Ni­cole Hunt — Photograph­er and ac­tivist


Photograph­er and ac­tivist Ni­cole Hunt, and Pride direc­tor Max Tweedie.

When some­one tells you a movie is life chang­ing, they rarely mean it lit­er­ally. Ni­cole Hunt does. She de­cided on the spot to be­come a film-maker af­ter see­ing Mer­ata: How Mum De­colonised the Screen at the 2018 New Zealand In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

Hunt, 26, had al­ready been carv­ing a name for her­self as a photograph­er in Auck­land for sev­eral years (in­clud­ing hav­ing her work fea­tured in Metro), tak­ing photos of the mu­sic gigs and club nights that make Karanga­hape Rd’s heart beat. As poet Tayi Tib­ble wrote of Hunt’s work, it in­vokes “a sort of scene, a buzz which… makes you wish you were there”.

Mer­ata, and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing talk by Mita’s son Heperi Mita, made Hunt re­alise film of­fered some­thing pho­tog­ra­phy couldn’t: the abil­ity to tell fuller, more pow­er­ful sto­ries. “It was an easy de­ci­sion for me, like, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m meant to be do­ing,’” Hunt says now. She signed up for film school shortly af­ter.

“I’m not an aca­demic, I’m not any other way in­clined than art, but I can change the way peo­ple think if I can tell [in­dige­nous] sto­ries,” she says. We’re sit­ting in Verona on K’ Rd a year or so af­ter the screen­ing; her one-year diploma at South Seas Film School is nearly fin­ished. Mita, the first Māori woman to write and di­rect a fea­ture film, is still Hunt’s big­gest in­spi­ra­tion. “She’s goals for me. Her way of us­ing art as a tool for pol­i­tics — it was the per­fect way to do it.”

Hunt is es­pe­cially in awe of Mita’s work cap­tur­ing the re­al­ity on the ground at Bas­tion Pt in the 1970s. Hunt, who is Filipino and Māori from Ngāi Tūhoe and Te Arawa, has been heav­ily in­volved in her gen­er­a­tion’s ver­sion of Bas­tion Pt, the strug­gle over Ihumā­tao. If you look at her In­sta­gram, there’s a sec­tion from July last year where ev­ery pic­ture was taken on the whenua. The most strik­ing are a pair of photos shot at dawn; pur­ple skies shot through with streaks of pink cloud, a stripe of mist set­tling above the ground and, just in front of that, a string of neon yel­low dots — po­lice vests. The images cap­ture a spec­tac­u­lar sense of place and oc­ca­sion, even through a phone screen.

They’re beau­ti­ful, I tell her. Yes, she says, but their beauty ob­scures part of how she felt at the time. That’s the problem with pho­to­graphs — they don’t quite tell the whole story. “Ac­tu­ally, what was go­ing on was al­most very, like, trau­matic. It was a hard time as much as it was a beau­ti­ful time.” The rea­son Hunt was up so early that morn­ing was that ev­ery day­break at Ihumā­tao was tense — it was when the land was per­ceived by ac­tivists to be most vul­ner­a­ble to en­croach­ment by the po­lice.

All of last year was a blur of course­work, mak­ing art and ac­tivism. In De­cem­ber, shortly af­ter our drink at Verona, she at­tended the United Na­tions Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Madrid as part of an in­dige­nous youth del­e­ga­tion, Te Ara Whatu. “We push for cli­mate ac­tion from an in­dige­nous per­spec­tive,” she ex­plains. “In­dige­nous peo­ple have been liv­ing with the land for mil­len­nia, in bal­ance. We recog­nise we have to take this old knowl­edge and want to rein­tro­duce it and push in­dige­nous knowl­edge to the fore­front of cli­mate so­lu­tions.”

