Friday, 18 December 2020

The Furnace (2020) - Movie Review

Shitty things about a nation’s history are like ants on the sidewalk: You rarely find just one of them when you start looking, and before long, you find another, and another, and then holy shit, it’s crawling with the fuckers. And over the last few years’ worth of Australian films, we’ve certainly been making a point of unearthing our own past to basically throw a spear right through the collective nostalgia. Sweet Country, The Nightingale, and True History Of The Kelly Gang looked at the colonial side of things, Ride Like A Girl wound up unintentionally exposing its own duplicity within our horse-racing industry, even Below from earlier this year took a speculative look at our recent activity with off-shore detention centres. Today’s film follows in that tradition, managing to find a whole new avenue to convey how much the British put the ‘colon’ in ‘colonialism’, with a look at Afghan cameleers.

Afghan cameleers were camel drivers that were shipped into Australia as basically slave labour, transporting goods between outposts and, more pointedly where this film’s narrative comes to play, couriers for gold deposits. Another group of people who were displaced geographically just so the Brits could make their own jobs easier. And the film starts out on the right footing as it tells this story through the perspective of one of the cameleers in Ahmed Malek’s Hanif, rather than have him be a side character to a white dude as the lead. Sure, there’s David Wenham here as the opium-addicted prospector Mal (easily one of his best character roles to date), but he largely plays second fiddle to Hanif, who gets the proper character arc here.

A Muslim who found solidarity and family among the indigenous population, and taught their language and hunting methods, Hanif is brought into a get-rich scheme by Mal, who has procured some gold bars. But since they are still marked by the Queen’s crown, it’ll be difficult to trade them… unless they reach the titular Furnace, where they can smelt them down and remove the mark. Yeah, it hits a few familiar notes as far as stories about the procurement of gold, right down to the greed and jealousy that breaks out every so often, but where this manages to balance that out is how it contrasts that money-grubbing mentality against the various cultures involved.

As with many native populations, the Aboriginal Australians have a close connection to their environment and the living things within it, only taking what they need for survival and showing utter reverence for their ecosystem wherever possible. Compare that to the Aussie gold rush, where the want for material gain resulted in quite a bit of death over “yellow rocks”, not to mention other natural resources that the white man took and commoditised, as shown in a darkly humorous scene where a blackfella runs into a water vendor who wants to charge two shillings for a gallon of water… even though it clearly says one shilling on the container itself. Along with the literal Furnace, the title also refers to the landscape all of these characters inhabit. A scorching, unforgiving terrain where men are broken down into their mineral value; their blood spilt for the gift within the golden soil. It’s a melting pot, where all the molten fat has bubbled to the top.

Along with the occasional touches of spirituality throughout (primarily through Mal’s atonement for his sins), the film’s depiction of Hanif trying to survive in this climate, gaining, losing, and then regaining the trust of his adopted tribe is quite stirring stuff, especially since this part of outback history is relatively obscure to the layman over here. I freely admit that I didn’t even know about these cameleers until watching this, and that in itself is not only a crucial reason why this film needed to be made, but also another example of why I fucking love this nation’s approach to cinema. In the latest example of Aussie filmmakers poking at the threads of our historical and multicultural patchwork, feature debut writer/director Roderick MacKay highlights the colonial mentality for what it is: Dehumanising and poisonous.

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