Perfectly time with Saudi Arabia's designation of 2024 as "The Year of the Camel" and the UN's declaration of 2024 as the International Year of Camelids, the film Hajjan, which had its world premiere this September at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, is a powerful tale about the ancient and enduring bond between humans and camels. Beautifully shot in the enchanting desert landscapes of Saudi Arabia's northwestern region by Egyptian-Austrian writer and director Abu Bakr Shawky, the film offers an unprecedented cinematic journey into the world of camel racing.

Camels have been integral to people's way of life in the Arabian Gulf for thousands of years. Saudi Arabia's cultural heritage, arts, crafts, iconography and traditions have all been shaped in various ways by local people's interactions with the camel. Hajjan takes us on a learning journey about the intergenerational folklore and societal infrastructure behind camel racing.

In this epic tale of pride, perseverance, vengeance and emotional attachment, we follow the journey of a bedouin boy named Matar (Omar AlAtawi) and his beloved camel, Hofara. Matar comes from a family of jockeys. His grandfather was a famous "Hajjan," the Arabic word for jockey or camel racer. As the film opens, we find his older brother Ghanem (Azzam El-Nemr), eager to carry the family mantle and be victorious at the upcoming Grand Race.

Matar Omar AlAtawi as Mattar. Photo: Ithra
Hajjan features stunning cinematography of camel racing. Photo: Ithra
A boy and his camel. Photo: Ithra
Abdelmohsen Al Nemer as Jasser. Photo: Ithra
Photo: Ithra
Photo: Ithra
Photo: TIFF
Photo: TIFF
Photo: TIFF
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But standing in Ghanem's way is the powerful and win-at-all-cost protagonist of the story and camel racing baron, Jasser Al Saqqar (brilliantly portrayed by Saudi actor Abdelmohsen Al Nemer). Following a tragic racing incident resulting in the death of his brother, Matar suspects Jasser's involvement and is determined to accomplish Ghanem's dream by aiming to achieve an unlikely victory in the illustrious Grand Race with Hofara.

Adopting his grandfather's namesake of "Hajjan," proudly sewn on the back of his jacket, Mattar's vengeful odyssey is complicated by a turn of events forcing him to live and train under Jasser's roof—whose also, ironically, Hofara's new owner.

Abu Bakr Shawky and his team of cinematographers and producers do a masterful job of capturing the tradition-filled world of camel racing—complete with tribal intrigues and social hierarchies, as well as the hereditarian lineage and storied legacy of racing camels. Women's quiet force and genuine agency in Arabian culture, particularly in this male-dominated sport, are also explored.

Hajjan also had its regional premiere at the third annual Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. The film's production is a collaboration between Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) and Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy’s Film Clinic. 

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Meres J. Weche

Expat and digital maven with a passion for telling stories in words & images. Lived & worked in four continents.

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