It was Te Ara Whatu’s third time at­tend­ing but Hunt’s first, and when we speak, she’s equal parts ex­cited and hes­i­tant about what to ex­pect. “It’s not for us and it never was, so we have to carve a space there,” she says, mean­ing the UN ex­ists for politi­cians, not ac­tivists. What the con­fer­ence does of­fer, though, is the chance to share knowl­edge and con­nect with the global in­dige­nous com­mu­nity, and to fig­ure out how to re­frame nar­ra­tives about cli­mate change, es­pe­cially as it af­fects in­dige­nous peo­ple, so the mes­sage res­onates more deeply. “The way politi­cians speak is re­ally lo­gis­ti­cal and they’ll bring out stats, but that nar­ra­tive never speaks to lived ex­pe­ri­ences of is­lands go­ing un­der­wa­ter. We want to bring that hu­man­ity back to the con­ver­sa­tion.”

In the end, film school was a bit of a bust. Hunt’s not sure she’ll pass (she blew off classes in favour of Ihumā­tao), but she’s pretty am­biva­lent about it. “As long as I get what I wanted out of it, as long as I get the skills, then cool. Ev­ery­thing else is op­tional to me.” Hunt has that en­vi­able in­ner cer­tainty many artists pos­sess; she’s not too fazed about what she “should” be do­ing be­cause what she wants from life and what she val­ues are so clear to her. “Why would you not go where your strengths lie? That’s where you’ll be the most ef­fec­tive, and that’s prob­a­bly where you’ll be most happy, too.”

Ihumā­tao has gal­vanised some­thing in Hunt, and now she’s free from the frame­work of for­mal teach­ing and can pur­sue what­ever projects she likes, she plans to blend her art and her ac­tivism, a com­bi­na­tion she thinks will come nat­u­rally. “All in­dige­nous nar­ra­tives are po­lit­i­cal by de­fault. It’s not the norm, so it’s al­ways go­ing to dis­rupt.”

The one project that made her year at film school feel worth­while was di­rect­ing the cam­era, light­ing and au­dio for a short film about a young girl and her fa­ther and their shared strug­gle as they re­con­nect with te reo Māori. Hunt loved it, partly be­cause she re­lated to the nar­ra­tive, but also be­cause the process showed her how amaz­ing mak­ing a film could be. “I got a whole cast and crew that were Māori or Pasi­fika. I had no en­ti­tled white boys on my crew. Ev­ery­thing about it, from like the way we filmed it to the vi­su­als, was ex­actly what I was en­vi­sion­ing.”

Hunt was due to miss the film’s first shared screen­ing be­cause of at­tend­ing the UN con­fer­ence. I sug­gest that this seems fit­ting and she laughs. She’s not both­ered. She’s ex­actly where she needs to be.

“At first you land a job like that, and there’s a mo­ment where you go: ‘Fuck. Can I do this?’”

Max Tweedie is 21. He skipped univer­sity, work­ing for World Vi­sion, the New Zealand AIDS Foun­da­tion and the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand in­stead. And now, as the new direc­tor of the Auck­land Pride Fes­ti­val, he’s got a lot to prove. “It’s not just the weight of, ‘Can I do this?’ to prove [my­self] to the peo­ple who hired me, but the weight of the com­mu­nity who put their faith in this or­gan­i­sa­tion, in me, to au­then­ti­cally rep­re­sent them.”

Tweedie got ac­tively in­volved in pol­i­tics af­ter the 2014 election, when John Key’s Na­tional Party won for the third time in a row, but his per­sonal turn­ing point was ear­lier, dur­ing the mar­riage equal­ity de­bate, in 2012 and ’13. “I re­alised then that there was no equal foot­ing,” he says. “Just for us to ex­ist equally… it has to be fought for.”

Tweedie says he re­ceived an in­duc­tion by fire from the me­dia through be­ing a mem­ber of the Young Greens. So­cial me­dia has in­creased the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of peo­ple’s thoughts and opin­ions, open­ing them up to in­creased scru­tiny. “I made some com­ment on an in­ter­nal Face­book group, and the next thing I know I had a Stuff jour­nal­ist call­ing me. I was like, ‘What the fuck have I done?’ I was 18,

19. What do I do with this?” Since then, Tweedie has fig­ured out what to do with it. He’s heav­ily in­volved in ac­tivism, most no­tably as an or­gan­iser of a cam­paign to ban con­ver­sion ther­apy in New Zealand, cre­ated in di­rect re­sponse to TVNZ’s Sun­day doc­u­men­tary ex­pos­ing the prac­tice.

