The Furnace: a tale of the forgotten history of Aussie Muslim Cameleers starring David Wenham and Ahmed Malek

4 min read
21/11/20 10:41 AM

The Furnace – the Australian film produced by Timothy White starring David Wenham and Ahmed Malek. Making its mark on the Venice film festival in the year of covid. The must watch movie for any Aussie with an identity crisis (or not). 

As an immigrant Muslim Australian with origins in South Asia, Middle East or anywhere else in the world, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with my identity in Australia. I’ve loved what we stand for – I’ve loved the freedoms that Australia has given me – and I’ve loved what being an Australian means. We have a special place in the world – we are surf loving, carefree and speak our minds – even if its to authority.

Yet, for the several decades I’ve been a naturalised Australian, I’ve somewhat felt like a little bit of an outsider – never really fitting in – never being truly Australian.The Furnace changed all that! It was one of the most transformative movies I’ve watched in the past several years – it made me proud of my unique Australian identity and more importantly, made me feel at home in a country which, despite its harsh demeanor, is really such a melting pot of the wierd and wonderful – and it has been just that for the past several centuries, not just the last fifty years.

In the Furnace, director Roderick Mackay illuminates the forgotten history of Australia’s ghan’ Cameleers, who traversed the harsh existence terrains of Western Australia during the 1890s gold rush. The British empire exported camels and their handlers to the nation’s vast deserts. The Cameleers were pre-dominantly from Afghanistan, Persia and greater India and their job was to ferry supplies between settlements and the gold mines, often forming unique bonds with local aboriginal people who they sought out for guidance. Stories abound about how the cameleers were welcomed to the tribes and assimilated into communities in this new land.

In the Furnace, these stories are brought to life in a dazzling array of bright and colourful, yet brutal, scenes from the outback. Blue skies and rugged hot desert terrain combine to really make the scenes come to life. Try to watch this in the wide screen if you can! Its worth it.

Besides the beautiful cinematography (which was a feast for the eyes), the Furnace also spun a beautiful gripping unlikely hero’s tale laced with multiple layers of meaning, which had me engaged throughout.

Hanif (Ahmed Malek), the central character in the film, plays the Afghan cameleer – the ”ghan’, a catch-all stereotype that covered Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus alike. An intense Egyptian actor, I was impressed with how the producers and directors ensured that the recitation of Qur’anic verses by Ahmed were accurate and with the appropriate pronunciation and process, a reverence for authenticity rarely seen on the big screen.

The movie sets off with dramatic suspense, as Hanif witnesses his Sikh friend Jundah (played by Kaushik Das) get gunned down by a racist, angry that the nomads used his well. Hanif almost suffers the same fate until his Aboriginal friend Woorak (played by star Baykali Ganambarr) throws a spear directly at the heart of the racist killing him. The background of the story is that Hanif and his Sikh men friend break away from their imperial masters to set out to do business on their own. As his Sikh friend is murdered, he questions what he doing all of this for and almost loses faith in the process. This sets Hanif off in a search for meaning and faith once again. I felt this was a unique and deep connotations of the challenges we all go through, as people of faith, as we battle the challenges we face.

As he wanders the lawless land with his camels, he stumbles across an injured outlaw Mal (played by David Wenham), who has recently stolen a bag of the Crown’s gold bars. Hanif, disillusioned from his foray into trading, is enlisted by Mal to help the outlaw to deliver the gold to Kalgoorlie, where there is a Secret Furnace to remove the mark of the crown 400oz crown, promising Hanif a cut for his support.

Hanif obliges, seeing this as his opportunity to return back to his homeland. He leaves behind the protection of his Aboriginal family, who welcomed him as one of their own.

The two men set off on a harrowing adventure towards the Furnace, all the while being chased by a team of British troops, including the zealous police Sergeant Shaw (played by Jay Ryan) following close behind.

They eventually make their way to a covert Chinese encampment hidden away in the middle of a lush oasis. Along the way, Mal is being chased by his literal ‘demons’ – a dark clothed ‘gothic’ fair and tall man accompanied by a skilled Aboriginal tracker, out to almost redeem Mal of his past sins. And the suspense continues..

The film is refreshing in how it captures the nuances of various Asian identities, with conversations about the differences in cultures and sects of Asia – the Afghan pashto, the punjabi, the farsi speaking Shia and the Sunni Asians.

Ultimately, the Furnace shines because of its narrative of the plight of men like Hanif often lost in the history books, their interaction and eventual assimilation with Aboriginal tribes, interwoven so skillfully with the undertones about losing faith and what it means to be part of a tribe.

To see the Aboriginal tribes and different Asian communities engaging with each other – sometimes welcoming new members where they ascribe to their values – can remind us much about what it means to belong and our own tribes. As societies, tribes provides the cultural bonds and strength in security that we often lack in today’s modern settings. Yet, it is part of our identity, as Australians, as Muslims, as descendants of Asian or Arab ethnic groups and there is no need to shy away from those identities.

As a person of Asian descent and Muslim by faith, proud to be an Australian, this movie gave me a distinct confidence – of my belonging to Australia and empowered me to project my voice and effectively contribute to the future of Australia.

As Crescent Wealth, we are proud to have supported the production of this movie and welcome more efforts to display the many narratives of Australia’s rich multicultural history, where we as Asians and Muslims contributed our lot to build this wonderful country we call home now.

We hope you enjoy this movie as much as we did!