When settlers began opening up the wild frontier of Western Australia in the 19th century, they relied heavily on immigrant cameleers from India, Afghanistan, and Persia. The predominantly Muslim and Sikh group, commonly referred to as “Ghans,” were instrumental in settling the Outback, but their contributions to the formation of modern-day Australia have largely been scrubbed from history.
“The Furnace” is first-time writer-director Roderick MacKay’s attempt to shed light on that little-known past, with the story of a young man from Afghanistan who falls in with a mysterious bushman on the run from the law with stolen gold. The film stars Toronto Film Festival Rising Star Ahmed Malek (“Clash,” “Ext. Night”), Jay Ryan (“Top of the Lake,” “It: Chapter 2”), and David Wenham (“Lion,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), and has its world premiere Sept. 4 in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival.
“The Furnace” is produced by Timothy White (“I Am Mother”) and Tenille Kennedy (“H Is For Happiness”), and co-produced by Georgia White, with Gary Bonney as associate producer. Arclight Films has worldwide rights, excluding Australia and New Zealand, which are handled by Umbrella Films.
Ahead of the film’s world premiere, White recalled meeting MacKay four years ago, when the director was “looking for a guiding hand to help him mount the film.” The veteran producer was instantly captivated by the multiple layers to the story of an Afghan immigrant searching for his identity in a foreign land. “It really struck a chord with me, because it dealt with a period of Australian history that has largely been neglected,” he said.
The script arrived at a time of heated political discourse in Australia about the arrival of immigrants from the Middle East, which inspired White to put his weight behind it. “I felt that if we could execute it well, [we could] tell a story that was quite classical in nature…to the kind of folk that might not normally entertain notions of having an affinity, having empathy, with a character who’s [Muslim],” he said. “I think the nature of the film really speaks to diversity and inclusiveness.”
Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred Hollywood to support and promote a wider range of voices than it has in the past, the Australian industry is reckoning with its own historical blind spots. White, for one, said he’s “definitely looking to mine the very rich stories that exist outside the more narrow band of focus that many of us have had.” He added: “I’m clearly looking to get outside my own comfort zone, to find stories that make me see the world differently, too.”
Robust funding schemes at the local, state and federal levels have been instrumental in broadening the scope of Australian cinema, particularly with their support of Indigenous, minority, and first-time filmmakers. “Unlike America, we’ve got the privilege of a lot more [programs which]…provide tremendous support, especially to new voices,” said White. Among the public bodies that supported “The Furnace” are Screen Australia, the West Australian Regional Film Fund, film support body Screenwest, and Lotterywest, the state lotto scheme that is also a major source of cultural funding.
Such proactive efforts to diversify the industry have allowed it not only to reappraise its own checkered past, which White said has long “whitewashed” Australian history, but to more accurately depict the country today in all its range and richness.
“The exciting thing with great filmmakers like Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins, Australia’s found an incredibly dynamic voice amongst Indigenous filmmakers,” he said. That’s paving the way for more opportunities for emerging filmmakers from other historically underrepresented communities. “As a producer, I’m really excited to find stories that feel fresh and dynamic, and by that nature, can speak to a real audience globally.”
As a mentor to many younger producers, White sees encouraging signs in a generation that “looks to the world as an audience” at a time when “you’ve got an ability to reach audiences in a way that’s simply phenomenal.” After “I Am Mother,” the sci-fi thriller starring Hilary Swank and produced by White, pre-sold to a number of territories ahead of its 2019 Sundance premiere, Netflix swooped in to acquire the rights for North America and much of the rest of the world—a radical change from how White had been accustomed to doing business in the past.
“As a producer, it was such a thrill to have friends, colleagues around the world, within that first weekend of release, respond to seeing the film,” he said. “The connection with audience is so immediate, and so broad.”
White said many emerging Australian producers are “a lot more savvy about audiences globally, and the fact that…a niche audience in a market that’s 300 million people is a lot more substantial than you’ll find in the local market.” He added, laughing: “I think they’re quite frankly smarter than I was when I started out.”