.  The other was just reading that script.  It was great.  That ending.  Also Working Title, which I’ve worked with in the past.  They produced Dead Man Walking.  Helped me with Bob Roberts.  I think they did Hudsucker [Proxy],too.

Derek Luke stars in "Catch a Fire."

Derek Luke stars in “Catch a Fire.”

When you were told about this project, how did you react? How did you feel about the experience? 

Derek Luke: Okay, it was a cold summer night… (laughs)  Friday, I heard about the script.  My agents, they told me about it.  I credit them, because they’re really good people.  They called me and you can hear – like being an actor, or being on the other side of an agent’s phone is really interesting because you hear – you have to be a master of tones.  Because they start high and then they go low.  “Derek, you know, Phillip Noyce and they are really excited about you.  And they really want to…” and then they say, “see you.”  I’m like, see me…  aagghhh…  “Yeah, Derek, I think it’s a really good role,” or he’ll say “I haven’t read it yet, I think you should go in for it.”  They don’t say you should read for it.  You should go in for it…

So you don’t have it yet… 

Derek Luke: I’m a person that, methodically I would focus all my attention on this one thing.  So it took me a weekend.  I went in.  I sat outside the office, contemplating going in.  Because, at first I thought that this was similar to Antwone Fisher… you know, there’s a lot of actors I aspire to.  Not just black versus white, I just like their body of work.  I said, man, am I doing it?  Am I being like the other champions?  Then somebody called me and said, “Get out your head.  You’re crazy.  Go and audition.”  So I went and I went in, auditioned for Phillip.  I did the scene where Patrick discovers his wife for the first time.  It was really heavy.  Then, Phillip pats me on my head and gives me some hot tea.  I was thinking, what is this, international casting day?  What is this all about?  So I go.  He says that I had the role.  They didn’t tell me I had the role for almost another two months.  He just told me this two months ago.

Now that’s January and the whole process… already into July, I don’t even leave to go to Africa.  I have a family.  I have a wife.  And they’re not giving me any clear answers.  I think what my team needed was that Tim Robbins was the one that really made this film go afloat.  It was humbling, because you can think you’re hot stuff man… People go, “we’re glad that we have you in an element, but we need…”  It was so good because I felt like I’m in the right place, I’m growing, I want to be around people like Tim Robbins.  So, anyway, I found out later that I got the role and I’m just excited and then I’m like, oh my God, I’m going to South Africa.  I’m going to Africa for the first time.  So that was my journey.  I get so caught up in this movie, because it’s such a journey for me.  So I apologize.

Derek Luke stars in "Catch a Fire."

Derek Luke stars in “Catch a Fire.”

I know you said at first you thought you may have too much competition.  When you decided you wanted the part, what motivated you?

Derek Luke: Just when you have any people saying you’re crazy, you know?  Any people that’s not necessarily in the business.  I’ll go up to my wife and go, babe, am I being prideful?  Am I not being thankful?  Is my desire unhumbling?  She will go yes to some parts and no in the other areas.  I figure my wife will tell me the truth.  Then other people found out about it and they began to say, “Derek, you’re going to South Africa.”  I said that’s the beautiful part.  There’s just a creative cosmos about the whole thing.  I just began to watch the tapes of South Africa and apartheid and what I did not know really intrigued me.

Derek, can you talk about your transformation?  Patrick said he was kind of worried that this American guy would be able to play a South African right.

Derek Luke: When I got there, they gave me a dialogue coach.  I felt like I was just learning how to spell.  You know, I felt like I’m learning my ABCs.  Then they brought me to where Patrick was.  I was a little worried about meeting him, because, you know, Denzel Washington on Antwone Fisher was very protective of me meeting the actual person.  As a matter of fact, I think I saw Antwone once or twice when we were filming, but never on the set.  Phillip is very aggressive.  He used to play rugby.  So it was meeting Patrick and the dialogue coach.  They put me on a diet and asked me to lose about 20 pounds, because during the 1980s there was no 24-hour fitness.  I was going to the gym, just running, which is in my zone and they’re like Derek, you have to stop.  You’re lean, but you need to lose the muscle.  Then they brought me to Robben Island.

How did you lose the weight?  Did you stop eating or…?

