by Helen Barlow

“Perth, I believe, is the most isolated capital city on the planet and it’s not easy if you want to get anywhere. So, we had a flight from Perth to Rome via Doha with facemasks and shields, the whole rig on our faces. By the time I get back home I will have been in quarantine for six weeks, which is as long as the film’s shoot!”

Roderick Mackay, photo by Helen Barlow

First Mackay isolated in Rome with his wife, and associate producer Gary Bonney. “It could have been worse, we had a rooftop apartment overlooking an old part of Rome.” Then they had a four-hour train ride to Venice. In Perth, he’d already quarantined after coming back from South Australia, where he completed the mix of the film, and there will be two more weeks in isolation after the return to Perth.

Still, after watching the wide-screen highly cinematic film, it’s an incredible feat that it was shot in six weeks.

“It was pretty full on, I’m not going to lie. It pushed me to the brink. I feel like I kept my cool, but I had a lot of movie to jam into six weeks. I didn’t get to film everything I would have liked, but that’s common on every film. We had a fantastic crew and a very willing cast, and everyone was prepared to suck it up as they believed in the film and gave it their best.”

He says The Furnace, which sheds light on the forgotten history of Western Australia’s cameleers – predominantly Muslim and Sikh men from India, Afghanistan, and Persia – at the time of the 1890s gold rush, was set “at a time when Australia was trying to figure out who we are as a nation. It’s about the cost of nation building.”

The story focuses on young Afghan cameleer Hanif (Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek), who forms an unlikely bond with a bushman, Mal (David Wenham), who is on the run with two Crown-marked gold bars that he needs to melt down in a furnace. Mal has been shot and the only people Hanif feels can help are his friends from an Aboriginal tribe. He is particularly close to Woorak, played by Baykali Ganambarr from The Nightingale, which also premiered in Venice.

Mackay admits that he had a dream cast that enabled the film to be financed.

“I don’t count for anything, but thankfully I had David Wenham in the film at an early stage. The themes resonate for him and talk around issues that he’s passionate about. I wrote the character for him. There are other fantastic actors like Jay Ryan and Erik Thomson (who play the cops on their tail), but getting Hanif cast proved the greatest challenge. I found Ahmed Malek by Google searching Middle Eastern actors. I was kind of at my wit’s end because he had to be around the character’s age of 24 and finding an actor with emotional intelligence at that age was tricky. Luckily, this guy’s a deep thinker.”

Ahmed Malek, photo by Helen Barlow
Main Photo: Venice’s Alberto Barbera, Roderick Mackay and Ahmed Malek, photo by La Biennale di Venezie – Foto ASAC, Giorgio Zucchiatti

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