MA 15+, 116 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury



Among the memorable moments in the classic film, Gallipoli , there’s a standout that is set in the desert, the Australian heartland. Two young men on their way to enlist in Perth are having a chat with a cameleer they have just run into.

It’s worth revisiting this conversation for its observations on our place in the world, and for the ambivalence it expresses about our Red Centre. It can of course be found on YouTube.

The cameleer doesn’t know that World War I is underway and hasn’t the foggiest idea why countries are fighting. When the pair tell him they are going to join up and travel to Turkey so the enemy won’t end up here, he pauses for a think. Squinting as he surveys the desert plain, the camel driver observes ‘And they’re welcome to it’!

The Furnace, a remarkable first feature from writer-director Roderick MacKay, is set in 1897, a short two decades earlier. A time when whole teams of cameleers plied the vast deserts of Western Australia, carrying supplies to remote mining settlements when the state was in the grip of gold fever.

From incidental character to the centre of the frame, the cameleer emerges as protagonist in The Furnace. The young Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek in the role of Hanif, a camel driver from Afghanistan, brings impressive nuance and depth to this home-grown, gold rush Western.

David Wenham and Ahmad Malek in The Furnace

At the tender age of 15, Hanif had been sent abroad by his family to work. He is clearly still a boy, just as the others say, and has yet to learn to learn how to negotiate the adult world. His expressive features betray his confusion and dismay too well.

His close friend, Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr, from The Nightingale), is a Badimaya man of similar age who helps him find food. Hanif fumbles while handling his rifle. It’s the first thing we find out about him.

Hanif had been safe under the wing of Jundah (Kaushik Das), his avuncular Sikh foreman, until the day a white settler shot him dead. The settler objected to Hanif using water from a well to wash his feet for the Muslim prayer ritual, and Jundah was shot in the process of trying to divert attention away from the boy.

Suddenly alone, Hanif comes across a man badly wounded in a skirmish that left a number of Chinese dead in mysterious circumstances. Hanif’s world truly starts to unravel when he takes up with Mal (David Wenham), purportedly a prospector but, as he carries no tools, most likely a common thief. Wenham’s character doesn’t, unfortunately, extend much beyond caricature.

It transpires that the ‘crazy white man’ is a marked man. Mal has stolen gold in his possession. Two bars’ worth that inconveniently carry a Crown stamp, a dead giveaway.

Incapacitated by his gunshot wound, Mal needs help for the next stage of his plan and inveigles Hanif to be his partner to achieve it. The boy will help Mal reach his destination, a clandestine furnace, in return for one of the bars.

So Hanif becomes an unfortunate partner in crime, indentured to a criminal on a journey through the outback to an undisclosed location. All for the price of the trip home to Afghanistan.

The Furnace is set in Kalbarri, WA, and on location in the Mount Magnet area of the state’s Mid West, home to one of the state’s longest continuously operating goldmines. Mount Magnet began operating in the 1890s.

Another aspect of the film’s authenticity, is the use of languages. Pashto, Punjabi, English, Indigenous Badimaya (an endangered language) and Cantonese would have been heard in WA at the time.

In the 19th century, before rail and road infrastructure in the outback, the camel trains provided a lifeline for remote communities. The cameleers, collectively still known as the ‘Ghans’, came from many countries – Pakistan, Persia, Turkey, India, and Afghanistan – providing indispensable transport and supplies.

Despite the scale of the film’s narrative, with twists and turns and an abundance of characters moving around the landscape, the dramatic tensions hold tight.

The Furnace is impressive, an engrossing and compelling tale. An ambitious undertaking, yes, with many players and conflicting angles. It could have come asunder but a compelling central character, who is engaging, unaffiliated and ready to learn, was a discerning place to start.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 December 2020