Derek Luke: It would have been better to do that.  But they put me on this diet where for breakfast I had apples, crushed almonds and a spoon of raw honey.  Then for dinner I had greens; like steamed spinach.  Then, I think for dessert I had a salad with lemon and some raw honey.  We did it intentionally for three weeks, but the whole shoot was more… we had to basically keep our ingredients down for the whole shoot.  So we were there from July to November.  Man, I felt like I want to get on one of them infomercials.  Send me a McDonald’s hamburger.  (laughs)  Bonnie [Henna] said to me, she said, “Oh, you lost weight, now your American ego is gone.”  I said what??!!  (laughs)  I don’t have an ego.  She says, “Please.  Now you’re in your clothes and they’re hanging off you.  Now you don’t have anything to try to be big about.”  Anyway, that was her comment…

Tim Robbins stars in "Catch a Fire."

Tim Robbins stars in “Catch a Fire.”

Tim, the whole idea of when you torture an innocent, apolitical man, it can change his viewpoint and perhaps turn him into a rebel – that is rather trenchant right now.  Is that one of the things that appealed to you about the story?

Tim Robbins: That’s one of the things when I read the script that I thought was made it particularly relevant for now.  Essentially that bad police work can create more criminals than you want or desire.  But also the ending, you know?  [There’s] not a lot of stories like this, that involve investigation, police work, certain action elements, where they get to the final reel and that ending is offered.  It’s just not part of the formula right now.  Usually you get the retribution scene, the revenge scene.  When you read scripts and you come to a page or two like that, you go, wow.  That’s bold.  That’s beautiful, that they are taking that road.  And in this story, it is the road of South Africa, to seek a way towards the future through forgiveness and reconciliation.

A thing I really liked about the film was… Patrick referred to this… it was a story of the common guy.  It wasn’t about some President or a huge political figure.  It was a common guy who was shackled by the system and totally wronged.  Talk about shooting in South Africa and the poverty, because as Americans we know poverty, but not like that. 

Derek Luke: We went to the townships.  I went to a township called Alex and Soweto.  The average person doesn’t have running water.  Or it’s hard to compare, but right down the street you have Beverly Hills or the West End.  Down the street is the townships.  It’s daunting, because I stay over here in a hotel, too.  Now I have to go and be with everybody else.  But people were very warm.  I think they were more curious to see whether I identified myself with a South African, being that I was an African American.  They were very curious.  I think just being around them… they may be poor, but everybody is joyous.  They sit around and watch TV and talk about soap operas, just like we do.  So those elements were there to help me.

Tim Robbins stars in "Catch a Fire."

Tim Robbins stars in “Catch a Fire.”

The thing that I thought was interesting is that Patrick and all these political prisoners who were in South Africa were able to forgive.  I don’t know if you ever got a chance to meet Vos, but do these police officers feel guilt or shame over that?

Tim Robbins: I would say that the way it’s set up, there’s always a chain of command.  If you’re a foot soldier, you’re being told to do something.  These are foot soldiers.  They weren’t making policy.  They weren’t passing laws.  They didn’t pass the law about apartheid.  There’s always that kind of distance you can create.  That’s something I discovered when I was doing the death penalty (writing and directing the film Dead Man Walking), everywhere along the line – from the Governor to the prison guard, everyone could say it’s my job.  I’m just doing my job.  So at some point, I guess you make a moral rationalization.  My job.  Do they feel guilt now?  Yeah, I think some of them do.  I think Henke probably moreso than others I met, because at least he’s on a journey of renewal.  Doing the movie was part of that.  He lost everything.  He lost his family, his standing, his position.

The thing is – being a policeman even in a perfect world is not an easy job.  In a society where there is a strict upholding of the rule of law, of due process, it’s still a tough job.  Because you’re the first on the murder scene, you’re the first to walk in the door and see the depravity of a crime.  In a society where they’ve thrown out the rule of law, it’s got to be a much, much tougher job, because there are no rules.  So you can engage in the torture of a human being and that’s your job.  You’ve been asked to do this, by the state.  The state is protecting you in doing it.  When you cross that line, you’re asking those people to take an incredible burden on their shoulders.  They know, somewhere inside of them, they’ve got to know, that what they are doing is wrong.  From my research targeting these people, oftentimes what happens is you take that compromise, you take that moral weight on your shoulder.  You take that soul-deadening act that you’re doing.  And you take it upon yourself out of duty, out of service, out of love for your family.  You know it, you know you’re doing wrong, but you do it because that’s your job and your duty.  It can be applied to anyone in a war.  That is crossing a moral line.  A soldier has to do it all the time.  He has to say, okay, thou shalt not kill, but I’m protecting my people.  I’m not going to let my brother die.

