An Afghan cameleer and an Australian thief join forces in this thoughtful Western

The Furnace

Source: Arclight Films

The Furnace

Dir/scr: Roderick MacKay. Australia. 2020. 116mins

Debut feature writer-director Roderick MacKay mines the rich history of his Australian homeland for this weighty, surprising and beautifully made tale of the Gold Rush which consumed and transformed the Western outback in the 1850s. Told through the experiences of a young Afghan camel driver who falls in with an Australian gold robber, The Furnace weaves this unusual viewpoint into a standard Western narrative to compelling effect.

The strength of MacKay’s film is in its meticulously researched depiction of the mix of cultures and religions.

Making its debut in this year’s Venice Horizons, the film is likely to win attention for its sensitive exploration of a little-known area of Australian history, as well as its roster of strong performances. Following in the footsteps of recent films like Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and Justin Kurzel’s True History Of The Kelly Gang, which both deal with this tumultuous period of Australian history with a similarly modern sensibility, this Screen Australia and Western Australian Regional Film Fund-supported production should attract audiences both at home — where it will be distributed by Umbrella Films — and overseas.

Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek (a Screen Star of Tomorrow in 2018) is immediately engaging as Hanif, a wide-eyed young Afghan cameleer who, like many of his Middle Eastern and Indian countrymen, were brought to Australia by the British crown to work camel trains for exploration and freight purposes. After Ahmed witnesses the murder of his friend and mentor Jundah (Kaushik Das) by a white Australian who takes offence at their religious customs, the young man finds himself even more adrift in this strange and lawless land.

Chancing upon another injured white native, Mal (David Wenham, excellent in a role written specifically for him), Ahmed takes him back to the Aboriginal tribe who have become like his second family. When Ahmed realises that Mal is in possession of stolen gold, he makes the decision to accompany Mal on his journey to “the furnace”, where the Crown-stamped gold can be melted down into an anonymous bar, for a share of the spoils which he can use to return home. With a newly-formed and somewhat maverick group of law enforcement officers on their tail, led by the aggressive Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan), it’s a journey fraught with danger — and, for Ahmed, a great deal of soul searching.

The strength of MacKay’s film is in its meticulously researched depiction of the mix of cultures and religions which helped to shape Western Australia during this time of unfettered expansion. Casting indigenous actors in key roles, and featuring several languages including the indigenous Badimaya, Pashto, Punjabi and Cantonese (all subtitled), provides an authenticity which helps explain how these disparate groups lived alongside each other. The displaced Afghan community, for example, found a great deal of kinship with the Aboriginal people, with shared traditions of storytelling forging an essential and lasting bond.

Cleverly, MacKay has framed this snapshot of history in the traditional Western narrative of a thief on the run from the law, which gives the story its energy and also underscores the tensions at its heart. While the white Australians and the recently arrived British, Scottish and Irish settlers may be suspicious of the “Ghans” and “Chinks”, they too are equally as adrift, desperately trying to plant their flag and find a place to call home on this unforgiving frontier. “There is no grace of God here, son”, Mal tells Ahmed. “There’s just the land and all its spoils.” And, of course, this is land that the Aboriginal tribes are struggling to hold onto, their spears no match for the marauding white man’s muskets.

This land, which both unites and divides these men, certainly offers plenty of spoils for cinematographer Mick McDermott, whose camera drinks in the hazy, unending horizons, the earth stained red with dust and blood, the glistening gold for which men will lose their minds and abandon their morals. Mark Bradshaw’s echoing, ominous score feeds into this beautiful, foreboding landscape; a place where the oppressive vacuum of night is often punctured by the howl of a wild dog or the crack of a gunshot and where, notes an Afghan cameleer, “even the stars are backwards.”

Production companies: Southern Light Films, Meaning Maker, The Koop

International sales: Arclight Films

Producers: Timothy White, Tenille Kennedy

Editing: Merlin Eden

Cinematography: Mick McDermott

Music: Mark Bradshaw

Main cast: Ahmed Malik, David Wenham, Jay Ryan, Erik Thomson, Baykali Ganambarr, Mahesh Jadu