There’s a scene in director Imogen Thomas’ debut feature Emu Runner, where nine-year-old Gem (Rhae-Kye Waites) is searching through boxes of junk in her family shed, tapping empty milo tins and glass bottles for something that can replicate the sound of an emu. She eventually finds an old tin box and gets the hollow whooping noise she needs: the emu she has befriended following her mother’s death responds to the call.
It’s a moment of resourcefulness, where we trust that Gem knows what she’s doing, even if we don’t. It’s a moment that echoes the film’s inventiveness within its own constraints: Emu Runner was made on a shoestring budget, more than 800 kilometres from Sydney, and found practical solutions to the difficult and sometimes philosophical problems of making a film for, and with, a remote community.
Emu Runner is the result of more than 15 years collaboration between Thomas herself and the Brewarrina community. “I had been developing Emu Runner for some time,” recalled Thomas. “I had some traction but I hadn’t been able to realise it,” she says. The director first travelled to the region in 2003 as part of an arts initiative, working with the Ourgunya women’s shelter, before returning to Brewarrina in 2008 to make a short film, Mixed Bag, and again in 2013, filming a teaser for what would become Emu Runner.
But the real catalyst to make the film came in early 2017, when Thomas received a visit from Mary Waites, a Brewarrina local who appears in both Mixed Bag and Emu Runner (and is also Emu Runner star Rhae-Kye Waites’ grandmother). Waites told her that the girl who had been initially cast in the 2013 Emu Runner teaser had recently, like the character of Gem, lost her mother.
“I was quite shattered by the news,” Thomas explains. “And I was really without words, and Mary just turned to me and said ‘I think we need to make this film – I think it’ll be really important for healing in the community’…and so I felt I couldn’t really provide her with any more excuses.”
Emu Runner follows Gem, who copes with the loss of her mother by befriending a wild emu, and her father Jay Jay (Wayne Blair), who clashes with his family and government social services to keep his kids. Gem’s quest for the emu’s friendship, stealing food from bins and skipping school, attracts the attention of social worker Heidi (Georgia Blizzard), who uses Gem’s behaviour to justify removing her from her family.
While Heidi is written as the film’s antagonist, she isn’t a cut and dried villain like Paula Hall in Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016), but part of what Thomas describes as “a very transient population” of social services – someone who “had good intentions, but didn’t really spend enough time to get the full picture.”
Thomas wanted to explore the value that comes with community consultation: “When you come into a community, I think you have to spend a lot of time just listening, rather than doing. I think a lot of the answers to the challenges that are presented in this community can be found in the people and leaders that are in the community, and assisting them in shaping those solutions.”
Shot over five weeks on location in Brewarrina, the film’s cast consists of professional actors like Wayne Blair, Maurial Spearim and Rob Carlton, and locals who were either entirely new to acting, like Rhae-Kye, or had previously appeared in Mixed Bag. This mix of trained and untrained talent “sort of sets a standard to reach,” Thomas says. “Because the non-professional actors could see these professionals coming into their community, performing alongside them, and taking enormous emotional risks…that made it very safe place for the other non-professional actors to expose and reveal their emotions, which are very nuanced and quite subtle.”
Carrying the film is Waites, who at 11 had to manage physical exhaustion (the ‘Runner’ in the title is not a metaphor) with the mental and emotional toll of the story. Thomas stresses the way fiction blends with reality: “This is a fictional film – it’s not her story, but it is her story. She’s seen this narrative play out in her community time and time again, and it’s hit her family as much as anyone else’s in the community.”
Community support for the project was a big part in making the challenging shoot possible, with locals offering insider knowledge of the best locations for good light and access to wild animals, whilst also volunteering equipment and accommodation.
Thomas thinks the remoteness and difficulties of the environment were something to be celebrated. “It was very important to me that the story was really about celebrating and marvelling in country,” she says. “I suppose [Australia’s] stereotype is that it’s a hostile country, but for me what I find so miraculous is what lives in it, even though it looks so uninviting. I get quite over-awed by that resilience. It totally mesmerises me.”
After the lengthy process of getting the film off the ground, Emu Runner had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival, after debuting at Toronto Film Festival, and is now set to play at the Sydney Film Festival.
But for Thomas, the most important and cathartic screening took place late last year in Brewarrina. “We had about 400 people come, which for a little community of just under 1200 people was a great turn out. The hall was throbbing with life, young and old. They’d brought in people from the nursing home, and there were little babies running around,” she says.
“It was an event that brought everyone together – everyone was curious and wanted to come along to this screening and there was a huge turnout from the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community. Everyone was thrilled, everyone was moved and it was sort of the completion of the circle. And all the pain and hard work along the way evaporated for that moment.”
 The only actors who didn’t film on location in Brewarrina were the emus, who were filmed on a farm in Tooraweenah, almost four hours away.
Emu Runner will be playing on Sat 8 June & Sun 9 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard.