By Yun-hua Chen.
The idea of the film didn’t stem from the footage, but from the apartment. My parents decided to sell it, and it was empty for several months. I have lived there for 25 years, and once per month I would go there…. And then I realized that I wanted to make a film starting from the apartment and having each room filmed separately to trigger some memories.”
Rampart, selected in Locarno Film Festival’s “Fuori concorso” (out of competition) section, is the first feature-length documentary of the Belgrade-born director Marko Grba Singh – a very personal and intimate look back at the abandoned apartment in Belgrade where he lived as a child, and those bygone years. The director juxtaposes the images of the apartment now and the family VHS footage of 1998 and 1999 before and during the NATO bombing of Serbia. Snippets of past and present, and inhibited and uninhabited space weave into a poetic net of dreams and reality, now and then, trauma and post-trauma. The images shot in the empty apartment, which is about to be sold by his parents, are somber and dreamy, whereas the footage from the past, mostly shot by the director’s grandfather, is colorful and full of sounds of a lively extended family. The grandfather’s camera does not only observe and record, but also interacts in a self-reflexive manner. With elegance and authenticity, the documentary is a gently moving portrait of how common people lived through a historical and traumatic event, whose daily life with family gatherings, pets, videogames, and basketball games are punctuated by the dropping of bombs in the distance, and how space carries the traces of the past.
The grandfather in Rampart, the one who films most of the family videos, is from your mother’s side?
Yes, he is originally from a small village and was born in 1933. During the WWII, he moved to another city and then to Belgrade because of the civil war. He played trumpet in a circus in the 1950s and focused on jazz music. He also has a degree in geography. He is not into cinema at all, but it’s fascinating how he filmed all the footage. At some point he had to choose between the job offer in the Belgrade jazz orchestra or a stable job. For his family, he quit music and started working for Yugo-petrol for the rest of his life. My grandparents built a house in 1971, where we went, as you can see in the film.
Did you know about the family footage shot by your grandfather before deciding to make this film?
I knew the footage exists, but for 20 years, I didn’t watch any of it. The idea of the film didn’t stem from the footage, but from the apartment. My parents decided to sell it, and it was empty for several months. I have lived there for 25 years, and once per month I would go there to look at the rooms and the view from the balcony, just to remember things. And then I realized that I wanted to make a film starting from the apartment and having each room filmed separately to trigger some memories. In the beginning, we filmed the room with drawings and recorded a birthday party that happened there. Then I moved to another room. I started to feel that I needed to gather all the data related to the childhood, both in the house and in the apartment; they are only 500 meters apart. Then I went to the house and found a box of VHS tapes. I started to watch them all. I got a VHS reader from a close friend. We digitalized the tapes and started to choose what would be good for the film. It was the most difficult part, to be professional in the selection of footage. My editor helped me a lot and suggested what would be interesting. We edited for a long time, almost a year.
The news footage, such as C soup ads and car ads on Serbian TV, came into the picture afterwards?
In those boxes, there was not only family footage, but also a lot of other footage, like commercials, Star Wars which I recorded when I was a kid, first Big Brothers series in Serbia, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in Serbia in 2001. A lot of different things that I recorded. Family footage was maybe around 5 to 6 hours.
The ads that you see are also from 1998 and 1999. We have so much footage of commercials and had to make a small casting to select for the film. The one with the soup, which is funny, can be connected to our family as well. The car commercial is there because we left the country. It’s like, you get a new domestic car and then just run away.
How was the process of reviewing the footage? Did it change the way you remember and understand certain things in the past?
In some of the footage, it took some time for me to be sure that it was myself. When you look at something from 20 years ago, you see that you were really different. Sometimes I am really annoyed by myself in the film. The bombing part was the hardest to watch because of everything that happened. I needed to make it clear in my mind that it is a film now: now we are making a film and should forget about melancholia and nostalgia, which should be there of course, but it is not helpful. After I watched it for the first time, it was much better when I watched it the second time. Until the 4th time, we were just cutting scenes and put them in the film.
What is very memorable is the image and the metaphor of your hamster in the film. You had a hamster as a pet in the beginning, and then you were running in a wheel in a playground yourself….
I was becoming a hamster myself. As a child, I had a lot of animals. I had parrots, hamsters, fish, Meki the dog, guinea pigs at some point who were not in the film. When I rewatched the footage, I couldn’t believe how well I handled it. I saw images here and there and picked them up. I don’t know if I could do it today. With myself in a wheel, the whole idea is to show that with these images disappearing and reappearing, it is like one last train in the childhood and then it ended. After the end of the childhood, I became kind of like a hamster, being put in some kind of a machine.
