The first movie Marten Rabarts was ever involved in won an Oscar.
It was the mid-1980s and Rabarts was a student at New York University. Back then, in the long-gone pre-internet age, if you needed a flatmate, were selling a car or sought volunteers for a project, you pinned a sheet of paper to a noticeboard with a row of tabs underneath. Rabarts pulled one of the tabs and got the phone number of someone wanting help with a short film.
This is why, if you look up Rabarts’ name on the Internet Movie Database, you will see him listed as assistant editor on the short film Molly’s Pilgrim, which went on to win the Oscar for best live action short in 1986, the year of Out of Africa and Cocoon. Rabarts remembers it fondly as “a sweet children’s story about a migrant girl trying to fit in as an immigrant in North America”.
New York was just one stop on Rabarts’ 40 long years away from home. Now 57, he left New Zealand at 16 after what sounds like a stimulating and fairly unsupervised Coromandel childhood. “I was kind of weirdly precocious,” he says, from the New Zealand Film Festival’s Wellington headquarters. “I was always a weird adult kid.”
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Why did he go? “There were things I wanted to do, [it was] about pursuing stuff in the performing arts. I wanted to breathe a different kind of air.”
Coromandel aside, New Zealand was still a fairly conformist place in the 1970s and “it was a time when if you were young and ambitious, you had to leave the country,” he says. “It was a rite of passage. One thing I think is terrific is that we now have a world in which a generation coming up does not have to go to Europe any more. They don’t have to go to North America. I think it’s fantastic.”
But in the 1970s, culture was largely something that happened elsewhere. The first of the different air that Rabarts breathed was in Australia, before he studied contemporary dance in London. He later wound his way to New York, pursuing the interest in film that he believes was sparked by seeing Roger Donaldson shoot the 1977 breakthrough movie Sleeping Dogs in the towns and valleys of Coromandel.
After New York, there was Europe. For 12 years Rabarts was artistic director of the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam. The lab was heavily subsidised by the Dutch Ministry of Culture to bring international writers and directors into a creative space for a number of months alongside locals: “Exchange and enrichment was the idea of it,” he says.
One of the film-makers to benefit was Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent, who was making her debut with the horror sensation The Babadook. Kent has talked about the freedom the lab offered. “Amsterdam has a history of fostering unique visions,” she said, whereas “things tend to be done by the book” in Australia.
Rabarts also kept his relationship with New Zealand alive, bringing film-makers and writers Armagan Ballantyne, Witi Ihimaera, Victor Rodger and others to Amsterdam.
More recently, he was head of training and development at India’s National Film Development Corporation and head of Dutch film promotion body EYE International. While the links to New Zealand stretched, they never frayed.
“New Zealand, wherever I was, was always home,” he says. “I would come back once or twice a year to see family, check in with my close friends, go to my place and my land in Coromandel, reboot, refresh. But I never thought I would have been away so long.”
He is back for good because in 2019 he landed one of the most coveted jobs in the New Zealand film infrastructure. Bill Gosden retired as director of the New Zealand Film Festival after 40 years, due to ill health. The quietly spoken and hardworking Gosden had an encyclopaedic knowledge of local and international cinema. He didn’t just programme films, he championed them.
Time and again, Rabarts has heard that Gosden left big shoes to fill. While Rabarts seems more extroverted than Gosden, it’s too early to tell if their styles will be different.
He officially got the job in 2019 but didn’t programme that year’s festival. Instead, he immersed himself in it, touring the country as a kind of secret shopper by watching the festival with unwitting audiences. What does the festival do? What do people say? How do they react?
He noticed the deep connections, the visceral responses. He also felt there was a key difference to Europe. In northern Europe, the response to films is “above the neck”, meaning intellectual or cerebral. But in New Zealand, it was more below the neck. That’s how he sees films too, he says: “I love to have my intellect engaged but I also want to go on a journey with the film-maker who wants me to understand something more deeply, to feel something.”
Who has he taken a journey with lately? Asked to name a recent favourite, Rabarts reaches back to the 2017 Australian movie Sweet Country, a beautiful work about race, violence and war trauma after World War I. It stars Sam Neill and Bryan Brown; its writer and director, Warwick Thornton, previously made Samson and Delilah, a 2009 film that is in Rabarts’ all-time top three.
“I think it’s a masterpiece. I find him incredibly powerful, interesting and deep in a way that not all cinema gets to be.”
So, yes, Rabarts passes the taste test. There will of course be some nervousness among film buffs with Gosden’s reign ending, but there are two other programmers who worked alongside Gosden and will continue with Rabarts. Between the three of them, they cover the world’s major festivals: Rotterdam, Toronto, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, New York. Rabarts will also get to festivals in Macau and India, as he hopes to grow the south Asian and east Asian presence in the New Zealand festivals, both on screen and in the stalls.
He is conscious that he has inherited something unique. The New Zealand Film Festival is unusual in being national rather than city-based, as most are, and it creates a national conversation. His friend, film producer Philippa Campbell, told him she might see a film in Auckland that she would then recommend to a friend in Timaru.
“It binds New Zealand together in a way no other cultural event does,” Rabarts said.
His first festival as director will open in Auckland in July and hit 12 other centres, including Tauranga, Gore and, yes, Timaru. He is also conscious of the threat to traditional film culture from alternatives like Netflix – “Any festival has to be really on its game right now,” he says – but does streaming give you the opportunity to have conversations with excited strangers in a theatre lobby or experience a film with a crowd?
There is one last, burning question to put to Rabarts. Was Martin Scorsese right? The reference is to Scorsese’s argument that the colossally successful Marvel superhero films are not really “cinema”. Since he said that, everyone with an opinion about movies has signed up for either Team Scorsese or Team Marvel.
“It’s a minefield, isn’t it?” Rabarts says. But he’s willing to step in.
“I think Scorsese was saying something more nuanced than the headline. I think a great superhero movie is a brilliant achievement and they’re made by incredibly talented people, but perhaps Scorsese was talking about teaching you something you didn’t know, that will change you, that you will carry with you as a tool or an understanding. For me, that’s what capital C cinema, when it’s really, really good, does for you.
“As much as I enjoy the Marvel films, I can’t think of great insights into the human condition or life lessons I would take away from any of those movies.”