In 2003, Imogen Thomas found her way to Brewarrina, a small town in North West New South Wales, Australia, with plans to work on an art project at the Ourgunya women’s shelter, finding that having a young daughter gave her something that could break the ice with largely indigenous women that she met there. A white woman from Sydney, Thomas knew she might initially be viewed skeptically when stepping into a delicate situation in Brewarrina where violence against the Aboriginal community had been part of its heritage, dating back to the 1850s when over 300 were slaughtered by white settlers, and women, in particular, were seeing an unwelcome return of cases of abuse in recent years. Thomas had partnered with Frayne Barker, the administrator of the indigenous preschool, to facilitate conversations with the women, both hearing their stories and seeing with her own eyes how they had been compromised in so many ways by societal conditions that they had no involvement in bringing upon themselves, and she was inspired to find an artform that could involve the entire community, landing on the production of a short film called “Mixed Bag” in 2008, channeling Thomas’ own experience of having her own subconscious biases upended by spending time there.

“The Emu Runner,” Thomas’ first feature made by popular demand amongst the Brewarrina community, takes an opposite tact, viewing the world through the eyes of a young girl named Gemma (Rhae-Kye Waites) whose mother abruptly passes away for inexplicable reasons, though being bereft of proper health care surely didn’t help. Gemma may not yet fully savvy to the ways of the world, but she has reason to be suspicious when she draws the attention of a white social worker concerned for her well-being after (understandably) acting out in class following her mom’s death, in spite of having a perfectly dutiful father (Wayne Blair) at home, and as Thomas trains the lens on the stoic, resilient Waites, you come to understand how even the most seemingly simple aspects of life are exacerbated by racial tensions and the extraordinary strength it takes just to get up in the morning and live in a world where the odds have been stacked against you.

Although Thomas is credited as director, she’s quick to give full credit to the Brewarrina community for making “The Emu Runner” and there is both an undeniably beauty and authenticity that comes from hearing their voice directly as a largely nonprofessional cast breathes life into the film. Shortly after its triumphant premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Thomas and Mary Waites, who plays Gemma’s grandmother in the film and a relative in real-life to the actress Rhae-Kye, spoke about how a unique collaboration between the filmmaker and the people of Brewarrina led to a one-of-a-kind film.

Rhae-Kye Waites in "The Emu Runner"How did this come about?

Imogen Thomas: I’ve had a relationship with the Brewarrina community since 2003 and I’ve known Mary for 15 years another indigenous woman from the community, Frayne Barker, so it’s been a slow burn in the sense we’ve spent a lot of time developing the script. Through that process, we wanted to tell a story which touched on some of the issues of the community, but also was positive and transported everyone to a place of hope.

[With the short,] the whole thing was to see if we could make a film in the community and how that would work, so it was almost a trial by fire, trying to engage a broad cross section of the community. Everyone got very excited by the response to that little film, so a lot of the people that collaborated on the short film [then] thought, “Let’s try, and make something a little bit more ambitious. Let’s make a feature film.” So that started the ball rolling.

How did the story emerge?

Mary Waites: In Brewarrina, we’ve had a lot of loss. A lot of our people pass away, and it’s very sad, and it just doesn’t affect one person or family. It affects the whole community, and Brewarrina covers a whole area [with all these] little communities [so there are] all these other little towns are affected by when there’s mourning.

Imogen Thomas: We tried to go through conventional pathways to try and make this film, and we’d get a bit of traction, but then it’d fall away, so I was at a bit of a crossroads. What do I do? I didn’t know how to drive the project forward. Mary visited me in Sydney last year, just doing our regular catch up and one of the things she revealed to me was that a little girl who was in a teaser [trailer] I made in 2013 to help promote the film, her mother had died. It was really shattering news and Mary just turned to me, and said, “So, when are we gonna make this film we’ve all been working on?” I was tired of giving excuses why we couldn’t, so I just said to her, “Okay. You’re right. We need to make this film. Even if I shoot it on my iPhone, and I get my partner to do the sound, we’re gonna make this film.” As soon as I made that commitment, it has had this incredible traction where people have just gone, “We can help you. The worst someone can say is ‘No,” but that’s just one door shuts, and another might open, so it’s been that sort of a process.

But it really was realizing that life is very fragile. When I’d had someone that’s associated with the project dying, it really brought home to me how important this issue is for this community, and that there is a huge life expectancy for indigenous people that’s curtailed because of lots of health issues. Even the pastor, who delivers the sermon in the film, said to me [before filming], “Do you know how many people I’ve buried in this Brewarrina community?” This is a community that’s not a very big community. It’s just under 2,000 people. He said to me, “I’ve buried 36 people in 2016.” So we wanted to tackle this issue in a sensitive way. We thought that a child’s perspective would be a great entry point for audiences to experience that incredibly emotionally rocky terrain.

Grief is incredibly debilitating for all of us. It’s one of those things we all have to face at some point in our lives, but for this community, they have to face it on such a regular basis. It is such a common thread of every conversation I have. When I reconnect with the community, the first thing they tell me is, “Oh, you won’t believe it such and such has passed away.” It’s really, really sad. It really brings it all home to us how we need to get this story out.

As the opening title card notes, that must be hard when there’s such sensitivity around death in the indigenous community in the first place. Was that something to be particularly careful of?