It was impressive how the family atmosphere remained convivial and calm despite the bombing in the background….
The adults tried not to spread panic, but when it lasted longer and longer, they started to panic a bit. That’s why we went to Romania because we didn’t know how long it would last. It’s always like this. When some disaster happens, whether it is a tornado or an earthquake, you try to stay calm, but after it finishes, it gets back to you. That’s why there is the scene with the dog being afraid of the darkness. It’s not the dog itself. The dog represents the family. In the beginning we were talking about how Meki is the guardian of our home, and there, the guardian is crashed and becomes anxious and scared.
Are the dream-images related to post-trauma?
The dreams are what I had later, not immediately afterwards. Maybe starting from high school, 2003 or 2004. Once or twice per month, I had this dream. It is not always the same dream, but the feeling is the same. In the dream, I was leaving the city, there were some huge buildings or huge monuments which were so huge that I was very scared when I am there. They just couldn’t disappear. I don’t know what it represents, but I guess it relates to the leaving of the city. When I was 2 years old, I went to London with my parents. I didn’t really remember, so that departure was the first time I really left the country. Or, it could be related to bombs. When they fall from the sky, they create this huge mushroom-shaped thing. It could be about growing up in general. This feeling that you don’t want to be this huge thing when you grow up.
Does your grandfather who was filming all the time know that you became a filmmaker?
He died 10 years ago, in 2010. He had cameras since 1960s. He had super-8, and then VHS, and then mini-DV. He was always filming reunions, annual trips to the seaside in Croatia. We also had a huge box of super-8 tapes, which were filmed before I was born. I don’t know if I can relate to them to create something. Maybe something about my mother and my uncle. My grandfather was an amateur, but he knows how to handle the camera very well. He had three decades to practice before the bombing started.
What do you think about your collage in the film, like the one which juxtaposes drawings and a party?
It was a flashback to the party of my 10th birthday on 20 December 1998. I didn’t want to have sound in that scene because I think it would be more effective to start with dialogue sounds in the next segment. I liked to draw on my walls in my room. When I was a kid, everyone liked coming to my room because you could draw on walls. But these drawings juxtaposed were not from that time, but from two years ago, when the apartment was empty, and I hosted my birthday party there. I wanted to connect these two parties. Time passes, but we are still drawing on walls.
Can you talk about image of your recording sound in the apartment building, which is also used as a poster?
The image is to say that we are present at that moment there. We are gathering images and sounds there. They all come from the apartment, and that is the starting point. That was the first shot of myself there. Before that we asked ourselves, who is the protagonist in these images? But then, when my shot appeared with a boom, somehow everybody knows that this is the guy in the apartment, and he is gathering data. We didn’t want to use artificial sounds. Almost all the sounds were recorded there. The shots about the present are all filmed in the apartment. The apartment is are on the 8th Floor. We can hear the elevator. Tram goes through this area in Belgrade, and the tam station is 300 meter from the apartment. You could hear trams coming and going. Also, the rain, the floor cracking, birds in the neighborhood. It is important to me to use the real atmosphere of the apartment.
How was the reception of the film in the family, in Serbia, and internationally?
In Locarno, it was really great. We had a long Q&A, session with more than 10 questions. Some family members are too emotional to watch this. My grandmother is still alive. I am not sure if she should watch this at all. She is 86 years old already. For Serbian audience, we will have a premiere in November.
What is your next project?
For my first fiction project, we won an award for the pre-production. It’s about my paternal grandfather, not the one in Rampart. He is a Sikh from Punjab, India. My grandma is from Serbia, Yugoslavia, and they got married in London. They were both studying in London in 1957. It was not common back then to have this kind of marriage. They had a lot of pressure from their families, so they eventually split up. The film is a reconstruction of their forbidden love but set in the contemporary time after Brexit. It’s a conversion from 1950s to today’s world, and they are young again and played by actors. My paternal grandfater died very young, and I never met him. There is a lot of mystery surrounding their marriage and his life after they split up. It’s challenging to recreate some parts and to reimagine other parts.
I didn’t know anything about him because he died in 1975. My grandmother didn’t want to keep in touch with the rest of his family. My father and I didn’t know anything about it until 2016 when that part of the family found us on Facebook. In Malaysia, one part of the family started creating a family tree tracing back those 150 years. We were the missing link in Serbia. They googled us and found my father. They invited us to come to family reunion, and we went there. Suddenly we met 50 family members, and I started interviewing them. The family members are all over the world now, but most of them are in the UK or in Malaysia. The next step is to visit those family members in England, Scotland, and Ireland. A lot of the film is happening there because my grandparents got married in the UK in the 1950s. I have the first draft of the script already.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.