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LOCARNO 2021 Out of Competition

Review: Rampart


- Marko Grba Singh's first feature is an intricate and often exhilarating auto-biographical documentary based on old home videos from the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia

Review: Rampart

Serbian director Marko Grba Singh is already an established presence on the festival circuit, with his short films having screened at Visions du Reel, FID Marseille and Cannes. Now his first feature-length documentary, Rampart [+see also:
film profile
, has world-premiered out of competition at Locarno and went on to Dokufest Prizren to win the Best Balkan Newcomer Award.

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In 2019, the director's family sold their apartment in Belgrade, and he felt the need to document it in some way. He went back with a camera and a sound recorder, filming the spaces they used to inhabit. There he found a box full of VHS tapes, and among them several containing materials from the spring of 1999, when Serbia was bombed by NATO and the director was 11 years old.

Therefore Rampart, with its title based on a recurring, frightening dream he used to have, consists of two main layers. The first is the footage of the empty apartment: bare walls and tiles, old, wooden parquet, which Grba Singh films in semi-darkness and silence, that is, the "sound" silence produces when it is recorded. These images have the nebulous quality of a dream, especially when counterpointed with the very present, very concrete and immediate VHS footage from 1999.

In it, we see a lively extended family with grandpa, who is usually operating the camera, commenting on their activities in a much less redundant way than what is typical for home videos: he is not describing what can be seen in the shot anyway, but rather asking very sensible questions, joking and reflecting on their situation. Whether it is the few weeks before the bombing starts, when they are playing basketball in the yard, or little Marko is playing with his pet hamsters and a dog, or they are finishing building a hut just days before bombs hit the city, or when the NATO campaign actually starts.

There is no panic when this happens, the adults send kids to the basement but they still stay reasonable and calm, even though fear in Mom's eyes, as she passes by the camera, is unmistakeable. Grandpa also films explosions in the distance, again with quite a different narration than almost any other home video from the era, in which people mostly curse the American sons of bitches. Thoughtful and analytical, he provides a snapshot of a certain era and a particular historic period, and of a certain, civic slice of Serbian population.

In Rampart, Grba Singh uses his trademark subtle, intricate approach in a film that deals with intimate, auto-biographical themes, which makes it uniquely authentic, quietly emotional and beautifully exhilarating at the same time. In addition, an almost psychedelic segment in which a rugged Belgrade cityscape smoothly and slowly transitions into a landscape a video game, calls back to the dream he describes in a narrative title at the beginning of the film. This gives the documentary another layer that is hard to name or pinpoint, but which is undeniably there, floating around the viewer's mind much like the director is wandering through the physically empty apartment full of old memories and ghosts of a presence.

Rampart was produced by Serbia's Nanslafu Films and the Portuguese company Kino Rebelde has the international rights.

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