This remarkable film from talented first-time director Roderick MacKay sheds fresh light on the harsh reality of life in the 1890s Kalgoorlie gold rush.
MacKay’s scrip was inspired by the resourceful cameleers, mainly from Afghanistan, India and Persia, who played a critical role in opening up the Goldfields.
These were lawless times in tough desert country far from civilisation, where the white pioneers were openly racist – not only towards foreigners but also towards the local Aborigines.
Egyptian star Ahmed Malek, in his first English-language film, plays a young Afghan cameleer, Hanif, befriended by a group of desert Aborigines.
They chatter together in the near-extinct Aboriginal language Badimaya, which Malek had to learn, as well as the Afghani languages of Dari and Pashto.
Hanif’s Aboriginal friend Woorak is played by Yolngu actor Baykali Ganambarr, the charismatic Djuki Mala dancer who won praise for his role in the brutal Tasmanian film The Nightingale.
Filmed mainly in the sparse open country around Mt Magnet, The Furnace plays out like an Australian version of the classic Western.
Hanif stumbles on the bodies of massacred Chinese men alongside the shambling, foul-mouthed bushman Mal Riley ( an almost unrecognisableDavid Wenham), on the run for stealing gold.
Lured by the prospect of sharing the wounded Riley’s loot, the cameleer teams up with him.
Hanif’s Aboriginal friends are dismayed when they find the gold bars in Riley’s gear.
“This yellow rock – they go mad for it – break oaths – they kill,” they warn.
The Aborigines melt away, while Hanif and Riley struggle across the burning desert, trailed by a straggle of armed police, led by the ruthless Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan).
Riley is heading for a Chinese family living in a rough bush shack near Kalgoorlie, where they have a secret gold furnace.
If they can melt down the branded gold bars and re-cast them, the new bars would be untraceable.
The climax comes with the inevitable shoot-out – once again the greed for gold spells trouble for all involved.
MacKay keeps up the pace throughout the film, with Mark Bradshaw’s music maintaining a tense atmosphere.
Mick McDermott’s skilful camera work does full justice to the wide open spaces, red dirt and clear blue skies of the WA outback.
MacKay’s refreshing focus on the interaction of the different cultures makes this a compelling film.
It was the only Australian entry to win selection at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in September, when it received glowing reviews.
MacKay and Aboriginal associate producer Gary Bonney braved Covid masks and quarantine time to promote the film in Venice and were delighted by its reception.
The Furnace will have its Australian premiere at the opening of Perth Festival’s LotteryWest film season at UWA’s Somerville Auditorium on Monday, November 30.
From December 10 it will show at Luna Leederville, Luna On Sx, Luna Outdoors and Camelot Outdoors.
Watch the trailer…