Marten Rabarts is resigning from his role as festival director after two events blighted by Covid and allegations of mismanagement.
Bill Gosden spent 40 years as the director of the New Zealand International Film Festival. His successor has lasted just two. The Spinoff understands Marten Rabarts will this weekend confirm his departure from his role as NZIFF’s director. His decision will be effective immediately.
His exit comes in the middle of the festival’s 2021 season, and follows two events blighted by Covid-19 lockdowns and, some allege, mismanagement. The Spinoff understands Rabarts attempted to quit earlier this year, but was persuaded to stay on to run this year’s festival.
In total, Rabarts has spent just two years at NZIFF after taking over from Gosden, who retired at the end of 2019 following 40 years at the helm. He died at the end of 2020.
“It’s been a wild ride taking on the role of festival director just as the pandemic descended,” Rabarts said, in a draft press release obtained by The Spinoff that is yet to be circulated. “Having steered the festival through what we hope is the worst of the storm, it’s time for a director who will consolidate and future-proof the festival.”
Rabarts’ resignation continues a run of upheaval for the festival. After Gosden’s departure, long-serving general manager Sharon Byrne and communications manager Rebecca McMillan also left the festival. It also comes at a troubling time, including concerns about its future. Both festivals under Rabarts’ watch have been heavily affected by Covid-19 lockdowns, with Auckland’s festival cancelled in October following the level four lockdown, while Christchurch’s festival was delayed by a week.
Calls for NZIFF to offer an online streaming service, as it did last year, were ignored.
That decision has been criticised by John Barnett, the veteran screen producer, who blames this year’s festival struggles on a lack of planning.
“When the world changes, you change with it, or you die,” he told The Spinoff this afternoon, adding that festival management should have realised “the only way the festival could go ahead in this time was to make it as accessible as possible to as many people as possible”.
In October, The Spinoff reported that Shift72, the Hamilton-based streaming service that helped more than 300 festivals operate around the world during the pandemic, including NZIFF in 2020, was told its services weren’t required for this year’s event.
Instead, NZIFF planned for a festival to be held only in cinemas, a decision that backfired when the arrival of delta saw cinemas shut around the country.
Barnett, a director of Shift72, says NZIFF should have planned to hold an online festival, or hybrid version, from the start. At the very least, it should have been delayed. “We’re in a country where … nearly half the people couldn’t go to a cinema,” he says. “Is that the right time to hold it? I’m sorry it isn’t … it’s irresponsible.”
In October, NZIFF chairwoman Catherine Fitzgerald said a hybrid festival couldn’t be done, blaming a lack of time and staff. “We are just not resourced to do it,” she said. Fitzgerald called on the rest of the country to help save the festival. “We hope we can sell every ticket we have for sale,” she said at the time. “It’s that audience support that will help us be here to fight another day.”
Following the cancellation of NZIFF’s Auckland leg, two new festivals were launched to fill that gap, including In the Shade, which will host many of the same films offered by NZIFF in two Tāmaki Makaurau cinemas across January, and the Auckland Online Film Festival, a curated selection of films listed on Letterboxd.
When Rabarts, 60, was appointed as festival director in 2019, he arrived after spending 20 years in the Netherlands, most of that spent as head of the EYE Film Museum. A New Zealander by birth, Rabarts’ previous roles include artistic director of the Binger FilmLab in Amsterdam and head of development at India’s National Film Development Corporation, based in Mumbai.
He told Variety he promised to continue Gosden’s legacy. “A film festival can’t pretend to offer easy answers in our turbulent times, but I look forward to presenting films and unique cinema voices from our own Pacific region and around the world that pose the most urgent and artistically intriguing questions of our times, just as NZIFF has done for the past 50 years,” he said.
He also told Stuff.co.nz in a lengthy profile that “any festival has to be really on its game right now”.
Following his resignation, Rabarts plans to enjoy “a bit of a sabbatical” — one he’s been planning since 2010.
For now, doubts hang over the festival’s future. Fitzgerald told The Spinoff NZIFF was “talking to all our funders … we have to be thinking in the long term”.
But Barnett says he is opposed to any kind of government handout to save the festival. “I don’t see that there is any justification for the cultural funds to give them a bail out,” he says. “I am absolutely opposed to that. There is not one new job created from that. There is not one new idea that is generated.”
NZIFF screenings continue into December in Tauranga, Hawke’s Bay, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Masterton and Nelson.