New Zealand's international film festival is the country's most significant cultural event, according to new director Marten Rabarts. He talks with Sharon Stephenson.
Wellington, a few days ago. Half the city is back at work, the other half seems to be at Oriental Bay, splayed across golden sand trucked in from Nelson. Marten Rabarts would probably rather be there than here, in a cramped office above the Embassy Theatre with an air conditioner that strains against the syrupy heat. But the recently appointed director of the New Zealand International Film Festival , is too polite to say so.
Instead, Rabarts spends almost two hours explaining what led him to his role as head of the 50-year-old festival which last year enticed 264,000 New Zealanders to sit in cinemas watching documentaries set in Colombia, feature-length films about the Soviet famine and everything in between.
The 57-year-old has been here since October but already he's firmly on message, describing the NZIFF as "New Zealand's most significant cultural event".
"This festival is a world-class celebration of cinema, stories and ideas, of getting under the skin of characters and confronting issues," says Rabarts. "Last year the NZIFF had a record number of attendees and we're only something like 40,000 shy of the numbers that attend the Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals, which is extraordinary for a country this size."
It's what enticed Rabarts back to New Zealand after 40 years, the reason he and his partner, Dutch doctor Gerard Sonder, have sold their beautiful home overlooking the old Amsterdam dock (the day we speak, Sonder has just landed in the Dutch capital to sign the paperwork and oversee the move of their household goods).
"No matter where in the world I've lived, New Zealand has always been home and I've kept those connections strong by coming back every year. But when my mother died a few years ago, I really felt that pull of home and knew I had to look for an opportunity to come back."
That opportunity, it turns out, was as rare as a unicorn in a bikini: Bill Gosden, the godfather of the NZIFF, was resigning after four decades at the top table. Rabarts applied and got the job, beating out 40 plus candidates for a role that knits together the various skills he collected while trotting the globe – writing, producing, directing and selling films, and encouraging emerging talent to do the same.
If he's finding it hard to emerge from Gosden's shadow, it doesn't show.
"How do I fill Bill's big shoes? I've got big feet. Seriously, I'm never going to be Bill but I have a lot of assets and understandings that are complementary to this rock-solid film festival, things like my connections with international film-makers, producers and rights holders that will only enhance what's been built up over the past 50 years."
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It doesn't sound like a bad gig – travelling the world and watching films all day – but Rabarts says it's turned out to be 120 per cent better than he imagined.
"Hunting down, viewing and discovering films that will satisfy audiences' desires to be surprised, challenged and entertained is proving to be, as my colleagues describe it, more fun than opening presents at Christmas."
He's fun, is Rabarts, never more than a few seconds from a smile. He's also fiercely intelligent, but not intimidatingly so, tossing references to obscure film-makers and architects into the same conversation as gardening and Stella McCartney handbags.
There are any number of ways to tell his story: a Coromandel lad done good, a dancer who segued into film, a film-maker who partied with Andy Warhol, an artistic director who helped launch a thousand careers.
Rabarts was born to a Māori mother (Ngāti Porou and Ngāpuhi) and English father, the youngest of three boys and two girls.
He was 4, he thinks, when he first fell down the rabbit hole into a world of multi-sensory wonder. "My mother took me to the Civic to see Zulu which was in Cinemascope, this big epic production, and I was both terrified and fascinated. I think I spent most of the time with my head buried in my lap."
Rabarts was so moved that at 12 he started the Coromandel Film Society, collecting the 16mm prints from the bus sent down from Auckland by Kerridge Odeon and showing the films in the school hall.
In 1976, the film world came to him.
"Roger Donaldson shot part of Sleeping Dogs in the Coromandel and I hung around the set, where I met Sam Neill. I recently saw Sam in Sydney and reminded him of that and, of course, he had no recollection. But watching a film being made was thrilling and the start of an idea that a career in cinema might be possible."
At 17 there was Sydney and work for a children's theatre company, before two years in London training as a contemporary dancer. Then came a move across the pond. Why New York? "Why not? It was the mid-80s and New York was one of the most exciting places on the planet. I would regularly bump into Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in clubs. It was the most fun two years."
Rabarts answered an ad for a student film and ended up scouting locations. That led to his first real job in film – as assistant editor on Molly's Pilgrim, which went on to win an Oscar for best live-action short film in 1986. "It wasn't a bad start."
Later there were music videos in LA for bands such as Guns N' Roses and a few years in London with Working Title Films, which was developing Four Weddings and a Funeral when he arrived. After working on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Rabarts produced three one-hour films about the HIV/AIDS crisis (the fourth, with US director Gus Van Sant, was scuppered when the Bush administration withdrew funding). One of those films took him to Amsterdam, where he fell in love, not only with the city with but with Sonder (the pair have been together 25 years).
At the Binger Filmlab, where Rabarts was artistic director, he nurtured screenwriters, directors and producers for 12 years, bringing them from around the world to collaborate with Dutch talent. That included Māori, Pasifika and Indian film-makers. He did such a good job, Binger was dubbed "the Sundance of Europe" and Rabarts was head-hunted by India's national film body to spend three years in Mumbai establishing development pipelines for screenwriters.
His last overseas posting was at EYE International in Amsterdam, promoting Dutch film, where he might still be had the NZIFF job not showed up.
Film festival directors have a few crucial buttons they need to push: increase audience numbers (and revenue), curate a programme that's as accessible to as many people as possible and create relationships with those who make, finance and distribute films. Rabarts has big plans for all of the above, including building a festival to rival Toronto's or Berlin's.
"I'm looking at how we can better serve film-makers and build more of a space for connection with the rest of the world, so that our people don't have to go away to big festivals but the international work will come to us. There's no reason the NZIFF couldn't be like Toronto or Berlin."
He's also keen to tap into the work of indigenous film-makers, a trend that's peaking around the globe.
"Some of the most interesting work right now is coming out of indigenous communities here and in the Pacific, Australia, Latin America and North America, as well as places you might not expect, such as Taiwan. I want to build a space for these unique stories to be told."
High on his wish-list is reaching audiences who aren't usually represented among the urban, middle-class and slightly older fans who snap up tickets each year. "I've been looking at our migrant communities and don't think we've had enough South-Asian or East-Asian programming, which are two huge communities in New Zealand. We're looking at expanding our cinemas so we can take our programmes to these groups and build a connection between our diverse communities."
Rabarts and his global team are already doing the heavy lifting on curating the programme, which usually runs to around 150-160 films and documentaries. Along with local and international works, he's hoping to include a first for the NZIFF, a local web series, screened as a binge watch, as well as virtual reality content he can't tell me about but assures me "blew his mind" in Amsterdam.
"If I'm doing my job right, I'll be taking something that's already strong and shaping it in interesting, challenging and exciting new ways."
Great cinema, says Rabarts, is about film-makers throwing open a window and saying, come in, this is my world, these are my people and these are my world views. "In many ways, the NZIFF is like taking a great world tour but never having to go much further than your comfortable seat at the Civic."
The NZIFF kicks off in July - nziff.co.nz