It’s rare to see a film that captures the true meaning of gold fever, yet, ‘The Furnace’ in cinemas now, that preserves the legacy of the cameleers, is a fictional tale about the heavy price of greed and the search for identity in Australia’s wild west.

The film illuminates the forgotten history of Australia’s ‘Ghan’ cameleers, predominantly Muslim and some Sikh men from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, who traversed Australia’s sweeping desert interior. Many of whom were able to form unique bonds with the traditional owners of this land.

Well-adapted to the cinematic setting, the western-style theme is an enduring genre with crisp narration: “There is no grace of God here. Just the land and all its spoils,” that ties well with overlapping faiths and loss of one’s moral compass. The film has an intriguing stillness derived heavily from the parched land, that leaves you with a sense of awe for the land’s extensive vastness and unforgivingness.

Set in the circa 1897 gold rush period of Western Australia, the film tells an imagined tale of a young Afghan cameleer, Hanif, an unlikely hero searching for a sense of identity in a new barren land. Hoping to return home to Afghanistan, the cameleer stumbles upon a wounded bushman who has stolen Crown gold. Infatuated by greed, the mismatched pair develops an unlikely partnership and set off towards a secret furnace to remove the marking of the Crown and reset the bars of untraceable gold; to make a new life for themselves.  

The fictional movie highlights the fact that Muslims and other minorities have been in Australia for over 150 years and have made significant contributions that brought major economic and social benefits to this country.

In the period spanning the 1860s through to the 1930s, the influences of around 4,000 Afghan cameleers in central Australia helped form the critical infrastructure of railway and telegraph line, as well as transport supplies from cities to regional towns, inland mines and stations.

Illustration: A cameleer during the gold rush period in 1897. Supplied: National Library Of Australia.

These men were also navigators on expeditions, located water sources and ensured a safe journey for other travellers across the expansive and dry continent. As the writer and producer Roderick MacKay explains at the Venice Film Festival, that without these men and their significant contribution, outback communities would have not survived.

“I stumbled upon black and white images of the cameleers by accident seven years ago. Once I researched further and realised how significant a contribution they made the formation of Australia… Well, I was stunned that I did not learn about them in high school or university. It felt like a huge historic omission and undoubtedly, the cameleers are the unsung pioneers of our inland,” explained Mr MacKay.

Drawing upon their heritage, cameleers helped to introduce Islam to Australia and built the first mosque in Marree in South Australia. The cameleers and their subsequent communities continued to settle in Australia; many of whom still live in central Australia today. 

Illustration: David Wenham and Ahmed Malek star in “The Furnace”, shot on Yamatji land around Mount Magnet and Kalbarri. Supplied: The Furnace.

Whilst, their camels were bred, sold and relied upon for transportation until they were eventually deemed redundant with the introduction of automotive vehicles.

Aftab Bhatti, one of the cultural consultants for the film’s developed that checked that the script portrayed Muslim rituals in an authentic manner, explained the diversity of cultures which were brought to Australia; often in forms of indentured labour. 

“…it’s worth remembering (the film is)…a fictional drama that characterises many different people, their cultures, religions, as well as their ignorances. (European settlers)… back then called all cameleers ‘Ghans’, despite them being Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Indian, Punjabi, Afghan, Balochi, Persian, etc. The movie tries to call this out and celebrates the diversity of (all) cameleers from different backgrounds,” enlightened Mr Bhatti. 

The film respectfully showcases the elegance civilised existence of Indigenous communities, their language and their preservation of the sunburnt land.

Illustration: “The Furnace” featuring Indigenous actor Baykali Ganabarr. Supplied: The Furnace.

The film was shot late last year on Yamatji Badimia country in Mount Magnet and Yamatji Nanda country in Kalbarri, in Western Australia’s spectacular Mid West region. 

Producer Roderick MacKay honoured these Indigenous people by weaving in their important stories with that of other diverse communities through the backdrop of the gold rush.

The filmmakers conducted an extensive research process taking 6 years which included consultation with the Badimia community, Sikh, Islamic, Cantonese, Pashto and Punjabi language consultants.

Australia “has only recently begun to willingly peer back into its past, warts and all, to better understand how it has arrived at the present,” said Mr MacKay. 

Released across 121 cinemas, ‘The Furnace’ was the only Australian movie selected for the prestigious Venice Film Festival this year and has received raving reviews internationally.

Crescent Wealth, an Australian Muslim superannuation fund that supported the production of the film, recently hosted a private screening in Sydney for its members. 

Illustration: Talal Yassine (left) welcoming member guests of Crescent Wealth to a private screening of “The Furnace”, now showing in selected Cinemas. Source: Crescent Wealth, Facebook.

Introducing the movie, Sabrine Yassine stated that, “Crescent Wealth will continue to encourage efforts to display the many varied narratives of Australia’s diverse and multicultural history.”

“A history, where Muslims contributed our lot to build this wonderful country, our home,” emboldened Ms Yassine. 

Today, making up the diverse mosaic of Australia, the film recognises our common humanity, the importance of celebrating faiths and what they have brought to multicultural Australia. 

Confronting the past by putting a spotlight on various kinds of racism, the honest and inclusive story-writing in this film of Australia’s diverse heritage leaves you with a lot to be proud of. Indeed, capturing the land with all its boundless plains, the adventurous Australian and international tourist alike, may be enticed to visit these camel-riding outback settings for themselves.

To watch the film, see selected cinemas near you: