Awa Puna (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa, Tūhoe) is 24, confident, and already an old hand at being interviewed. Magazines, radio, live panel discussions, it’s nothing new to her. She’s used to fronting up to talk about the many projects she has been involved in. Best known for her stint on ‘Shortland Street’ as character Gia Te Atakura, Awa also writes and directs. Her short film ‘Tūī’ is showing at Māoriland Film Festival in March. 

A still from Awa Puna's short film 'Tūī'. A young woman (Puna) standing in a dark forest.

Awa Puna, as the protagonist in her short film ‘Tūī’.

Awa was born in Wellington and raised on the Kāpiti Coast. In 2021, after studying a Bachelor of Performing Arts at Toi Whakaari (New Zealand Drama School), she moved to Auckland. “My agent got me an amazing break — a role in ‘Ahikāroa’.” The bilingual drama series, made for Māori Television, follows a group of as they discover their identities. The break proved to be the perfect launch pad for Awa. A year later she had been nominated for best supporting actress at the 2022 NZ TV Awards. A role in ‘Shortland Street’ then beckoned. “I’ve been so lucky to have regular work over the past couple of years. It’s so hard as an actor to get that,” she says. 

Awa has acted on the stage, as well as the big and small screens. But she admits that the lure of directing is slightly stronger. “By a hair’s breadth, I prefer directing to acting. Storytelling is so important to me. You can push ideas even further with directing.” Her first directing gig was at 16 when she took part in The Roxy5 Short Film Competition. The Courtenay Creative and Capital E initiative provided a platform for year 7 to 13 students across the Wellington region to produce a five-minute film. Her film ‘Black Dog’ was the supreme winner in 2016. 

From an early age, Awa has been fascinated with cinema. Her family recognised and encouraged it. Her brother gave her an old computer when she was 10 so she could practice editing footage on iMovie. Her parents bought her a camera, so by the time she was in high school she was producing and directing short movies with her friends. “My mum is a painter and dad a policeman — they knew nothing about the film industry but always supported everything I did”.

Further support was found at the Māoriland Charitable Trust. In 2017, organisers arranged for Awa and 13 other budding filmmakers to visit islands in the Pacific. The purpose of ‘Through Our Lens’ was to connect rangatahi with Indigenous filmmakers from other countries. 

“Māoriland has nurtured so many creatives. In Raratonga we met with local kids and had a day to make a short film — I got so many new ideas.”

Awa Puna, filmmaker

Māoriland is again supporting Awa by showing her short Movie ‘Tūī’ at the 2024 Festival. The 18-minute film tells the story of ‘Tūī’, a young trans girl, who discovers her identity while dealing with the loss of her mother. The idea came from a vivid dream where Awa’s grandmother (who had passed away when she was seven) appeared before her. “I asked her if she accepted me the way I am, and she said ‘Of course!’ Then, like sand through my fingers, she slipped away, and I woke up crying.” Directing, editing, producing, and starring in the film was a huge undertaking, but Awa managed to juggle all the roles. Her innate confidence is hard-won and now serves her well. Having to talk about her work, and identity doesn’t faze her. 

“An interview is just another type of performing really,” she laughs.