So, pretty much wherever you look these days, there’s an Aboriginal film or TV series. Last year’s AACT Awards hailed Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country‘ in just about all major creative categories. And Best TV Drama Series was the Ivan Sen spin-off, ‘Mystery Road’. Neither were actually the best work of these Indigenous auteurs “ but, apparently the results were better than any non-Indigenous competition. And now Deb Mailman is doing it tough as a senator in the ABC’s ‘Total Control’.
But, given the intensity of drama in all three offerings, it’s really hard to put ‘Emu Runner’, a quite intentionally gentle and positive film from the almost-Aboriginal world of Bre (Brewarrina) in the same class. Much effort has been input by non-Indigenous director Ingrid Thomas to get inside this community, with lots of cultural liaison, local actors, the presentation of Bre as a justified Tidy Town winner, along with a heart-warming story. But, to my surprise, the Toronto International Film Festival selected it, as did the edgy Adelaide Film Festival to give it its Australian premiere.
So, what was I missing?
The story is simple. Gemma is the youngest in the family when Mum dies. Nothing spectacular. It’s a hot day fishing; on the way home she keels over. Our first introduction to Gemma is her running like lightning to the refuse depot to get Dad from his work to help. But Mumless, Gem takes to heading bush, where she discovers the local emus. An ancestor was reputed to be able to catch them at full belt; the male emu takes on the early upbringing of the chicks. Just like her Dad “ played by go-to troubled Aboriginal father, Wayne Blair?
The symbols are there; but it’s drought and a fodder shortage that draws Gemma and the birds together. She starts stealing supplies for her favourite, and wagging school. She attempts to draw a hesitant non-Indigenous schoolmate into the game. Nice balance. But it’s only when she’s persuaded to deliver a package from her older brother to his girlfriend that the shit hits the fan. It contains drugs.
The cops and a rather unbelievably towny social worker see her going off the rails big-time, and the latter hauls her off to some distant institution “ driving her herself on a rural dirt road. A chapter of ignorant accidents follows “ leaving Gemma to save the day, building a fire to keep them alive overnight; then running all the way back to town the next day. As family and the authorities gather round to acknowledge Gem’s worth, Dad mildly notes, You people are so quick to judge.
All that running has been good training too. Gemma takes gold at the local school carnival. Actor Rhae Kye-Waites deserves her win. She’s been delightfully believable throughout “ a local Bre girl, with lots of family support if the number if Waites named in the credits is anything to go by, and both acting and running credits to her own name.
This is undoubtedly the film that Brewarrina wanted. Many years of consultation, especially with elder Frayne Barker, have fed into the plot and atmosphere. Not just relentless positivity, but problems like diabetes and Mum’s unexplained death. I suspect any racial tensions in the town have been skated over. And Imogen Thomas “ writer/director/producer and Emu Wrangler “ will have been proud that her family-friendly film both delighted her contacts in Bre and was selected for the important Toronto International Film Festival.