Director Imogen Thomas about EMU RUNNER: “Emus have a curious nature, which worked to our advantage”
EMU RUNNER tells the story of nine-year-old Indigenous girl, Gem Daniels, who lives in a remote Australian town. As she copes with her mother’s death, Gem finds solace in the company of a wild emu. This heart-warming story plays out against the challenges that come from living in a small and isolated community. “It was a privilege to be there, and to share these people’s lives and their world and this incredible country. I think that is a gift for all of us,” says director Imogen Thomas. That’s probably why it feels like a privilege to welcome this wonderful film to the Zlin Film Festival. You can be sure it will take you to places you’ve never seen before, like… Brewarrina.
Imogen Thomas: Brewarrina is a small Australian outback town, a solid 10-hour drive from Sydney. There are no direct flights or trains, only a bus service a few times a week. It is a modest town with a modest population of 1,143 people. I have been visiting Brewarrina for over 15 years. In that time, I have built friendships with a broad cross-section of people, both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous. From my very first visit in 2003 I felt a strong sense of ‘community’ about the people that lived there. It is a place of incredible natural beauty and a place of significant First Nation Culture. It is also a place where there is great poverty, hardship and social disadvantage.
The film is not only supported by “the community”, it was made “on request” of that community.
Thomas: EMU RUNNER was made with and for the Brewarrina community. The process of making the film has been equally important as the end result. It was a platform to bring people together, to tell a story that reflected their lives, their community, their country and the rich culture of its First Nations People. Positioned near the banks of the Barwon River, Brewarrina is home to a large Indigenous community.
Is this community a geographical thing or does it go beyond geography?
Thomas: It is the traditional land of the Ngemba, Murrawarri, Ualari, Weilwan and Baranbinja people. Brewarrina was where these tribes came together to partake in ceremonies as well as to enjoy the abundance that the river had to offer, utilising the stone fish traps that have been there for over 40,000 years. Sadly, due to a savage drought and poor government management, the river is in very bad shape. This has a huge impact, as without water these communities really struggle and their very existence is at risk.
In this community you found advisors to help you with the script?
Thomas: The script for EMU RUNNER was developed over many years in close consultation with members of the Brewarrina Indigenous community, in particular Frayne Barker, the Director of the Indigenous Preschool. Frayne was my first sounding board with ideas. She would often direct me to Elders, who had the cultural knowledge and the lore of the country. It was through Frayne’s encouragement that I set upon telling the story from an Indigenous child’s perspective. We both felt it would be the most compelling entry point to examine the impact that loss and grief has on lives. We wanted a story that showed the depth of a child’s sorrow as well incorporated the rich cultural connections to a country, as that is where solace and healing happens.
How did you maintain the balance between ‘personal’ and ‘communal’?
Thomas: Loss is such a huge part of the lives of all my Indigenous friends. Sadly, when we catch up, the first piece of news my friends usually impart to me is about a recent death in the community. Often it is a young person that has died. EMU RUNNER in many ways is my response to the fragility that life presents for Indigenous people in Brewarrina.
The film surprises the audience with sudden introspective moments, often close-ups of objects of nature: a flower, a tree, a feather, a cloud,…
Thomas: The whole story rests on the natural world. It is nature that holds many of the answers for Gem. It was important to not only explore the hardships faced by this girl but to also celebrate the awe-inspiring beauty of her world. In so many ways the country, with all its elements, is a character too. It has a voice, such as the bird song, the cricket’s pulsating hum and the babbling sounds of the river. A powerful voice that Gem’s ancestors have listened to for thousands of years. The lessons Gem takes from nature are vital for her to be able to carry on after her mother’s death. I hope that instilling a love for nature might be a way to engage audiences to be more open to the wisdom of our First Nations people who have been far more successful as protectors of the natural world.
The landscape is often so dry that it hurts the eye.
Thomas: I began principal photography of EMU RUNNER in August and September of 2017, the Australian winter. Brewarrina was in drought at that time and it still is today. Even with such harsh climatic conditions I was amazed at how the natural world revealed its strength and resilience.
Does this drought come with extra challenges for recording a film?
Thomas: In the summer I returned to Brewarrina with a skeleton crew to do some pick up shots. In the middle of the day the temperatures reached 48 degrees - it was crippling heat. This meant we could only work with the young cast in the early hours of the morning, for a limited time. At 7am it was already 31 degrees.
What is the reason behind Gem’s fascination for emus?
Thomas: The emu is Gem’s totem animal. An indigenous person’s totem animal is passed down from their mother. It also means they have a responsibility to watch over and protect the animal. The first time I saw an emu I was completely mesmerised. Flightless these birds may be, but ultimately, they are a symbol of speed, agility and grace. They are always moving forward, as Gem must. They hold another valuable life lesson for Gem and her family, as it is the male emu that is fully responsible for raising the young, just as Gem’s father finds himself fully responsible for his children.
How did you work with the emus on set?
Thomas: We shot all the footage at an emu farm, about a four-hour drive from Brewarrina. Emus are very unpredictable and cannot be easily trained. But they do have a curious nature, which worked to our advantage. We did not work with just one emu, rather we worked in a fenced paddock where there were hundreds of birds. Trying to keep just one bird in our frame and avoiding the other emus and the telling signs of the farm, such as fences and water troughs was always a challenge. The other challenge was making the location match the Brewarrina landscape.
How realistic is the picture of failing governmental institutions that you paint in the film?
Thomas: EMU RUNNER is a fiction film. I have made dramatic choices that I hope will inspire discussions about how governmental institutions can work better with Indigenous communities. When writing EMU RUNNER it was never about pitting people against one another and creating a narrative of division. I am fully aware that Australia has a long way to go in regard to its social justice for Indigenous people. But Frayne Barker and I believed it was important that EMU RUNNER delivered audiences at the end of the film to a place that offers hope and the potential for change. Overtime, I have found spending more time listening is the key to better understanding.
There is a lot of running to be done for Gem. Was it physically challenging for Rhae-Kye Waites, who plays Gem?
Thomas: Rhae-Kye is naturally athletic. Even so, filmmaking requires doing several takes of a particular action, and in some instances, we were limited, as Rhae-Kye would get very tired. Sometimes that would mean we could only get one or two takes for a set up. This was the case for the final race so this meant the crew had to be on top of their game. EMU RUNNER was made with a micro-budget and a small crew. It demanded of all the crew a greater level of inventiveness and creativity due to the limited resources we had at our disposal. EMU RUNNER sounds like a race, and that is how the project felt like, and it became a long distance run. Somewhere we had to take a deep breath, make sure we didn’t get a stich, we had to maintain this rhythm and energy level and we just couldn’t let it fall away. We were very fortunate that Rhae-Kye had an incredibly supportive family. Their support throughout the filming was absolutely vital.
Over the years the role of cinema has been utterly important to carry out the stories of Indigenous people in Australia.
Thomas: I am a story teller at heart. I would like to believe cinema has the ability to affect real social change. What cinema can do extremely well is be the launching pad for a conversation about the ideas that underpin a story. Hopefully that conversation will lead to something positive and constructive. Watching EMU RUNNER, I hope audiences come to understand the adversities which arise from living in a remote community as well as marvel in the richness of our First Nation’s Culture and the beauty of the Australian landscape. What we hope to deliver for the community, ultimately, is bringing the story back to them, so that they can see themselves reflected up on the screen. It’s a fiction film, it doesn’t represent anyone in particular, but it represents everyone’s story.