Roderick MacKay: Stoking Up The Furnace

April 8, 2021
Australian writer/director Roderick MacKay makes an auspicious debut with the politically charged local western The Furnace.

The debut writer and director of The Furnace, Roderick MacKay, discusses the extensive processes that were required to bring his debut feature to life, from collaborating with local communities to quarantining in Rome before the film’s premiere at Venice. Released by Umbrella Entertainment this March, The Furnace delves into Australia’s rich and multicultural history, exploring the little-known role of cameleers during the Gold Rush of 150 years ago.

A scene from The Furnace.

What was it like to have your first feature film premiere at The Venice Film Festival?

“It was an incredible experience…just a real thrill. But for your first film…it’s insane. It’s hard to comprehend. It was also during a global pandemic! All of those things stacked up to make it quite a surreal experience.”

Can you tell me a bit about the process that you underwent to attend the premiere?

“The news of getting into The Venice Film Festival was embargoed until maybe three weeks before we had to get on a plane to get to Rome to quarantine for two weeks, and then go to Venice by train. And, of course, when we returned from the festival back to Western Australia, we had to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel. So there was this mad rush to get travel exemption from the federal government in time to book our flights. It was all a bit touch and go, but we go there. It was quite nice having two weeks to relax and chill in a little apartment in Rome before going to Venice.”

David Wenham and Ahmed Mailk in The Furnace.

What made you decide to focus on this aspect of Australian history in your film?

“I stumbled upon the history of the cameleers by accident one day when I was researching Western Australia’s Gold Rush, which always struck me as a good backdrop for a story. I stumbled upon this picture of a cameleer in his traditional garb, flanked by camels in the otherwise very familiar Australian outback. I just had no idea what I was looking at; I didn’t understand. That was an incredibly cinematic image. I dug deeper into researching and, of course, discovered that the cameleers were here in their thousands at the peak of their population. They weren’t just from Afghanistan; they were also from India and Persia and parts of the Middle East. They were Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men who played a really important role in establishing critical infrastructure for the formation of Australia over 150 years ago. It felt like a huge historic omission that this wasn’t more known. I wasn’t taught it in high school or university. I wanted to do my bit and try to correct this historic omission because it felt really important.”

Ahmed Mailk and Baykali Ganambarr in The Furnace.

This film deals with some hefty themes: greed, addiction, colonisation, racism. Is the film intended to be political at all?

“My mantra is that it’s okay for cinema, for stories, to confront. But I never wanted to have the audience feel like they were being accused of anything. It’s a really important midground to walk. I didn’t want to be political in the sense that I didn’t want to be polemic and divisive about it. Even though the film is a piece of historical fiction, these events – Hanif and Mal running off with stolen gold – didn’t happen. But the kinds of scenarios that the characters brush up against did occur. The film’s meant to be a bit of a historic stew that provides a spiritually authentic representation of this time in Australia’s history. I never wanted to be political, but [The following paragraph contains spoilers of a scene that takes place early in the film] there’s a flashpoint of violence at the beginning of the film where this Sikh character, Jundah, is murdered in cold blood because he came to the defence of Hanif, who is washing his hands and feet in water. Hanif has drawn the eye of this colonial, who is affronted because this guy seems to be washing his stinking feet in his drinking water and they’re in a desert and water is scarce. That scenario is largely informed through a first-hand account that I read of something like that happening, whereby a Muslim man was killed for washing his hands and feet doing Wudu before prayer. Regardless of whether you’re intending to be political or not, representing that and putting it to the screen was important. If people choose to see that as political, that’s up to them. It was about creating an awareness on so many levels that this era in Australian history existed.”

David Wenham and Ahmed Mailk in The Furnace.

This movie took quite a long time to make. How much of that time was dedicated to research?

“The research is where it all began. The start of the process was very research heavy because before I could narrativise this history, I needed to feel like I had a firm grasp on it. That didn’t just include reading books that had any kind of documented history about the cameleers and who they were and what their experience at a colonial frontier was like; it also included going and speaking to members of the Perth Sikh and Muslim communities to seek their blessing and, most critically, their input. Authenticity was just critical for a film like this.”

David Wenham and Ahmed Mailk in The Furnace.

What was that like? Did you show them the script, or did you just want help with certain characters?

“We held a few presentations at a private cinema here in Western Australia, which is called The Backlot, and sent invitations to those communities to come and hear about what we were intending with the project and how we wanted to engage them. That was a fantastic experience. It was incredibly encouraging, particularly with the Sikh community. We were seeing members of that community in the audience well up, with tears in their eyes. People cared about this history and wanted to shine a light on it. Despite the fact that I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed whitefella, that wasn’t an impediment for them once they heard us talk about the history and our passion for it, and our desire to involve them. We had two Muslim consultants and two Sikh consultants on the project. Our associate producer is a Wongatha Kaparn man from Kalgoorlie, which is in the Southern Goldfields that neighbours where the film was actually shot in Mount Magnet, on Badimaya country. We also had a very strong relationship with the Badimaya community at Mount Magnet who were not just involved in the cultural consulting within the script, but also the whole language translation process. It was quite a rigorous multifaceted process of consultation. It was more than consultation, it was collaboration.”

Ahmed Malik in The Furnace.

Would you say that that was a highlight of production? What other aspects of production did you enjoy?

“It definitely was a highlight. I have an incredibly strong relationship with some of the people from those communities now. Some of them were at my wedding; our associate producer was the ring-bearer. I’ve gathered this extended family around me as a result, which is immensely special. Another fantastic moment was the screening at [The Venice Film Festival] on Lido Island. Seeing the faces of our cast projected up on this huge screen at this fantastic festival has definitely got to be a highlight of this whole experience – seeing their faith and their input rewarded.”

What’s next on the agenda for you?

“I’m in the writing cave, developing projects. Some of them are very focused on Australian stories, and aren’t too far removed from The Furnace. Frontier mythology is a really fun world to inhabit as a storyteller and, frankly, we’ve only really scratched the surface of Australia’s little-known history and making those stories better known. All I can say is that I hope it doesn’t take six years again!”

The Furnace is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital now. Click here for our review of The Furnace.

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