Rhae-Kye Waites, Wayne Blair, Georgia Blizzard, Mary Waites, Rob Carlton
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…authentic and grounded…
The importance of the land and the idea of place in Australian cinema cannot be understated, with the likes of the Mad Max films, Wake in Fright, and Picnic at Hanging Rock – among a plethora of others – each having a different portrayal of the Australian landscape and to different effect.
Land in films pertaining to the indigenous community, however, often breathes a life of its own and sits in stark contrast to the often unsettling and grotesque depictions in some of the aforementioned films, and others like Wolf Creek where it becomes entwined with the Horror genre. Imogen Thomas’ debut feature Emu Runner relies on setting in much the same way as films like Charlie’s Country, Sweet Country, and The Tracker do: to forward their stories and create a sense of place.
Emu Runner traces the story of a young indigenous girl, Gem (Rhae-Kye Waites), who, following her mother’s passing, finds herself growing increasingly connected to an emu that seemingly has a connection to her mother. Emus, much like the Australian land itself, are very much etched in indigenous lore and are an extension of the land and its offerings. To Gem, the emu is her connection to the land and by and large, her mother, and it serves to bring guidance and comfort at a time where there is anything but.
Accompanying Rhae-Kye Waites is Wayne Blair who plays her father, Jay Jay, and Blair —an indigenous filmmaker who is no stranger to the indigenous experience in his films – brings a level of professionalism and persona that ultimately elevates those who share the screen with him. Thomas said of Blair that he is a “huge risk taker” and that he took “huge emotional, physical risks in scenes” which “sort of set the benchmark for what was expected in the process [of filmmaking, of performing]”.
The amateur quality of the cast can definitely be felt when Blair is not around (with the film being the first time many of the cast including Rhae-Kye Waites have been in front of a camera), but it allows the film to feel more authentic and grounded. Sure, the themes of grief and loss that the film deals with are universal, but Thomas, much like Rolf de Heer, understands how those themes manifest and stay deep-rooted in Aboriginal culture.
There is also a sincerity in keeping the film so close to the symbols and folklore often associated with indigenous Australians. From the casting of predominately non-professional actors to Thomas’ assertion that she felt like a “facilitator” who was “working for the community” to bring this story to life, Emu Runner never strays too far from its centeredness on the communal threads that inform the indigenous experience.
On the surface, Emu Runner lends itself to a familiar mode of storytelling that is best exemplified by its need to fall out of Gem’s experience and look at how it is affecting those around her. Often, this deviation from Gem’s connection to the land detracts from the study of her relationship with her mother and how she finds meaning in the embracing of her surroundings. At the same time, there are certain neo-realist qualities to the film, like its emphasis on the world above the story and narrative, that render it a welcome addition to this country’s Indigenous inventory of films.