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"Your Point Of Difference Is Your Superpower"

28 Feb 2024

As a groundbreaking creative project comes to life, Unitec alumni Alex de Vries explains how being allowed to fail helped him find his voice.

Creative journeys are not linear. They don't always go to plan.

But that's what makes them so special - success and satisfaction can come from the most unlikely beginnings.

Recent Unitec graduate Alex de Vries has launched his career in many directions - and with groundbreaking results - following his Master of Creative Practice (MCP), which has seen him develop a passion for filmmaking.

But de Vries explains it wasn't always his focus. 

"Music was always actually the dream for me. I have been singing since before I can remember and grew up in a musical household. 

"I won a singing competition in 2019 that flew me to Las Vegas, Nevada, where I was set to perform at the MGM. It was a pretty big deal. 

"On the way there, I contracted a nasty bug which made me lose my voice for over a year. In that time, I had to reflect critically on what my life would look like beyond singing, and I realised that I still had the capacity to be a storyteller - albeit through a different medium. 

"I was fortunate in that I left my job in travel just as the pandemic hit, and went to Unitec, and the rest is history."

Hitting more than just the books

Tertiary education was nothing new to the talented writer, director, producer and musician - where he performs under his initials, adv. He already had two theory-based degrees in Politics & International Relations, and Anthropology at the postgraduate level under his belt.

"While studying these degrees opened my eyes to new ways of thinking, feeling and being in the world - I was yearning for a chance to develop practical skills through which I could take my career into my own hands. 

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Alex de Vries after graduating Unictec's Master of Creative Practice. Photo: Supplied.

"Unitec offered a more hands-on approach to learning in the creative space than I was ever afforded at the other institutions I studied at. It allowed me to try my hand at various aspects of filmmaking, fail miserably, and come to develop a clear voice and artistic style while building up my confidence in my creative abilities."

de Vries highlights the "world-class" facilities at Unitec's disposal, with brand new studio space and access to equipment - as well as "the working relationships you build with other students that set you up for a future of success, as you come out of your studies with a good level of hands-on experience, a network, and a body of work."

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Alex de Vries. Photo: Supplied.

But what stood out most from his MCP experience was those doing the teaching - and their approach.

"Having tutors who are actively working in the industry makes a world of difference. They know what it's like to be on set, to apply for funding, to pull together a team on a shoestring budget. 

"I left Unitec with a greater understanding of what the industry looks like, how to find work and keep work after graduating, and how to initiate my own projects and not wait around for opportunities. 

"I was fortunate to have learned from a range of inspiring filmmakers in my time at Unitec - Katherine McRae, Sima Urale, Victor Rodger, Jo Smith, Rene le Bas, Larry Justice, Dan Wagner, Matthew Saville. Each of them brought unique and diverse perspectives and challenged me to push my ideas to the next level. 

"In some ways, they coaxed the real me out of my shell, and helped me to recognise my point of difference in the filmmaking community, and how I can make a difference.

They also provide a community of pastoral care that feels personal - you're not just a number on a seat."

Trust issues

In fact, it was encouragement from Unitec's Creative Industries Senior Lecturer Becca Wood that led to de Vries successfully applying for the Bold Innovators Scholarship to continue his Master's mahi.

That has led to the production of the first Afro-Kiwi-led audiovisual album, Trust Issues, which was launched last week.

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Alex de Vries AKA adf. Photo: Aliyasen.

"The central kaupapa of the work is in decolonising screen production. It meant that I could pay all of the people involved in the project allowing us to all tell this story with dignity," he enthuses. 

"It meant that I could employ over 40 creatives as experts in their field, providing them with credits required to apply for future funding. It meant that we were able to come to the table as equals in a relationship of trust to make the best creative decisions we could. In the spirit of ubuntu, it meant working as a collective, where no one person is more important than any other. 

"After eight music videos, I can confidently say that the fruits of this work will be felt in the experience of the filmmakers involved in bringing this story to life. There was no single day where any of us felt stressed or pressured by time, money or other capitalistic measures that ruins the experience of being on a conventional film set. There were no unequal power dynamics that shifted the way in which people related to each other on set. 

"We were truly equals, and it shows in the output - the fun that we experienced is evident in the work itself. 

"This scholarship was a massive benefit not only to myself as a creative and project manager, but to the entirety of this group consisting almost entirely of film practitioners from underrepresented communities who just want to be given a chance." 

Making his mark

Along with the new audiovisual album, de Vries has been making large strides in his career since finishing his studies at Unitec.

He's been working as Basement Theatre's Systems Catalyst since he submitted his thesis, presented his Master's research to the New Zealand Film Commission as well as consulting for them on the Diversity and Inclusion Industry Leadership Group, had his first play commissioned and performed by Auckland Theatre Company's Youth Company, written reviews for publications like including bad apple and Rat World and worked closely with Black Creatives Aotearoa to run focus groups as a first step towards forming a Black Screen Collective. 

"None of this would have been possible if I hadn't taken the step to go to Unitec and learn not only about filmmaking, but how to reflect critically on my creative practice, and develop a personal kaupapa that is evident in all of the work I have gone on to produce since. 

"From here I would love to join a writer's room for television, produce some short films, work with more musicians to produce stunning music videos, put on full-length plays, and bring my community up to a level where we can create sustainable careers in screen and on stage."

Asked what others who find themselves in a similar position to where he was prior to his Unitec experience, de Vries responds "My biggest piece of advice would be to focus on your point of difference and how that can bring meaningful change to the spaces you occupy. 

"Your point of difference is your superpower - and don't let anyone tell you otherwise."


Written in partnership with Unitec - find out more about the Master of Creative Practice here.