Imogen Thomas: There’s a lot of protocols. We had this discussion during the film, how we were going to do the funeral scene and the challenges with that. [We thought] initially how we [might] stage this scene as a procession, but then unfortunately, there’d been two deaths in the community, so the funeral agents in the two smaller towns couldn’t assist anymore, so we had to re-stage it and think about it. It is very sensitive. It’s very important, in [indigenous] culture to bury the dead rather than cremating the dead and [we were] talking to elders in the community about having permission to shoot in the cemetery [where] we had to be sensitive of things like making sure that the scene did not show anyone else’s grave. [Everything] went through all the elders and all the way through, any cultural references we’ve had to liaise, and talk to people, and ask them what’s the best way to represent this.

Mary, there are a lot of Waites in the credits. Were you recruiting fellow family members to be in the film, or were they naturally coming out to be in this?

Mary Waites: They just naturally came out. Imogen had to do auditions and a couple of my family members came along. I didn’t think they would, but they did and it’s good that they did. Part of it was being there for Rhae-Kye [who plays the lead], because I believed that when she knew that she had family — she had us — to love and support her through it all, that gave her the encouragement, and the push to continue to go on, and to finish it. There was some ups and downs we had with her as actor. But she had family there and she did it.

Imogen Thomas: As you can see, Rhae-Kye Waites is a force to be reckoned with and she’s done a beautiful job, but it was a huge undertaking for a little girl of 11 [since] the story is seen through her perspective. She is in predominantly every scene and for a five-week shoot, six days a week, to launch yourself into that workload that would be hard for anyone, especially if you’ve had no prior experience in front of the camera. So having these relationships she was very comfortable with [gave us something to] rest on. It was quite an emotional journey for all of us.

A scene from Imogen Thomas' "The Emu Runner"Wayne Blair is in the film and when there’s a mix of professional and non-professional actors, what’s it like fostering an environment where it feels natural?

Imogen Thomas: Wayne read the script, and fell in love with it, but his big concern as an actor, was that his performance matched the raw talent from the community, which in some ways is very nuanced and very intuitive. He’s also a very celebrated director, and he was really concerned about [the fact that] actors’ processes are very different. People in the community are working from their pure instinct and experience and Wayne comes with a whole lot of techniques, which is interesting to watch and to work with as a director, so we had to get this balance, so that his performance didn’t sit outside that performance style and vocabulary, which is very subtle. That was his note to me, “Please tell me if I don’t match them or If you’re feeling like I’m up here, and it’s looking incongruent.” It’s been very important to Wayne, even in post-production, and because Brewarrina is so far away geographically, you’re looking at a two-day trip. It’s 815 kilometers from Sydney, so sometimes we couldn’t have community representation in the editing suite, but Wayne was 100% available and he not only brought his experience,as a director to the table, but also as a proud indigenous man. He could be their voice as well [to a degree], and step back and look at things and guide me. It was very much a collaboration on every step of the process.

One afternoon [before filming], everyone came for a readthrough and I gave everyone their scripts with a highlighter pen, and a pen. It was nearly three hours, stopping, and starting, and discussing things as we were going through it. That process was really wonderful, how everyone read it and then they would go, “I don’t think I would say it like that, but I know what you’re trying to get at.” So everyone had an opportunity to rewrite the script, so that the lines sat well in how they would say it and massaged the voices that were in the film. You write things on paper and you might think this is how you want something, but then Rhae-Kye doesn’t shed a tear in the film, and I ask you do you not feel her sorrow and her pain in that? You feel it. It’s so crippling the pain she’s going through, so [it was remarkable] watching how she took the scenes.

Mary, was there anything that was important for you that comes across in the film?

Mary Waites: With the film now, I see the community is healing because with the loss of a loved one in our little community, we found it hard to get back into society, because people still have all the hurt and the pain. We struggle. And what touches me now is hopefully that this film is part of the healing that will take place and really open people’s eyes and ears to the struggle [we’re facing]. We struggle with racism. There’s still some of those things that still go on. We’re know that it’s everywhere. When anything happens in Brewarrina, in the other little communities, when there’s a loss, we all come together as one. That’s with the indigenous, and the non-indigenous people. We all just come, as one, to mourn this lost loved one, to come together for healing to take place in everyone’s lives.

I know Toronto is the world premiere, but have you had a chance to actually sneak a screening in Brewarrina yet?

Imogen Thomas: No. We haven’t yet, because this [TIFF premiere] has taken us by surprise. When we made this film, with and for the Brewarrina community, we were always hopeful that we would reach other audiences, but our first priority is the Brewarrina community. There’s a big grand football final, [so we’re] trying to set a date where everyone will be in town and everyone is very excited about it coming up. It’s just a time to celebrate, and to showcase what a community can do. This film it wouldn’t have happened without community, from the person that owns the supermarket to the mechanic, to just people saying, “Look. You can stay in our house” because we didn’t have any money. We made it with no budget. We really had to draw on the Had we not had all that, we wouldn’t have a film and that makes everyone feel very invested it. I feel like I’m working for the Brewarrina community, rather than myself. We feel like we’re working to create something for everyone.

“The Emu Runner” does not yet have U.S. distribution.