In Emu Runner, nine-year old Gemma (played by newcomer Rhae-Kye Waites) is a Ngemba aboriginal girl growing up in the NSW town of Brewarrina, some 800 kms north of Sydney. She is devastated when her mother dies during a fishing expedition to the local river. Gemma’s father Jay Jay (Wayne Blair, a filmmaker in his own right with the award-winning crowd-pleaser The Sapphires to his credit) tries to hold the family together. Gemma’s older brother Ecka (newcomer Rodney McHughes) works with their father, but finds himself getting in trouble when he gets mixed up with drugs and a local white girl. Gemma is good at running though and could potentially be a winner at the school competition.
Gemma is fascinated by some emus that roam around the outskirts of town. They are very fast and Gemma chases them. She bonds with one emu in particular and also steals food to feed it. But then the well-meaning but inexperienced social worker Heidi (Georgia Blizzard, from Thor: Ragnarok) and policeman Stan (Rob Carlton, from Chandon Pictures) get involved as they misinterpret both her actions and her father’s response to their concerns.
A coming of age drama dealing with some universal themes of grief, survival, resilience, family, culture and tradition, community, racial tensions, and connectivity to nature, Emu Runner shares an affinity with similar films like Whale Rider and Storm Boy. But the film’s subtext also explores that disconnect between indigenous culture and the way in which white people judge them and view their actions.
This is the debut feature film for writer/director Imogen Thomas, who has made a handful of short films. She is familiar with Brewarrina and its people, having shot her 2008 short film Mixed Bag there, and she worked closely with the local indigenous population to ensure the cultural sensitivity of the material. She builds empathy and understanding. The emu itself holds particular significance for the aboriginal people, and the fact that it can’t move backwards is a potent metaphor for what Thomas is trying to convey through the film.
Emu Runner has been beautifully shot on location by cinematographer Michael Gibbs, and the town itself becomes another character. The music score from Ben Finke and Glenn Skuthorpe is evocative.
Thomas brings out some good performances from her non-professional cast, many of whom are drawn from the local community. The charming and engaging Waites makes for a memorable Gemma with her childlike innocence, and, although at times her performance does seem a bit tentative, she is the emotional glue that holds the film together. Blair is solid as the understanding and patient Jay Jay.
Emu Runner is another fine example of indigenous storytelling that reminds us of the centuries old traditions and cultures that have formed this beautiful country.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film