Study guide: Emu Runner
Emu Runner tells the story of Gem, a Ngemba girl, who bonds with an emu as a way of coping with the sudden and devastating death of her mother and the subsequent issues she and her family faces. It is a film about the resilience and strength of Gem, her family and community, despite terrible loss and hardship.
Our study guide targets Unit 1 VCE Media (Australian Stories) but will also support teachers wanting to explore this film as part of their secondary English or Media learning programs. Please note that this gentle film contains understated drug references.
Subjects: Media, English
Year levels: 9, 10, 11
Collaboration with Community
Emu Runner draws on the culture and spirituality of the Ngemba people. It was filmed on location in the remote town of Brewarrina, New South Wales, and was a collaboration between the Ngemba Brewarrina community and writer/director Imogen Thomas.
Watch this short film to find out more about the pre-production and production process.
|1||What roles did Frayne Barker and Mary Waites play in the collaboration? What else did you learn about the collaboration?|
|2||Emu Runner was a collaboration led by women. Why is that appropriate for this project? Why is it important for film collaborations to be led by women?|
|3||Thomas talks about the film providing the people of Brewarrina the opportunity to see themselves reflected up on the screen. What does she mean by this? Why is it important?|
|4||Thomas says that she and Barker decided to tell the story from the perspective of a child. What reasons does Thomas give for this decision? What other benefits might there have been for choosing this perspective for the protagonist?|
Pre-production: Making it happen
Thomas talks about making the film without the necessary finance because of her sense of responsibility to the community:
“...the story felt very pressing and when Mary turned to me, [and said] When are we going to make this film? I didn’t want to give her an excuse why I couldn’t make the film, so I said OK. Let’s make it with whatever resources we can pull together. If the community’s on side, then we can make this film”.
|5||How did Thomas and others working on the project overcome the lack of budget?|
|6||What other strategies might a filmmaker use to cut costs?|
Production: Filming with community
Wayne Blair, a very successful writer, actor and director, fitted Emu Runner into his busy schedule while filming Mystery Road.
The film was made on location in Brewarrina and featured a mostly amateur cast from the local community.
Michael Gibbs’, the director of photography mentioned, “Trying to make our footprint behind the camera as small as possible to give [Rhae-Kye Waites] the freedom to do what she needs to do to bring Gem to life.”
|7||In what ways does a professional well-known actor like Wayne Blair boost a small film like Emu Runner?|
|8||What might have been some of the benefits of filming in Brewarrina with community involvement? What about the drawbacks?|
|9||What do you think Gibbs and the rest of the crew might have done to achieve this?|
Place: Filming on country
The place where Emu Runner was set and filmed is integral to the story, characters and meaning of the film. Sitting by a fire under a star filled sky, Gem tells Heidi the social worker, “I can’t stand being away from home, smells all wrong and you can’t see none of this [sky]”. Community consultant and performer Mary Waites describes her attachment to Brewarrina, “It’s different everywhere else, even though ... I love, you know, going to other communities, Brewarrina is the best.”
"Thomas Mitchell witnessed the massive fish traps on the Darling River at Brewarrina, which some claim are the oldest human-made structures on earth”. Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, p. 68
|10||What are some of the things that make Brewarrina a unique place?|
|11||How are these elements present in Emu Runner?|
Style: The look and feel
The way Emu Runner was made gives it a certain style.
Describe the look and feel of the film.
|12||What colours are prominent?|
|13||What feelings does the film evoke?|
|14||What adjectives would you use to describe the film?|
Research the neorealist and social realism film movements. (A great place to start is this short article from British social realist filmmaker Ken Loach.)
|15||What characterises a neorealist film?|
|16||What are some well-known social realist films?|
|17||What techniques are common in social realist films?|
|18||What aspects of society do social realist filmmakers want to feature?|
|19||What aspects are they trying to critique?|
|20||How does Emu Runner conform to the neorealist and social realist styles?|
Create: It's your turn
Plan a social realist film.
