India is back on the world cinema map in a major way – Marten Rabarts
He is the man behind the renowned NFDC Labs credited with recognising some of the finest independent filmmaking talent in our country. He has mentored much applauded films including The Lunchbox, the 2013 Indian Oscar submission The Good Road, and 2014 Cannes – Un Certain Regard selection Titli, amongst others. Meet Marten Rabarts, Senior Consultant – Training and Development – NFDC India.
Mr.Rabarts shares his experience and expertise with Pandolin as he tells us about the various initiatives designed by him at NFDC, films he’s been associated with and the changing perception of Indian independent cinema across the globe.
You’re association with NFDC heads back to 2008, even before you moved base to Mumbai. How did it all start?
The NFDC MD, Nina Lath Gupta, attended the Rotterdam Film Festival and CineMart in 2007. We met there and she shared some of her vision for internationalizing the independent sector of Indian films. The Film Bazaar Screenwriters Lab was a perfect match for a Binger Filmlab partnership; we could bring a certain expertise while also learning a great deal about how independent cinema was evolving in the subcontinent.
12 years as the Artistic Director of Binger Filmlab in Netherlands. What prompted the move to NFDC? What does your role at NFDC entail?
Simply put, after some years of close collaboration on the Film Bazaar, Nina asked me over tea at a film festival whether I’d ever consider moving to Mumbai? It’s not a question one is asked every day, so I had to take it seriously. I was ready for a new challenge and change and my move to India gave me all that and more.
NFDC Labs is your baby. How does it take forward the concept of NFDC Film Bazaar and what are its key features?
NFDC Labs is one component in a larger NFDC infrastructure. It has been conceived as a flow of support from idea through to finance, production and distribution for independent cinema in India. We select and support the development of projects and filmmakers to prepare them to compete for finance, sales and distribution in the crowded world cinema marketplace. Recent years have seen the NFDC Labs and NFDC’s Film Bazaar brands become a kind of Quality Mark for both international and domestic industry players as they look for what’s fresh and strong in the Indian independent sector. The scale of the Indian (and SAARC) industries is so great that the curation function of our selections for Film Bazaar and the Labs, can’t be underestimated – it makes the jobs of producers, financiers, distributors and festivals easier as they simply don’t have the capacity to sort through and filter the enormous amount of material and diverse talent that pours into our various programmes.
The NFDC Labs key features – I’d hope a peer to peer quality comes through in all our labs and workshops. Not a top down Teacher-Student or Guru-Accolyte experience but rather colleagues sharing knowledge in a two way flow. Our mentors repeatedly stress on how much they learn from the work we do, and naturally past participants like Ritesh Batra for instance, become mentors as the Labs become more deeply rooted as part of the Indian film landscape.
Could you tell us about some other key workshops that you have designed for NFDC and what was the objective behind them?
Along with a variety of script labs, including a Marathi language lab and our current Romance Lab put together in partnership with Harlequin publishers, we’ve offered master-class labs in Film Editing and Script Editing. We are now offering two annual Directors Labs focused on working with actors and developing the Director’s individual voice and unique cinema language. We’ll have the Artistic Director of the Sundance Labs, Mr Gyula Gazdag (Hungarian Filmmaker by origin, now based in Los Angeles and Vienna), coming to India in the New Year. He is a unique coach and mentor, hailed by Variety as one of the worlds 10 most important film teachers. Our Producers Lab within the Film Bazaar is an intense pressure cooker of information and expertise flow for both aspirant and experienced producers.
Filmmaking is a collaborative undertaking and we look to deliver input and content for all key disciplines alongside the crucial Writer-Director-Producer triangle.
You’ve been associated with several acclaimed titles including The Lunchbox, The Good Road, Titli and others. What according to you has made these films stand out even amidst mainstream entertainers?
Each of these films began with a singular and personal vision of the Director which evolved, deepened and sharpened throughout the development and making of the film. The stories have meaning and urgency for the makers and they really strive to convey and share that meaning with their audience. They create work with resonance – images and ideas that stay with you even after the screening.
