In Conversation with Marten Rabarts, Head of Development, NFDC
For someone who has just moved from Amsterdam to Mumbai, Marten Rabarts seems strangely comfortable and sprightly, taking the erratic Mumbai rains and traffic in stride. He definitely understands quite a few things about India and its film industry. It’s hardly been a month since Rabarts arrived in Mumbai to take charge as the Head of Development of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and he has been working round the clock already: striking off things on his to-do list for NFDC and hunting for an apartment. As he puts it, ‘You have to handle many things simultaneously in this country. You cannot sit back and work things in order because they take time to happen.’
Rabarts has been relentlessly meeting filmmakers and producers over coffee and dinner to understand their needs as he doesn’t believe in ‘planning from an ivory tower’. Within a week of his arrival, he organized a think tank session with prominent filmmakers for reflecting and receiving their feedback.
Nandita Dutta caught up with Marten Rabarts to know what plans the former Binger Filmlab Artistic Director has in store for the NFDC:
Tell us about your association with the NFDC.
We met first when Nina (Lath Gupta) brought a delegation of young Indian filmmakers to the Rotterdam Lab. She wanted to make things move really quickly. She asked us (Binger Filmlab) to come on board and take over the running of the Screenwriter’s Lab which she had set up around Film Bazaar. She wanted to have projects which would be mentored towards going into the international market place. That’s what I was doing at Binger Filmlab day in and day out. So it seemed like a really great match. We developed the Screenwriter’s lab together four times. This is the fifth one coming up.
Working with the NFDC has been really smooth. If we want to do something, we go ahead and do it. Over the years I have met a lot of Indian filmmakers. So once you put your foot down in the industry, it’s very easy. I think I became a part of their community even before I moved to Mumbai. I knew my office, I knew the people I work with, I have been a part of the team and I have a whole network of friends here. So surprisingly it has been a smooth ride.
Indian Cinema is so diverse in nature. How do you plan to cater to the entire gamut of regional filmmakers?
I find it super exciting. I have already been devising methods with the regional offices of the NFDC to use that network of filmmakers which is spread across the country. In Indian cinema, there are different voices and one of the things we are looking at is setting up an outreach programme for the smaller film communities like in Manipur, Nagaland and Odisha. Filmmakers from these states don’t have the same access or the same capacity to break into the industry. I see that quite positively. Their unique voices of where they come from, their concerns and their stories haven’t been altered to fit a certain model.
We want to reach out and support them in those regions at an early stage so that we can retain their unique voices. Indian cinema could be more diverse in terms of the work that travels out, that goes to film festivals, that gets distributed. It tends to be Hindi, Bengali, Tamil dominated. Mostly Hindi let’s say.
Tell us about the initiatives that you are working on.
Out of the Kolkata office of the NFDC, we will be setting up a programme called Doc Camp which will bring together filmmakers from the smaller eastern states.
It will create an opportunity for emerging filmmakers to use documentary as a vehicle and make character-driven narrative documentaries in an intensive mentored process. So they come together working as a community; shooting each other’s films and finding stories among the characters in whichever regional city the Doc Camp is located. In such laboratory environments, you really have the potential to make films that travel.
The other part of the Doc Camp which I really like is that you can start to engender the idea in filmmakers that the story emanates from the character and a situation and what happens to a character in a given situation; rather than starting from a plot and forcing the characters to move around the plot. So I think it’s a very useful way to change the paradigm so that people look within and around them for characters.
What is the feedback that you received from filmmakers in the Think Tank session?
One of the things that the filmmaking community during the Think Tank session identified to be lacking is the role of a creative producer in a film: someone who is there alongside the director and writer. You can have a stack of fantastic financiers, line producers and production managers. But there are very few producers who can be that creative ally and a sounding board alongside the director and the writer, who they can trust, who loves the project as much as they do, who can bounce ideas in a meaningful way.
So I am trying to find ways to empower the producers who are there to take on that role in a deeper way. We are also looking for emerging new producers who want to start their career taking up the responsibility for creative dialogue alongside the writer and director.
What also came out of the Think Tank session is that filmmakers have a hunger for input, a hunger for deepening their knowledge base. The idea we have is to bring in some really top international advisors, people who are really best in their fields: direction, writing, script doctoring.
But I was born in New Zealand and I have been colonized too. So I didn’t want to just come here and bring people from all over the world without understanding what that would mean. For me it’s really about skill transfer in a peer-to-peer way. I completely reject the notion of hierarchy in the creative world. We don’t want to be like teachers or professors handing the knowledge down; but really wanting to share it across the table.
What do you think about contemporary Indian cinema and how it is being perceived internationally?
With all the Indian film selected at Cannes this year, it feels like a milestone. It’s been a long time since there was a really strong showing in terms of numbers though there have been strong individual films out there. But it’s great to have a sense about this new generation of filmmakers who are making alternative cinema to the mainstream and are also getting picked up by international sales agent like ‘Miss Lovely’ was picked up by Fortissimo, and ‘Peddlers’ by Elle Driver.
