PEOPLE TO WATCH
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.”