Mid-way through our interview, Awa Puna offers me a drink, and pops downstairs to make it. I hear her talking, animated, to her flatmate in the kitchen.
I look around her room. Patti Smith and James Dean are pinned to the wall. A ‘To Do’ list that’s been filled in by friends with joke suggestions—“get better at BJs”—is draped in fairy lights. Black and white prints of 50’s film stars on the wall are neatly curated, level and balanced into vignettes around the room. Everything in the room is in its place, except for on the desk, littered with eyeliner, pens and lipstick. The wooden stairs protest half-heartedly as she returns to her room.
Te Awarangi Puna is an 18-year-old trans woman who just left home. Last year, a film crew followed her around for the award-winning documentary Born This Way: Awa’s Story. She walks back into the room.
“I wish I put these in better cups… we do have nicer ones but…”
They’re those mugs with faces on them from the Warehouse—the ones with ceramic bumps as noses, and various expressions of pre-coffee bedragglement. I comment that I can relate to mine, a yellow one with bags under its eyes.
She remarks she once stopped using concealer under her eyes and hated how she looked without it. At 29, I feel every transgression from my twenties all at once: every hangover, every morning cigarette. But Te Awarangi Puna is 18 years old and beautiful, truly youthful.
There’s a gulf between us in age, but there’s much in common too. We both like Childish Gambino’s new song, we’re both into filmmaking, we both have white waffle duvet covers. But most obviously, she’s transgender, and so am I. I’m a boy, and she’s a girl. A teenage girl—and though she is extraordinary, she’s just a teenage girl like any teenage girl.
Born This Way: Awa’s Story is screening as part of the Documentary Edge Film Festival, held in Wellington and Auckland. I ask how many interviews she’s done this week. About three so far. At one point in the interview, her friend Tilly bursts in and asks if I’m from Woman’s Day. “Nope, that’s next week,” says Awa. Tilly is one of Awa’s oldest friends, and says she’s been there through all of Awa’s journey. Awa was her first kiss, when she was a boy, Tilly says. “I hated it obviously,” Awa jokes.
"I was in denial, I couldn’t come to terms with what I felt and it was like I was sitting on this boiling pot and it was so close to just exploding everywhere.
Awa’s story hasn’t always been told by her, on her own terms. In the film, Awa touches on her Facebook being hacked by a friend in Year 10. The friend made a post outing Awa as trans. It backfired on the ‘friend’ - the post attracted over 100 likes and lots of supportive comments, but Awa wasn’t in control of the information getting out.
“I was about to go on stage for a talent quest, little drama-queen me. Just before I went on, a friend said to me, “Hey, I’m so proud of you, well done,” and I said, “Wait, what are you talking about?”
“There was like a wave of embarrassment and I wanted the floor to just swallow me up whole. I kind of thank this person in a way because it meant I had to actually just deal with it and it forced me to come out. Which isn’t the nicest, but it was something that had to be done.
At the beginning of the Born This Way: Awa’s Story, we see Awa at the premiere of her film, Black Dog, which is about depression.
“I went through a dark time that I think I’m ready to actually talk about. In Year 10, I did a bunch of pills. I’ve always said to myself that I took them by accident, but now I look back and actually don’t know if it was or not. A lot of that time of my life I have kind of pushed out of my mind a little bit. I was in denial, I couldn’t come to terms with what I felt and it was like I was sitting on this boiling pot and it was so close to just exploding everywhere. Yeah, in a way I felt like a fuckin’ loose cannon, yeah so I did have to go to hospital for that.”
“That’s when Mum and Dad realised that I really really needed help. It felt like, I was being drawn into the sea and I was trying to re-emerge and I could see the surface, but I was just, I was drowning.
“But now I feel like so much weight has come off my shoulders. I still have a gifted burden, but it’s not just a burden [being trans]. It’s something that’s so beautiful, even though it may be seen as an imperfection to some people. It makes us so different from other people - it doesn’t define us, but it’s a part of us.”
‘A gifted burden’. I like that, I say. It feels accurate.
Mitchell Hawkes directed Born This Way: Awa’s Story. He says it’s “a documentary on a teenage girl and what her feelings were and what she wanted from life”. What it was like to work with Awa, I ask him. He chuckles down the phone with warmth. It was the trust between them, he says, that helped make the film a success.
“I talked a lot with Awa’s parents about what Awa would want, because she’s quite young, but also to Awa herself about what she was prepared to share. And I told the family all along they would see it before it goes out, and they can veto whatever they want. In the end they were really happy.”
He says the scene in the film with Awa’s brothers was difficult to shoot as the brothers were so shy and were reluctant to be filmed.
“They really wanted to support Awa. We ended up with a really real scene when those brothers—they only say about one sentence each—but you know that’s real from-the-heart stuff that they’re managing to say for the first time ever.”
“When I met Awa I did think, this is just a ‘boy’ who ‘wants’ to be a girl—I couldn’t help having those thoughts, but as I got to know her it was like, no, she is just a girl. I guess that’s my hope for the doco, at the end of the watching it, it’s not like a strange thing, a boy wanting to be a girl or a girl wanting to be a boy… Hopefully, at the end of it, you can go, oh yep, that’s just a girl.”
These days, Awa has moved out of home and is now in her first year studying acting at Toi Whakaari / New Zealand Drama School.
“I was like, oh my goodness I’m by myself and I miss my parents, but I’m really enjoying being independent. It’s really cool. I’ve got to be responsible and I like it, I like the idea of that, ‘cause I’ve no one to blame anything on apart from myself if anything goes wrong.”
She says her Mum and Dad were fine with her leaving home.
“They were like, “Oh my gosh it’s quiet around here now!” They miss me as well, but I guess they’re just like, ‘our girl is leaving the nest’. It’s the first time since my mum was 20 that she hasn’t been a full-time mother. I think she’s replaced me with a dog we got.”
Staying at home in Raumati, near Paraparaumu, would mean early-morning train rides into Toi. She says she knew what she was in for when applying to Toi Whakaari, and that though it isn’t easy, she loves the challenge.
While she’s currently training as a acting, she’s considered taking up directing down the line.
“I eventually might want to do acting but it’s not, I’m not in a rush to jump to it because I feel like I’m quite… visionary? That sounds like I’m tooting my own horn but I do know what I want, I get a vision and I’m like it has to be like that. I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”
She tilts her head back donning some costume sunglasses that were nearby. Then her diva-style po-face breaks into laughter, a self-aware smile and then a slightly unsure giggle, like she’s worried I might think her serious. She’s an artist and she knows she sometimes sounds it - when I ask her later if she’s spiritual, she says “Not really but I talk like a hippy. Especially since I go to drama school, they make me speak in metaphors every fuckin’ day,” she laughs again.
It seems like film-making is still the path for her, but what does a dream life look like to Awa?
“My dream life is just to create and mould. And learn from people and then teach people: reciprocal.”
You can catch Born This Way: Awa’s Story at the DocEdge Festival: