EMU RUNNER. Starring: Rhae-Kye Waites, Wayne Blair, Georgia Blizzard, Mary Waites, and Maurial Spearim. Also Lindsay Waites, and Letisha Boney. Directed by Imogen Thomas. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 95 min.
This Australian film is by an Australian Director, and tells the story of the effect of a mother’s death on an Aboriginal family in outback Australia. It is the first feature film of writer-Director, Imogen Thomas, and it extends her established reputation as a director of short films.
The film was made in close collaboration with the Indigenous community of Brewarrina in outback, western NSW, located some 500 miles from Sydney. It is set in the traditional land of the Ngemba, Murrawarri, Ualari, Weilwan, and Baranbinja peoples.
The film shows an Indigenous, isolated community living on the banks of a town river. In that place, a spirited nine-year old girl, Gem (Rhea-Kye Waites), grieves for her mother’s sudden passing, and forms a bond with a wild emu, the totem bird of her ancestors.
Stressed, and grieving strongly, Gem skips school to form a secret friendship with the emu. She steals food to feed it, and uses the emu to reconnect spiritually with her mother, to whom she was devoted. Her behaviour comes to the attention of the authorities, and affects her Indigenous father, Jay Jay (Wayne Blair), who doesn’t know how to handle his daughter.
The film is significant at multiple levels. Steeped in realism, it dramatically communicates the importance and significance of Country for a family in crisis. It has been directed in a style that offers close introspection on the nature of family and community, and it strongly emphasises the importance of community solidarity. It is a simply-made film that impact-fully tells the viewer not to be “quick to judge”. Its cinematography is outstanding, and the film has stand-out acting by Rhea-Kye Waites, who takes the key role of Gem.
The movie opens with shots of Gem watching an emu in its natural environment, together with her older sister, Daphne (Mary Waites), and her mother, Darlene (Maurial Spearim). Darlene is explaining how the bird ties her family together through its stories, but soon after, she dies unexpectedly on the bush-walk. Her children are traumatised, especially Gem, who deals with her sadness by seeking out the bird that is linked to her family as its totem animal. At home, Jay Jay, her father, struggles to cope with his daughter’s grief while trying at the same time to deal with his own sadness. Gem’s behaviour brings both the Police and a social worker to the family door, and Jay Jay resolves to preserve his wife’s memory by doing all he can to keep his family together.
Heidi (Georgia Blizzard) is the naive social worker, who is sent by the Police to help Gem. Her unsympathetic treatment of Gem’s predicament, conveyed by blunt scripting, puts Gem’s family under threat, and increases its personal stress. Gem grows in strength and resilience, however, and develops a sense of identity and place that gives her the courage to cope. At the same time, Heidi is weakened by her lack of understanding of the community that surrounds her, and her incipient racism. Through it all, the Emu remains the symbolic focus of Gem’s grief, and becomes the support for the stress caused by her mother’s death and by Heidi’s insensitivity.
This is a finely detailed film that is photographed, directed and acted impressively, and it has been made by a Director, who is entirely sympathetic to Australia’s Indigenous culture, and committed to it. Imogen Thomas is non-Indigenous and has delivered a film that connects very respectfully to Indigenous cultural life.
The movie aims to help Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples understand each other better, and it explores racial tension in a non-threatening way. It tells a story of grief simply, and in a way that sensitively analyses complex issues surrounding family and identity. Its core messages are about preserving community solidarity, and maintaining unbiased tolerance of cultural differences.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released November 7, 2019