Indiewire’s Eric Kohn saw more of a parallel with other Australian films, such as Sweet Country and The Nightingale, that “capture the simmering anger and resentment between white settlers and the Indigenous people in their crosshairs in disturbing detail”. He singled out for praise Ahmed Malek’s performance – “a remarkable blend of trembling fear and uncertainty” – along with the work of cinematographers Bonnie Elliott and Michael McDermott.
Roderick MacKay looks relatively cool now he is in Venice, wearing a dinner jacket to meet the press. The Furnace team had to take Covid-19 tests before leaving Australia, then spend two weeks isolating in Rome before coming to the festival. But there are worse things.
“We had a lovely rooftop apartment,” says MacKay, “looking down on a really old part of Rome. And it has been a busy time so, frankly, having two weeks to flop in a hotel, read books and watch movies and not do much was great.”
The team is missing David Wenham, who plays a central role as the wounded gold thief who bullies Hanif into taking him across country to the illegal smelter of the title, but Ahmed Malek is here. He was surprised to be approached for an Australian film, but not as surprised as he was to discover how many people from Britain’s colonial dominions, including his home country, had gone to Australia 150 years ago.
“Nobody knows about it,” he says. “Somehow, they disappeared; the rules prevented them from integrating with society and they only found shelter with Aborigines, as we see in the movie. When you feel you’re alone, you unite. Even now, you find Aborigines with Muslim names. Not a lot, but you see it.”
He had to learn the Afghan language Pashto. It was a heavy responsibility. “But also a blessing, getting to know the Afghanis and their very rich history, given now that they are now being portrayed mostly as terrorists,” says Malek. He also had to sound competent in the language indigenous to the Mt Magnet area where they filmed, Badimaya.
MacKay describes Badimaya as “a sleeping language”. The last fluent speaker died the year before they filmed, so words had to be pieced together from the communal memory of local people.
“So it was exhausting,” says MacKay, “but incredibly meaningful, because we were really doing our bit to help preserve this language and help stop it from vanishing forever.”
It is now six years since MacKay, who had studied fine arts at Curtin University and made just two short films, decided he wanted to make a film set against Western Australia’s goldrush. He couldn’t rouse much interest in the idea of Afghan cameleers then. “The big push for diversity on our screens wasn’t as pronounced as it is now. Nobody really cared. Now it is now very front and centre,” he says.
Conscious of being “a blue-eyed, blonde-haired whitefella”, he has consulted numerous community groups, seeking and winning both their approval and involvement. “But I understand that good intentions are not enough. Everyone can try their best but still not get it right.”
Right enough, however, to have been selected for the world’s oldest film festival. As journeys go, that is impressive.