The Furnace — 1890s WA racism dramatised

The Furnace stars Ahmed Malek. Photo: The Furnace/Facebook

The Furnace
Written and directed by Roderick Mackay
Starring Ahmed Malek, Trevor Jamieson, David Wenham, Jay Ryan, Mahesh Jadu, Kaushik Das

In English, Badimaya, Pashto, Punjabi, Cantonese (with English subtitles)

Put simply, the narrative of The Furnace is a road trip (by camel) mixed with a western-style shoot-'em-up centred on stolen gold. There are moral quandaries and conflicts along the way, with goodies and baddies shading through the grey zones of human failings.

What raises it far above the ordinary is its setting in the wild days of 1890s Western Australia – the ‘killing times’ – when Aboriginal people were massacred wantonly and camel trains criss-crossed the colony suppling outback settlements. It portrays the different pressures on people and how they struggled to cope or escape.

As is noted in the film’s credits, to this day many Aboriginal people in the Outback carry Afghan and Sikh names from the interactions between the cameleers and the locals. That they were together subjected to racism helped forge bonds.

The crucible of that history is what is really on show in The Furnace.

There are some wonderful scenes, such as when Afghan and Sikh camel drivers Hanif (Ahmed Malek) and Jundah (Kaushik Das) are around a campfire speaking entirely in the Aboriginal language, Badimaya, with Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr).

Another powerful component is the landscape (complete with flies sticking to people's eyes).

The arid plains around Mount Magnet, the steep gorges among the nearby ranges and oases surrounded by date palms that grew from seeds dropped by camel drivers all draw in the viewer. It is a pity the production did not have a story thread incorporating a period of springtime when that stretch of country is a carpet of spectacular wildflowers.

There are more than 30 characters, so it is quite an epic. However, being a study of men navigating a wild, violent culture, there is only one significant female character, who gets very little screen time. It is a pity, because she is one heck of a woman.

There is enough mystery and story twists to keep you hooked, enough scenery to feast your eyes upon and enough complexity in the characters to keep it emotionally real. It is a very satisfying cinematic experience.

The Furnace opens the Perth Festival film season on November 30. It will go into nation-wide cinema release on December 10 and is not to be missed.