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FEATURE STORY March 5, 2021

Leading the Way in PNG: Alana Hicks


For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re sitting down with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are working towards a more equal future in a COVID-19 world. Alana Hicks is a writer and director who tells deeply personal stories that speak to her duality as Papua New Guinean and Australian. In 2020, she was the winner of the SBS Emerging Writers Competition and her short film, Chicken, was screened at numerous festivals around the world, including the BFI London Film Festival and Flickerfest, where Alana was awarded Best Director. 

What is the inspiration for your work? 

I was always writing, even as a little kid. I grew up in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea (PNG). My mother is a Motuan woman from Porebada village and my father is an Australian teacher who moved to PNG in the 1970s. My father is a repressed poet and we read a lot of books and comics growing up. We watched a lot of movies with my Dad, and my mother made sure the PNG tradition of storytelling was really prominent in our house. 

My mum told me a lot about her childhood, a lot about growing up in the village, and my father told me a lot of jokes and funny stories. I kind of combined those two traditions of storytelling. One that came from a very westernized sense of punchlines and dirty limericks and one that came from a deep connection to place, family and empathy. I combined those two ideas and formed my own way of telling stories, influenced by my mother and father. 

Have you always worked in the creative arts? 

I was much younger than my siblings, and in 1992 just my mother and I moved to Sydney, into my British grandfather's weatherboard shack. So, in high school in Sydney, I was writing a lot of short stories and I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I did a creative writing degree at the University of Wollongong straight out of school, but mostly all I did there was drink Guinness and make a lot of bad relationship decisions.

After my degree I got into hip hop actually and slam poetry, which is a very easy way to make a connection with an audience. So, it felt like a natural fit to start working in theater. But I was working in the place of my dreams, but mostly doing admin and selling tickets to other people's shows. For the past 20 years, I have been doing all the behind-the-scenes work and understanding how the creative arts industry works. 

What led you to start doing your own work? 

In 2019, I was working for a migrant refugee agency in the inner west in Sydney where I was doing digital content. I really loved that job because my mum's a migrant, and I'm a first-generation migrant and it meant a lot to me to be working there. I was meeting people trying to figure out their place in Australia – who they were and how to understand that duality of belonging. 

The job felt like a great fit, but I knew I could never do the kind of work I wanted to do at the migrant agency. So, at the end of 2019, I quit, and I gave myself 12 months to work on my own stuff. I have a very supportive husband and two great kids, and my mother and father are very supportive, so I decided to focus on creating my own work and developing the stuff that I really wanted to do. So, that's what I did, and I had a lot of successes in 2020 despite the pandemic. 

What have been some of your career highlights from 2020? 

I started last year determined to do the stuff that would nourish my creative soul and I found this competition, the SBS Emerging Writers competition, and the prompt for that competition was growing up in a diverse Australia. And I had a strong reaction to the topic and felt like I had something to say about that coming from PNG and the struggle I had with belonging. I wrote a personal essay and I consulted with a lot of people and got them to give me feedback. Many people help to make good, strong work, and out of 2000 entries I won the competition.

And then at the same time, the short film that I made in 2019, Chicken, was nominated for Best Short Film at the 2020 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. I had good reason to think I wasn’t going to win - it was really a shock just being nominated – so I knew that the only splash I could make was to wear an awesome outfit that could represent women in PNG and represent my culture. 

So I found a PNG designer, TABU, who’s from Central Province and the motifs on her work are the same design that my mother has on her tattoos, because the tattoos in PNG indicate geographically where you come from. The skirt was just so beautiful, and I felt so proud wearing it on the red carpet. Those are the two career highlights – the awards and winning the writing competition.

This year's IWD theme is 'Women in Leadership'. Is there a female leader that inspires you?  

My sister Allyson. She is 13 years older than me, and I've always looked up to her, quite literally. She is on the board of directors for the literacy program Buk bilong Pikinini, which is about expanding literacy in remote PNG communities. I think that is enormously important. In PNG you need the quiet achievers. You need people who are doing the thing that they are driven by, because of their passion and because of their need to spread important, useful messages. 

What are you planning on doing next?  

I'm directing a short film that's being written by a Papua New Guinean and Australian woman, Natasha Henry. She's a writer, and she was making her major work at film school and she asked me to direct her short film. It's a huge privilege and we're doing something really different from anything I've ever done before by combining very established genre filmmaking,  like thriller, with elements of comedy and PNG mythology and spirituality. They call it ‘Pacific Noir’ actually, and there's a bit of a movement around it in Western Sydney.

It's really cool, but I'm terrified. I'm absolutely terrified. I have no idea what's going to happen, but until you step outside of your comfort zone, you have no idea what the limits of your skills are. 

What do you miss most when you’re not in PNG?

So much. You can't go past the mangoes in PNG; there’s almost as many mangoes as there are languages. It's made me a real mango snob at Australian supermarkets. I pick up a mango, I smell it, and I just want to throw it across the aisle.

I was supposed to go to PNG last year. My big aim is to contribute what I can to the film and TV industry on the ground in PNG. I'd really like to become part of that groundswell of industry and storytelling in that space. I want to show the rest of the world that there is complexity in PNG. I really want to tell more positive stories about Papua New Guinean people, and women, and the issues that affect PNG. 

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**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.