Imogen Thomas’ debut feature-length film, Emu Runner, is the story of a nine-year-old Indigenous girl, Gem Daniels, who lives in a remote Australian town. As she copes with her mother’s unexpected death, Gem finds solace in the company of a wild emu, unwittingly connecting with her mother’s traditional totem animal.
Imogen joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about the film and her connection with the Brewarrina community.
Q: ‘Emu Runner’ starts from a place of loss. Can you tell us about using this tragic event as a starting point and how you approached that as a filmmaker?
A: For well over fifteen years, I have had a strong association with the Brewarrina community. In that time, I have become increasingly aware of the prevalence and the devastating impact that loss has, and continues to have, on the lives of my Indigenous friends. I have seen how that effects individuals, families, the broader community and even beyond that. It’s like throwing a stone in a river; the loss and grief ripples out, touching many lives.
Emu Runner is my response to the fragility that life presents for Indigenous people in Brewarrina.
From the onset, one of the challenges, both as a writer and as a director, was how to represent the relationship between Gem, the story’s central protagonist, and her mother, Darlene. This had to be achieved in a relatively short amount of screen-time. The framework of daily rituals was my starting point and it is during these simple rituals such as digging up bait and fishing that the bonds between mother and daughter are established. It was important that audiences had a strong sense of the mother, so that when she dies so unexpectedly, they too feel the colossal loss with Gem and are emotionally invested in her story.
Representing the death of Gem’s mother required sensitivity. It was a huge emotional undertaking for the cast, especially for the non-professional cast. Having Wayne Blair and Maurial Spearim, both well-seasoned professional actors, working along-side the local cast members was a gift. They were instrumental in assisting me in creating a safe space where raw and honest emotions could be expressed.
Additionally, the crew strived to preserve and respect the space that the performers created, which meant favouring long fluid takes.
As the sun faded on that particular day of the shoot we all may have felt exhausted but both cast and crew knew something quite profound had been created in that moment.
Q: Why did you feel a child’s perspective was the best way to tell this story?
A: At the early stages of the script development process for Emu Runner I explored multiple perspectives and narrative threads. This process was done in close consultation with members of the Brewarrina Indigenous community, in particular Frayne Barker, the Director of the Indigenous Preschool. Frayne was always my first sounding board with script ideas. She would often direct me to Elders, who had the cultural knowledge and the lore of the Country, of Brewarrina.
In many ways, 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 country, as that is where solace and healing happens.
Q: What is the significance of the Emu?
A: The emu is Gem’s totem animal. An Indigenous person’s totem is passed down to them from their mother and with that comes responsibility. They must watch over and protect that animal or living form.
The arrival of the emu after Gem’s mother’s death has both symbolic and spiritual meaning for Gem. There is a real communion between her and this flightless bird. While this friendship offers Gem solace from her grief she also learns over the course of the story that she will have to let go, in that, the emu will return to the bush and take up its own life cycle and journey.
Additionally, there are parallels between Gem’s family life and the emu’s life cycle 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. Like the male emu, Jay Jay Daniels is fiercely protective and is prepared to step up to meet the challenge he has been dealt.
Q: Tell us more about your connection to the Brewarrina community. Were they always welcoming of the film?
A: I have had a longstanding relationship with the Brewarrina community which began in 2003. I initially came to create an art project with an Indigenous women’s refuge, ‘Ourgunya’, which means home in the Ngemba language. From that first engagement, the seeds of many lasting friendships were sewn. It was at that time I met both Frayne Barker and Mary Waites, two women with whom I have had many collaborations with.
Prior to making Emu Runner, I made the short fiction film Mixed Bag with the Brewarrina community in 2008. Frayne Barker was heavily involved in the development of the script, stepping into the role as the Indigenous Script Consultant and Mary Waites played one of the pivotal roles in the story. Mixed Bag bolstered our creative alliance. The community response to this short film was overwhelming positive. It was off the back of its success that I dared to consider making a feature film and I set out on a path to create another custom-made story with the Brewarrina community.
It was always important to Victor Evatt (the lead producer and my partner) and I that the community were involved throughout every phase of Emu Runner’s realisation. From the scripts development, to casting, to location scouting community members were engaged. Even during post-production, we had members of the community and cast sit in on the edit and the colour grade, watching the process and adding their input to that process.
Filmmaking is all about collaboration and Emu Runner has been no different- many hands have shaped and touched this film.
Q: What impact do you feel this film can have on the community and outside perceptions of it?
A: I would like to believe cinema has the ability to affect real social change, that is the idealism in me. What cinema can do extremely well is be the launching pad for the beginning of a conversation about the ideas that under pin 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 beguiling beauty of the Australian landscape.
Q: What is next for you?
A: As a producer Emu Runner still keeps me very busy.
I do have other irons in the fire, scripts that are in development. At this stage I don’t foresee I will be working with animals in the next film, but that may change, as the natural world always seems to find a place in my stories so watch this space.