After struggling with anxiety, the director Stefan Hunt resolved to share with others the message that helped to alleviate his uncertainty about his life

The insidious presence of anxiety in Stefan Hunt’s life took him entirely by surprise. It happened two years ago when Hunt, then a 27-year-old film director whose job took him around the world filming documentaries, commercials and music videos, began to look around at his peers. Everybody else, it seemed, had a purpose – at least, according to the highlights reel that was playing out before him on Instagram. A naturally proactive person, Hunt turned his gaze inward, believing that self-evaluation would provide answers to the kind of questions he felt pressured to constantly ask himself: where are my career, my relationships and my life heading? The uncertainty was paralysing, and Hunt soon became riddled with anxiety, prone to experiencing panic attacks that seemed at odds with his naturally bright demeanour. The conflict within was only compounded by his denial that anxiety and depression were conditions that might afflict him. Though he consulted with doctors who confirmed his condition, clarity for the director arrived in a manner he never could have expected. On the advice of a friend, Hunt turned to writing as a conduit for alleviating the feelings that plagued him. Putting pen to paper atop a cliff one day, Hunt wrote the first five words of a poem with returns far greater than the hoped for catharsis he set out in search of: ‘We’re all going to die,’ he wrote.

“It was like a Lion King, cloud-parting moment, because finally I had certainty,” Hunt, now 30 and ostensibly brighter than ever, tells GRAZIA. “All these fears of the unknown, of judgement and failure – there’s no guarantees. It was a beautiful moment for me, [one] in which I realised I just had to go for it.”

Buoyed by the clarity of his epiphany, Hunt began to share what he had written with friends, with whom the message resonated and who encouraged him to then spread the message further. Self-evident though it may seem, there’s something almost blithe and candid to Hunt’s message that rather pithily inverts the potential for morbidity and cuts through his generation defining dictums – clichés about ‘only living once’ that have by now become trite; hackneyed mantras that have been hijacked by hashtags borne of a marketing agenda more intent on selling an experience than embracing the reality of life’s ephemerality. “When you say to someone, ‘you’re going to die’, that can’t be brushed off,” says Hunt. “That hits hard. It opens up a new train of thought.”

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. In any given year, more than two million Australians will experience anxiety in some form, which is double the number of those who experience depression. But unlike depression, a condition with which anxiety routinely occurs, the latter is treated with less gravitas and is often considered to be little more than a phase induced by stress. An estimated one in four Australians will experience anxiety at some stage in their life, a condition that can take the form of anything from social anxiety or separation anxiety, to post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Despite its prevalence, recent research conducted by mental health advocacy organisation beyondblue revealed that two in three Australians still believe that depression is the most common mental health condition afflicting Australians. The same study concluded that 37 per cent of those who suffered from the symptoms of anxiety and sought professional support had been experiencing those symptoms for longer than 12 months before reaching out to talk about their experiences. Almost one in five waited longer than six years.

Hunt wants to close that gap between symptom and support. Four months ago, he made the move to the idyllic hinterlands of Byron Bay from the raucous inner city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst and, in February this year, he began devoting the entirety of his efforts to bringing his thesis regarding death to life. First came the idea to translate the poem into a short film, however a chance meeting with an American book publisher convinced Hunt to first adapt the work into what he describes as a “picture book for adults”, We’re All Going To Die. Buoyed on by what began to feel like the universal embrace of his message, Hunt soon realised that the experience of watching or reading his passion project would fail to deliver on the immersive experience that he felt was befitting of his newfound realisation. The format of a completely interactive festival, with a focus on choose-your-own-adventure style activations, seemed the only fitting avenue. And so he set about bring that concept to life.