|1||What social issues matter to you? How will you explore these issues through a film about everyday people?|
|2||Decide where the film will be set. It’s helpful to choose a place that you are familiar with.|
|3||Who will your characters be? Remember, social realist films are about ordinary people, not people who are rich or famous.|
|4||What do you want your audience to learn from your film? How will your narrative and the experiences of your characters draw attention to the social issues you are exploring?|
|5||What techniques will you use to make your film look and sound like a social realist film?|
|6||Which everyday locations will you use to film your main scenes?|
|7||What camera angles, camera movement and lighting will you use to make your scenes look realistic, or perhaps bleak or gritty?|
|8||How will your actors dress and speak so that they seem like ordinary people who are struggling to make ends meet or at the mercy of unfair social issues?|
|9||What music (if any) will you use for your soundtrack?|
|10||An effective preproduction tool is a mood board. Use images, words, colours and perhaps soundbites to convey the look and tone of your film. Filmmaker Jason Boone outlines why he uses moodboards and how he creates them here.|
|11||Write a Logline Synopsis for your film as starting point for applying for funding. Screen Australia has useful information about how to write a captivating logline synopsis here.|
Analysis: Reading the film
Analyse these three key scenes to understand how the purpose and process of making the film feeds into the story, visual language and soundscape.
Clip 1: Gem talks to Val
Clip 2: Gem and Tessa feed the Emu
Clip 3: Emu Runner ending
Focus on the visual elements of the scene you are analysing.
|1||Take note of the costuming of characters. What is communicated?|
|2||How does the setting contribute to the narrative?|
|3||How do the props add to our understanding of the characters involved?|
|4||Describe the composition of the characters as a group and in the frame.|
|5||How does what you see work on a symbolic level to communicate meaning?|
Explore the visual language of the film with reference to the way it is shot.
|1||Pay attention to the variety of camera angles used. Are close-ups used? What is their intended purpose? Take note of any other camera angles that convey meaning.|
|2||What different camera shots are used?|
|3||How does the focus of a shot affect the audience’s perception of the scene?|
|4||Are there mobile shots (such as panning tracking, crane shot or dolly shots)? How do these compare with static shots?|
|5||What types of lighting are employed and what is the effect?|
Characters connect viewers to the story and draw out key themes and ideas.
|1||Identify the major and minor characters that drive the narrative in this scene? What purpose do they serve?|
|2||How do the characters interact with each other in the scene?|
|3||How is the relationship between characters represented?|
The soundtrack or soundscape of a film is made up of multiple layers: dialogue, ambient sounds, sound effects and music. What can be heard is an integral part of a film narrative and plays a significant role in building the viewer's response.
|1||What type of sounds can you identify within the scene? How do these sounds complement the imagery and contribute to character development?|
|2||How do these sounds indicate mood, time or action?|
|3||Pinpoint diegetic (part of the film’s story world) and non-diegetic sounds (if used) within the film.|
|4||How does the dialogue build character and story?|
|5||What do the characters’ tone, pitch and selection of words reveal about them?|
|6||How does the music contribute to the narrative?|
- Check out the official website for the film here
- Watch Emu Runner here
- Work through the information and questions in ATOM’s study guideas an excellent way to develop your knowledge of the themes Emu Runner explores.
- The Aboriginal Benefits Foundation Trust, provided some funding for Emu Runner. Their project page outlines their support.
- How did Emu Runner bring opportunities to the local community? Find out in this abc news article.
- “The film willed its way into existence.” Imogen Thomas talks about filmmaking as a form of community engagement, the role of animals in the film, and her choice to tell a story about grief from a child’s perspective in this piece by Gillie Collins.
- “Emu Runner ruminates on the roles of matriarchs and maternal stand-ins for little women missing their biological mothers. This is particularly pertinent in the context of Brewarrina’s Ngemba people. Like many indigenous communities they are matriarchal and are therefore, in many ways, at odds with the patriarchal structure of European colonisation.” Read more of this Metro Magazine article by Aimee Knight here.
- Emu Runner holds the mirror, very bravely, up to nature and reflects a truth for all of Australia.
- Imogen Thomas first engaged with the Brewarrina community when she made her short film Mixed Bag. You can watch it here.
- Explore acmi’s compilation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures resources here.
- What are the best terms to use and why are some words inappropriate or offensive? Find a useful summary of terms here.