In 2018, Tweedie found him­self at the cen­tre of the back­lash fol­low­ing Pride’s ban of uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cers in the pa­rade, ad­vo­cat­ing for the pol­icy on The Project and New­stalk ZB. “The back­lash was so vit­ri­olic that I think ev­ery­one thought we had to sit down and shut up,” he says. “But there are queer com­mu­ni­ties that are de­pend­ing on us, on this de­ci­sion, in chang­ing Pride.”

The Auck­land Pride Fes­ti­val has re­ceived an over­haul for 2020. The direc­tor role is new. And Pride has stuck to its guns, lean­ing even more into the in­tent to re­claim Pride for the com­mu­nity it rep­re­sents de­spite the loss of cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship. Af­ter the dis­agree­ment over uni­formed of­fi­cers, a lead­er­ship bat­tle split Pride in two, and the planned pa­rade down Pon­sonby Rd was trans­formed into a free-to-par­tic­i­pate, un­spon­sored march (‘OurMarch’) from Al­bert Park to My­ers Park. This year, the march re­turns and will be ex­panded on with an of­fi­cial af­ter party (‘OurParty’).

Pride has also added a new tikanga takatāpui ac­ti­va­tor role to en­sure in­volve­ment of Māori goes be­yond the to­kenis­tic, some­thing Pride was com­monly crit­i­cised for in the past. And it hasn’t changed its po­si­tion on the uni­formed po­lice ban for 2020. “I was stand­ing on the front­lines in Ihumā­tao, arm-in-arm with mana whenua, stand­ing face-to­face with these po­lice of­fi­cers,” he says. “It was terrifying. Is this who we want at Pride? How are Māori com­mu­ni­ties who are fight­ing for their land sup­posed to feel when those same po­lice of­fi­cers are wav­ing rain­bow flags?”

There’s an ob­vi­ous new en­ergy, some of which can be at­trib­uted to Tweedie, who speaks with a me­dia-ready rhythm: his lan­guage pre­cise and in­clu­sive to a fault, but pas­sion­ate, deftly balancing the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal. Our con­ver­sa­tion swerves be­tween the cur­rent gov­ern­ment’s lack of ac­tion on rain­bow is­sues, the dou­ble-edged sword of drag’s new-found pop­u­lar­ity, and our shared ex­pe­ri­ences of codeswitch­ing when nav­i­gat­ing dif­fer­ing worlds (“No question, if I’m around more mas­cu­line guys, my voice drops an oc­tave”).

We meet shortly af­ter the new Pride & Spark Em­pow­er­ment Ini­tia­tive was an­nounced, a project that will pro­vide fund­ing, work­shops and men­tor­ship to marginalis­ed voices in the queer com­mu­nity, aim­ing to ad­dress the mone­tary bar­rier to reg­is­ter­ing grass­roots events dur­ing Pride. Tweedie is par­tic­u­larly proud this one came through. “As soon as I got into the role, that was the fi­nal bar­rier I re­ally wanted to ad­dress and fix in my first year,” he says. “This ini­tia­tive is so core to me, be­cause if we don’t do this, we aren’t ac­tu­ally walk­ing that walk.”

Try­ing to break down bar­ri­ers and ad­dress ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues was a huge risk for the fes­ti­val, but, for Tweedie, the harder route is the right route, if it’s one that serves their com­mu­ni­ties more ef­fec­tively. This change in di­rec­tion has been steered by a shift in their mem­ber­ship, and a con­scious shift in who they’re lis­ten­ing to. Lis­ten­ing is the op­er­a­tive word; peo­ple reach out and changes are made. “Peo­ple can get their back up quite eas­ily when they’re crit­i­cised about in­clu­siv­ity or di­ver­sity, but if di­verse com­mu­ni­ties are telling you some­thing, then shut up and lis­ten to it. It’s about own­ing it, apol­o­gis­ing and learn­ing.” Tweedie laughs with self-aware­ness. “The lit­mus test is not mid­dle-class white gay men.”

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