The Furnace is an upcoming Australian produced film that has just received its worldwide premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The story follows Hanif (Ahmed Malek), a young Afghanistan man who falls in with a mysterious bushman (David Wenham – Lion, The Lord of The Rings Trilogy) who is on the run from the law and is a great example of diverse Australian stories being represented on the big screen. Variety spoke to the film’s producer Timothy White (I Am Mother) about growing representation on screen and the Australian film industry as a whole.
In the 19th century, settlers of Western Australia relied heavily on immigrant cameleers from India, Afghanistan and Persia. Predominantly Muslim and Sikh group, commonly referred to as “Ghans”, were instrumental to the taming of the outback, but their contributions to the formation of modern Australia has largely been scrubbed from history.
The Furnace is debut writer/director Roderick MacKay’s attempt to shed light on the little known past of Australia, with a 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 Jay Ryan (IT: Chapter 2) and David Wenham (Lion, The Lord of The Rings trilogy_ and had its world premiere last Friday in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, producer Timothy White (I Am Mother) recalled meeting with MacKay four years ago, when the director was looking for a helping hand on the film. The veteran producer was instantly captivated by the layers in the story of an Afghanistan immigrant searching for his identity in a foreign country. “It really struck a chord with me, because it dealt with a period of Australian history that has largely been neglected,” White said.
The script was finished at a time of heated political discourse surrounding immigrants from the Middle East, which inspired White to put his full efforts behind it. “It 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, we are addressing our own historical blind spots. White agrees, stating “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”
Funding schemes at local, state and federal levels have been an important aspect of broadening the scope of Australian cinema, particularly with their support of Indigenous, minority, and first-time filmmakers. “unlike America, we’ve got this 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.
A mentor to many young 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 the rest of the world – a radical change from how White had been accustomed 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.”