What was it like working with Tim?

Derek Luke: Oh, he’s funny.  He took me to my first reggae, hip hop South African club.  (laughs)  He was the only white dude there.  I said isn’t this the day?  The brothers sitting down watching the white man dance.  And he’s 6’5”, so you can’t hide.  Then you’ve got people around saying, “Oh, Shawshank!  Shawshank!

Tim Robbins: I’ll tell you exactly what it was.  You spend your entire day with white Afrikaners.  (laughs)  No, for me it was like those nights were what Africa was all about.

How were you familiar with the club? 

Tim Robbins: Well, in the first few days, I went with Phillip.  I made Phillip take me, because he was like, “You have to stay in the white world.”  I’m not staying in the white world.  I got to get out.  I’m an actor.  I’m an adult.  I know the difference between where I’m working.  There was this woman there singing with her band.  And it was fantastic.  It was this club that was an integrated club.  It was such a great feeling.  I would go back there with friends from the crew.  I would try to get people to go out together.  Sometimes they would come.  I was dealing with this character in the day – pretty much in the week.  In the weekend I had to find something culturally that was cleansing.

Derek Luke: He’s a cool cat and he has a big heart.  He wanted to make sure all the extras were taken care of.  You’d have thought he was an union member or something.   He’s a great guy to be around.  Great for a younger actor.  He also told me, “Pace yourself, Derek.  You’re going too fast.  You do an intense scene, you need to get a break.”  I’m like, yeah, you can say that.  But he helped me navigate through the film.

Derek, did anybody recognize you from the movies? 

Derek Luke: Yeah, mostly when I was in the malls.  They recognized me from Antwone Fisher or Biker Boyz and stuff like that, which I thought was kind of odd.  (laughs)  But, it was cool.  Sometimes I just wanted to be over there and just be one of them to help me, mentally.

Why did you think it odd?

Derek Luke: Patrick was talking about he thought Denzel was coming, so I thought maybe Denzel or Eddie Murphy was the only one who reaches South Africa.  So I said, man, we need BET or something over here. (laughs) So I really didn’t know.  But Bonnie kind of gave me a breakdown on what kind of movies you can see.

Derek Luke and Bonnie Henna star in "Catch a Fire."

Derek Luke and Bonnie Henna star in “Catch a Fire.”

Bonnie Henna, who played your wife here, she did a very good job…

Derek Luke: Oh, man, Bonnie.  She’s a strong girl.  Have you guys talked to her yet?  You’ll get a treat.  A very strong, centered female.  It was easy to do a scene… you talk about… she’s sophisticated, beautiful, you’re not really acting, you’re reacting…  You’re like, uh huh.  This is easy.  She’s a beautiful, beautiful woman.

How does your wife feel about you doing romantic scenes with somebody else?

Derek Luke: Well, you know.  (chuckles)  Let me ask you…  (laughs)  Hey, you know there’s only one way to get the script out of the door and approved.  You have to go through my wife.  I come home, she makes sure.  She knows whether my brain was dazzled that day.  She’s like, “Derek, how was your day?”  I’m like, I don’t know, it was good.  “So, what scene did you do today?”  Ummm, the one in the room, talking to different people.  She isn’t happy.

Did Susan [Sarandon] come down and visit you at all?

Tim Robbins: Yeah, the family came down for a couple of weeks.  Went on safari.  That was part of the positive side of doing the movie.  It started in the summer, so they could be with me for a part of it.

What’s the best part about raising teenaged boys?

Tim Robbins: I don’t know.  I’m thrilled by who they’re becoming.  It’s really great to have loose conversations with them.  They’re both just really funny and good-hearted kids.

Tim, how has your acting changed since you got into directing?  Do you have any new projects as far as that? 

