Written and directed by Roderick MacKay
Featuring Ahmad Malek, David Wenham, Baykali Ganambarr, Trevor Jamieson, Gary Young, Mahesh Jadu and Jay Ryan
It is very encouraging that the three most critically acclaimed films to come out of Australia over the past three years have been films that tackle the brutal colonial history of the country: Sweet Country by Warwick Thornton in 2018 (the story of an Aboriginal stockman on the run from the authorities in 1920s Northern Territory), The Nightingale by Jennifer Kent in 2019 (the story of an Irish immigrant seeking revenge on Colonial guards in early 19th Century Tasmania) and now, The Furnace by Roderick MacKay.
Here is a story of greed, grief and friendship set in the Mid-West and Goldfields of Western Australia in the late 19th Century. Although the story itself is not based on any factual source, the context does provide a unique insight into a part of Australian history that is often neglected. From the 1860s to the 1930s, cameleers from a number of Middle Eastern countries came to Australia to service the country’s pastoral industry by carting goods via camel trains all across the Outback. The cultural and social imprint created by this immigration has been sizable, but it has also been sadly unexplored in the so-called Australian Story. MacKay’s recent ‘frontier film’ admirably puts it under the microscope by way of an exhilarating drama.
Like Sweet Country, MacKay pitches his film in a revisionist Western-style (although there aren’t many ‘Australian Western’ films in existence to be revised) – it has a culturally conscious narrative, while also making use of violent theatrics and breathtaking scenery. The main protagonist is a young, entrepreneurial camel driver (Malek) whose comrade befalls misfortune prompting him to take a desperate and perilous journey back to his home country in order to seek salvation. His journey companion is a rough and ready gold thief (Wenham), whose motives are shady and his manner even worse.
The casting is diverse. MacKay delights us with a cocktail of cultures all colliding in an inhospitable land in the Australian Outback. The main character is from Afghanistan. His comrade is an Indian Sikh. We also meet characters who are Punjabi, Iranian, Egyptian and Turkish. There is a weird encounter with a cohort of Chinese people. We also hear Irish and Scottish accents amongst the colonial guards. And at the heart of the story (or so it is framed) is the relationship between the main character and a tribal group of First Nations people, presumably ancestors of the Badimaya people who are from the area where the film is partially set (i.e. between Mt Magnet and Sandstone in the Mid-West). The authentic use of multiple languages in the film (Pashto, Punjabi, Cantonese and the endangered Badimaya language) is hugely impressive, and the fact that Malek and Baykali Ganambarr (who is a First Nations actor from another part of Australia) learned to speak Badimayan for their roles is equally impressive.
The film as a whole is well worth a watch. It is a fairly compelling action story with a plethora of twists and turns. The central personal conflict of the young Afghan cameleer is both engaging and enlightening. There are a number of intriguing minor characters that affect proceedings in unexpected ways too. It is indeed crafted very well by MacKay and his crew. The setting of the Mid-West (bush meets desert) is harsh and beautiful in equal measure. The occasional sharp changes between deep darkness and blinding sunlight is an unintentional miscue in photography, and the abrupt violence is sometimes overwrought and not in keeping with the tone of the story. But overall, there are more positives to take away from this. And I am pleased to have recently met one of the Badimayan consultants for the film, who told me that he was extremely proud to see his culture portrayed on the Big Screen for the first time.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5