One of the subjects of 'They Saw The Sun First' with director Stefan Hunt.

Stefan Hunt thought he’d be working all his life to achieve something approaching a BAFTA Award.

Yet the 34-year-old director has already been recognised with such an honour, winning the BAFTA TV prize for Best Short Programme earlier this year for his film They Saw the Sun First.

They Saw The Sun First from Stefan Hunt on Vimeo.

In the arthouse documentary, made in New York – where Hunt was living up until last year – voice-over interviews with older people about their life experiences and ageing are brought to life through dance.

The short’s origins are in a conversation that Hunt had with a friend back in Australia about the importance of eldership; it struck him he didn’t have older people in his own life.

“That sparked this curiosity to want to sit down with elders and talk to them about all these themes that I’m interested in: ageing, fear, regret and death,” he tells IF.

While Hunt was enthralled by the stories he was hearing from the older New Yorkers – they were all vibrant characters – he wasn’t sure if he presented it in a traditional documentary format, it would cut through with younger generations.

“That was the creative challenge for me: How do I get young people to stop and to listen in this world that is so fast paced?

“Luckily for me, my wife [Vanessa Marian] is a movement director and choreographer. Through being with her, I’ve learnt the power of dance and what it can do to our imagination; how it can really express things that may be hard to express otherwise. We came up with this idea of mapping the words and the wisdom of the elderly onto the bodies of young, relatable people.”

In addition to the BAFTA, the film has won a Webby Award for best art and experimental film, and was recently nominated for Best Short at Raindance.

Humbled by the film’s journey, Hunt says: “As as COVID started to take over the world and affect the elderly more than anyone, the timing just felt so perfect to release it – to really pay our respects and celebrate the wisdom of our elders who were really suffering at that time.”

The success of They Saw The Sun First has given Hunt the confidence, after a steady career directing documentary, philanthropic film, TVCs, music videos and shorts, to move into narrative long-form.

The director is currently based in the Northern Rivers – he and Marian returned to Australia from New York last March to get married, but when COVID hit, found themselves stuck.

They intend to stay for now, as Hunt wants to revisit his youth – spent across Dubbo and Sydney – in his work. Together with Marian, he is developing a coming-of-age dramedy feature that explores tall poppy syndrome and the positive and negative effects in can have on art and self-expression, particularly mental health.

“Prior to living in the US, long-form directing always felt like a ‘someday’ dream. But during my time in New York I met a lot of young crews making indie features. It felt really empowering to be around that creative passion and hunger, and their stories felt really unique,” he says.

“Moving back to Australia last year I realised that we truly have such unique subcultures that I think would resonate with local and international audiences. I’m getting older every day and the stories I want to tell are very coming-of-age youth-focussed so it feels like there’s no better time to make it.”

Since coming back Down Under Hunt has also signed to Exit Films, and was able to be mentored by Lion director Garth Davis on a TVC project earlier this year.

“Even just just watching and observing how he works with actors – and just his general presence on set – was such a great and rich experience,” he says.

“It’s such an exciting family to be a part of it in there, especially as a younger director coming up and having those people you look up to around you.”

Hunt’s journey into filmmaking was almost by accident. After graduating high school in 2006, he travelled around the US in with friend Jonno Durrant in an ice cream truck. There they challenged themselves to surf in every state – even the landlocked ones. Having documented it all on camera, they turned into documentary Surfing 50 States.

The intention was to just share the film with family and friends, but it ended up getting picked up by film festivals.

Hunt has been directing ever since, and also keeps busy as an illustrator.

In 2017, he combined his passions via We’re All Going to Die, a multi-platform work that encompassed a book, short film and multimedia festival. The project tried to look at death through an empowering lens – to see people ‘fear less and live more’.

“At 27, I went through some mental health challenges with anxiety and through that process did a lot of writing. One day I wrote this poem and the first five words were: ‘We’re all going to die’. It just completely shifted in an exciting and positive way how I looked at these fears that were completely controlling me at the time.

That poem snowballed in those variety of projects, with the short film starring Jake Jekyll and featuring the voice of Hugo Weaving. The multimedia festival toured Melbourne, Sydney, Byron Bay, and Auckland.

Next up, Hunt intends to shoot a proof-of-concept short over the summer, based on his feature film idea.

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