Hunt with tombstones contributed by artists, including Nadia Hernandez, Georgia Hill and Jimmy Slide

Hunt has since happened upon the phrase “an amusement part for your soul” to provide an indication of what he hopes the experience, taking place later this month, will entail. The We’re All Going To Die festival will be comprised of eight different rooms, ranging from experiential Groove Therapy and Retrosweat performance-come-dance classes to more introspective experiences, including ‘silent disco’ style guided death meditation sessions lead by the youth psychology, mindfulness and mental health organisation, The Indigo Project. Live music, a miniature film festival, panel discussions meditating on death and fear lead by triple j Hack host Tom Tilley, and art installations will complete the experience. That the entire event will take place over four hours on Friday November 17 seems almost cosmically unfair, considering the time, money and effort Hunt and the more than 100 people he has enlisted have invested into the project to date.

“There has been such an overwhelmingly positive response from a wider community of people who find it refreshing to hear a message of this nature out there,” he says. Developing the concept has opened the floodgates for strangers to share with Hunt their own experiences and fears around the prospect of their mortality, and lead to important conversations with friends and family that otherwise might not have happened. “It’s very nerve wracking; ironically, I’m riddled with anxiety” he laughs. “[But] I’m loving the journey.”

At the festival, ‘deathies’, or death positive activists’ will work to dismantle the taboos around death in Western culture, especially amongst young people – a demographic Hunt says rarely engages with the idea of their own mortality. “This project is not trying to trivialise death, it hurts”, he says. “We have all these birth plans to bring someone into the world but there’s no awareness, education or culture around how to say farewell to someone.” It’s important to Hunt that his festival provides a safe space for patrons to have conversations about their own fears, with the aim of fostering solidarity through shared experience – or at least, the recognition that no one is alone in having those feelings. As for his own fears, Hunt says that the meditative process of assembling the festival has lead him to a total acceptance of his own death, but that of his family or loved ones still remains his biggest fear. “Meditating on death has improved and enriched my life. That’s what I want the festival to be as well. I know it’s only four hours but I’d like to think we could plant a seed to get people to start thinking differently. The mission is [to] fear less, and live more.”

Assuming he makes it through the coming weeks alive, Hunt’s goal is to take the festival around Australia, and then, to the world. For now, he’d like to focus his efforts not just on capital cities but on towns in rural and regional Australia, where, although the prevalence of people experiencing mental illness is akin to rates across the nation, rates of smoking, risky drinking and illicit drug use are higher; there are fewer employment opportunities; less access to specialised mental health care and where rates of self-harm and suicide increase (the rate of suicide in rural areas is about 40% higher than in major cities) with remoteness in tandem with the ongoing stigmatisation of seeking help. Hunt, who grew up in Dubbo in regional New South Wales, anticipates that the festival and the conversations and vulnerability it fosters would work to dispel prevailing attitudes of rural stoicism toward emotional honesty and nurture important conversations around mental health in a non-judgmental space.

The inaugural edition of the festival has been funded independently and through community driven contributions, eschewing corporate sponsorship in the process to protect the integrity of his mission statement. A Kickstarter recently exceeded its goal of $30,000. The support of COMMUNE, where the festival will be staged, has also been integral to its success thus far. In addition to contributing their famed spread, Mary’s, the popular Newtown-based burger bar, will also be creating a custom ‘mystery burger’ in keeping with the theme of the night.

“Honestly, there are no dickheads working on this project,” laughs Hunt. “I think you need to back yourself [to show] that things can be done this way. I’ve nearly wanted to give up on this so many times this year, because it’s so [draining] financially.”

If Hunt intends to take his festival nationally, he acknowledges he will one day need to entertain large-scale contributors. But for now, he is just as realistic about the prospect of the festival existing as a standalone, one-night-only event that’s never again to be repeated. Such is life. In a twist of cosmic poeticism, Hunt says in reflection that he feels as though he has now found the purpose that for so long eluded him – the search for which lead him to create the festival that has, in effect, changed his life forever. “Embrace the uncertainty,” he says. “That’s where the best things come from.”

We’re All Going To Die will take place at COMMUNE on the evening of Friday, November 17. More information is available here.

Support and information pertaining to anxiety, depression and mental health is available online at beyondblue and by phoning 1300 22 4636, or by visiting Lifeline online or phoning 13 11 14.

Tile image: Supplied
Cover image: Jack Shepherd