Being creative consultant on Margarita with a straw, how have you incorporated your expertise to the development of the story/film?
I was really pleased to be asked by Shonali Bose (Director, Margarita with a straw) to give feedback during the editing process, following the Film Bazaar 2013 Work In Progress Lab. Shonali and I also had a connection through Gyula Gazdag, her Mentor from Los Angeles. She had shot a remarkable film, anchored by a great central performance from Kalki Koechlin which was clear to me in the extended cut I first screened. From there I was part of the organic process with Shonali and her Editor Nilesh, which always happens in the edit room, where a story is shaped and ‘re-written’ to its very final draft form. We looked into the core of the story and ensured anything inessential was pared back or excised so the character’s journey and her power could shine through.
What is it that you look for in a story/script that showcases its future potential?
It’s hard to put your finger on something which is finally about well-informed instinct, but freshness along with a unique and personal voice are hallmarks of potential for me. Seeing so much material pass through our submissions and selections processes, our NFDC team and external assessors are constantly being informed of what is trending, what might be imitative and what might be truly fresh and surprising. It’s crucial that we are abreast of movements and what’s going in the broader cinema dialogue outside of India if the films from here are going to have a viable life internationally. What may be new for audiences here may not be so for a world audience, so tuning our Indian films to ensure their specificity remains intact while amplifying their relevance is an important part of our work with filmmakers and producers.
Indian regional films like The Good Road & several others too have started garnering attention. What is the future of independent regional cinema on a global level?
To be honest, global audiences generally don’t actively differentiate between a Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu or Hindi film. It’s all ‘Indian’ cinema but the diversity of stories emerging as we unfold stories from different regions is I think an important signature of Indian cinema. This is captured really well I think in NFDC’s branding tagline; “The Cinemas of India”. There can’t possibly be just one national cinema for a country like India, and NFDC Labs is starting Labs in the Northeast in the New Year, and hopefully shortly in Ladakh to support new voices from these less central regions.
NFDC has been instrumental in giving an impetus to several deserving films. In your opinion, what more can be done to expand this platform?
With the past years’ innovations and changes I think there’s now a strong infrastructure in place from idea to world premier and beyond; I would challenge filmmakers to seize what’s there and be really ambitious. Great cinema is a brave undertaking, and the successes of the past years and recognition of independent Indian films in the world market means there is a warm landing for new films and talents as they emerge, which was not the case say 7-8 years ago. Credibility has been restored by the flow of talent and quality cinema over the past years, so the platform is there for the taking but its expansion depends on the talent which steps up onto it.
In your experience, what is the one or more thing/things that aspiring filmmakers should keep in mind while they start working on an idea?
Firstly, why does it matter to them and why is it necessary and urgent for them to make the film? Without this fundamental knowledge and being able to articulate it to partners, collaborators and finally an audience, the journey towards realizing the film will be fraught with hurdles and pitfalls, and very likely never be made.
Another key thing is to know what your film is adding to the conversation of ideas; in 100 years of cinema all the great thematics of the human condition have been addressed from many different angles. So, understanding what you have to say that’s new and unique is the flip side to the personal connection coin. Having said a story has to matter to a filmmaker, equally a filmmaker has to figure out how to make it matter to his or her audience.
Internationally, what is the shift in perception that you have witnessed towards Indian cinema?
India is back on the world cinema map in a major way. To quote an international film financier “ Marten… It feels like India is the new Romania”. He meant in the sense that there is an identifiable flourishing and constant flow of new stories and new talents. Faith is restored after the long years of Mainstream or ‘Bollywood’ dominance. That being said we have to continuously maintain and up our game because the international market is a fickle creature and we are competing head to head for attention, festival slots and distribution with films from say Argentina, Thailand and Mozambique, all fed by the proliferation of digital access to the medium.
Actor, dancer, Assistant director, Producer, Artistic Director at Binger Filmlab, Mentor at NFDC. How would you define your journey till date?
Hectic and convoluted! Yet somehow bound together by a constant red thread;….its always been about storytelling.