I know this from the years I was collaborating in the Film Bazaar: it was quite a hard task in the early years to convince these companies that there will be not just an individual film but a flow of good films from India. One film can do well. But for a distributor and a world sales agent to build a market for a particular cinema it requires a flow. You build the audiences’ interest with one film, but if you don’t follow it up with other films within 6-8 months, the interest of the audience will have shifted some place else.
I think that flow has started to come now. A lot of the stuff that I am hopeful about has grown out of our five year old relationship with the NFDC through the Binger Filmlab. The results have been terrific: Bikas Mishra’s ‘Chauranga’, Vasant Nath’s ‘Sebastian Wants to Remember’ and Ritesh Batra’s ‘Lunchbox’.
There is a fascination for cinema coming out of India among the different infrastructures in the west: the festivals, the labs, the sales agents and the distributors. But from the outside it seems like an unwieldy pool of filmmakers and production houses. One of the things I am working at is making specific connections with organizations which I have been closely associated with. That will be the first step to make bridges between filmmakers in India to access the resources that are available out there like the Berlin Talent Campus and the Torino FilmLab.
I also hope that those people will be able to turn to NFDC as a meaningful information hub that works both ways. For example a foreign producer has a fantastic project with some big Indian components that might be shot here, who wants to know which particular producer they should be approaching, they can come to us in NFDC and we can point them in certain directions. The same things for Indian filmmakers and producers who want to reach out to the international arena.
What are the challenges in your work that you foresee?
Scale is a big challenge: we are starting to figure that out. It’s just such a vast cinema loving population. So many people want to be involved in the making of cinema. I think the solution lies in creating state and regional level programmes. Instead of trying to centralize it to Mumbai or a certain city, we will create a framework that delivers, say a script development lab or a director’s empowerment programme, in different states. It should be programme that you can shift and redeliver at different locations.
Another challenge we have is to fulfill the demands of filmmakers for a creative producer.
How familiar are you with Indian Cinema?
I try and watch the highlights of commercial Indian cinema. It’s important to know what’s going on there, and it is also the cinema which is constantly changing and evolving. I watch those movies on planes because I fly a lot.
Of late, I have been trying to focus on the independent cinema. I saw ‘Miss Lovely’ in Cannes which I thought was really strong and beautiful. I really feel like I want to lock myself in the screening room of NFDC and watch a whole lot of stuff back to back. I am also looking forwards to seeing the scripts that we have been working on. The scripts are familiar to me and I know the direction some of these films are going to take visually. I am really eagerly anticipating the next round of output.
Is there something ‘universal’ in scripts? How are you able to identify with scripts emerging out of local contexts?
Universality is what we all try to look for and discover within a piece of cinema. When we are developing a script, which is one of the early questions: what is universal about it? Universality doesn’t mean that it is bland or dumb so that it works in every market of the world. But what is the essential aspect of the human condition that’s being explored in this piece by a filmmaker from Colombia that can be immediately recognizable to someone in Thailand?
This is one thing I ask filmmakers: what is it that you want to say about human condition? What do you want me to know that I already didn’t know about human condition before I saw your film? Maybe that’s very personal. Maybe other people don’t go to the cinema to find that on the screen or embedded within the story. But I find it really meaningful.
Also I found that in India the discourse around cinema, or the discourse around what it is to be an Indian is really familiar to me. The specifics of them are completely different but when you look at the core of the issue things are very similar to what I have experienced in my own society. We share a similar historical DNA due to colonization. We still live in the aftermath of it, trying to make sense of what is left behind. We all look at the seeds of our colonial power for affirmation.
Tell us about your background.
I started my working life as an actor and a dancer. I studied contemporary dance in London and Australia. Then I moved into production; I worked as an editor in New York and Los Angeles in the 1980s. I made a lot of music videos. I never went to a film school; I worked my way up into the industry. Then I started working with the Polygon company. There I became the head of television sales which was a great learning curve, I learnt how the business side of films worked. Then I started working as an associate producer with ‘Working Title’. That has been my trajectory: from production, to finance, distribution, and development of projects. Over the years I have had close association with many festivals: not just creating work that has gone to festivals but also other partnerships with Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam and Buenos Aires during my years at Binger.
It’s been an international journey and I think I have built it that way quite deliberately. I firmly believe that a specific cinema needs to remain specific. It needs to have its unique cultural identity which can be enriched by a meaningful dialogue with someone from a different unique identity. It doesn’t mean that they bleed into and compromise their cultural uniqueness. International exchanges between artists is really enriching.
Another misconception I have always noticed is that people on the business side of the film are often not as creative as people on what is known as the creative side of the film. I always say if those people really wanted to make money, they would be in property development. They are in cinema because they love cinema. So the people who are on the business side of the independent cinema are very much a part of the creative collaboration. They know how to place a film in the market, they know how to create a delicately shaped campaign and reach out to that boutique audience. These people: the producers, the distributors and sales agents are in a way the unsung heroes of independent cinema. They are the ones who work like demons to get the film out to the audiences.