Tim Robbins: I learned a lot from directing.  And I haven’t stopped directing, I stopped directing film, because, actually, one of my kids said, “I like it better when you act.”  Because, I’m around more when I act.  It’s a smaller job.  You work eight weeks and you’re done.  Directing takes a good two years out of your life.  And I become obsessed and crazy about it.  But I’ve been directing in theater.  I’ve done three shows since 2002.  That gives me a tremendous amount.  I feel like I’m so lucky to have a laboratory to really test the boundaries – on a scale with a bunch of people that I really trust and know.  And work in the same vocabulary.  I have for 25 years, now.  The Actor’s Gang is really a great benefit for me.  So when I do start directing film again, I’m going to be a lot better than I was the last time.

Derek, you said you did a journey. Could you tell us where it started, and now where is your mind – how did it leave you?

Derek Luke: Well, firstly, the geographical journey was from Jersey.

Derek Luke stars in "Catch a Fire."

Derek Luke stars in “Catch a Fire.”

Where are you from in Jersey?

Derek Luke: Jersey City.  I grew up and went to school with metal detectors.  You’ve got this guy in one element.  You go from that to LA and from LA to South Africa.  So I’m thinking that, okay, there are diplomats that go to South Africa.  There are many people, but here I am.  You know, I really felt like Alex Hailey (author of the book Roots), going home.  I didn’t know who I was going home for.  I didn’t know what I was going for me.  But I knew I was going home, in a sense.  The journey was about humility, about peace.  It was seeing South African people being able to speak nine different languages, where, literally, I had a problem just learning English.  I’m serious; I mean the drop out rate in my school is enormous.  You’ve got these kids that because of their work environment and the different people, they had to learn these nine dialects.  There’s no choice.  So when you see the richness of the culture…  And then at Patrick’s place, I got a chance to talk to the children.  I got emotional; because I think what influenced my life was the power of words.  My mother always, my uncles always spoke powerful words.  I think, even though I grew up in the hood, I always tell people I really grew up in a rich home, because I had good words.  These kids, necessarily, didn’t have the chance to have these words.  I wanted to figure how to get it to them.  I think my discovery was about myself, but it was important.

How do you stay sane and focused in what some would call a mindless industry?

Tim Robbins: Living in New York is a good first step.  You don’t really wake up and live it like you do in LA.  It’s kind of… there’s so much going on here.  There’s so many different fields.  When you go out – in LA you’re going to run into someone with a script or and actor… and that’s okay, it’s fun.  Here, you can meet investment bankers.  You can meet artists.  You can meet baseball players.  It’s an entirely different kind of environment here.  That kind of helps, to live here.

Bonnie Henna and Tim Robbins star in "Catch a Fire."

Bonnie Henna and Tim Robbins star in “Catch a Fire.”

What’s next for you?

Tim Robbins: I don’t know.  I’m looking at stuff.  Reading scripts.  Saying no, mostly.  Writing some scripts now.

Derek Luke: Romantic comedy.  It’s an ensemble here; we’re shooting in New York.  A large cast.  I’m just glad to be a part of these great actors.

Who else is in it? 

Derek Luke: Ryan Reynolds, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fischer, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Banks.

Do you pride yourself in taking risky projects rather than more commercial ones? 

Tim Robbins: Yeah, one of the things I learned early on is how to say no.  Thank God I did, because it’s hard.  It’s hard to say no to a million dollars.  It is.  It’s actually, “What are you crazy?”  I had to do it the other day.  It was a job that was in Africa.  I’d be gone for three months.  It was a ton of money.  I looked at being away from home for three months in a crucial year for both my boys.  I thought of hearing about Jack’s basketball games in Africa.  And I said, you know, I just can’t.  I can’t do it.  My youngest is fourteen.  So in about four years, I’ll become a total prostitute.  (laughs) 

Derek, in terms of your career, this role is vastly different than things you’ve done before.  Are you reaching out and really going for different things?  Are you going to do an action film next week?  What are you trying out for?

Derek Luke: I just like good stuff.  So many actors set the quality tape so high.  I think I get it from them.  So yes, action, comedy, all genres, I’m open.  I just like the whole area of expression.

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved. Posted: October 27, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#3 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#4 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#5 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#6 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#7 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#8 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#9 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#10 © 2006 Garth Stead.  Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

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