“Camels are adored by their jockeys,” a Bedouin camel herder sings out to the snow-covered desert at the beginning of Abu Bakr Shawky’s Hajjan. Inside a nearby cave, young teenage camel jockey Matar (Omar Al Atawi) and his brother Ghanim tend to a newborn camel who seems to be stillborn. “Hofari,” Matar whispers into the seemingly dead camel’s ear after the others have abandoned it. Suddenly, the creature comes to life. So is born the deep, intimate bond between Matar and Hofari that guides the rest of Hajjan, a family-friendly blockbuster form the nascent Saudi Arabian film industry, and one of the sweetest films of the year.
Taking many of its cues from the best sort of heyday Disney movies (Bambi, Old Yeller, or The Love Bug; not the modern franchise drek), Hajjan tells a simple story of camel-racing with little in the way of surprises, but much in the way of emotional thrills and compelling craftsmanship. The plot picks up in full a few years after the prologue, finding Ghanim getting trampled to death during a camel race because of the nefarious tricks deployed by winning-obsessed camel merchant, Jasser (Abdulmohsen Alnemr). Determined to pursue his brother’s legacy, Matar enters Hofari into the next race and quickly discovers that he and the camel are complete naturals. Unfortunately, this not only earns him a shot at the title, but convinces his guardians to sell Hofari to Jasser, who allows Matar to come along with Hofari under the hope that he can convince the young boy to race for him.
Largely a routine melodrama treading familiar terrain, Bakr Shawky is able to imbue the film with a remarkable sense of pacing and character development that allows the whole thing feel genuinely lived-in, allowing for significantly more nuance and depth than expected for such material. Even Jasser, introduced in cartoonish villain mode sporting a vicious sneer and snake-like eyes, is allowed a significant amount of screen time to develop into someone much more complex. Long scenes of Jasser arguing with his wife about their “marriage of convenience” and his pursuit of social glory despite his lack of talent, humanize him and create a very rich world far from the Manichean order of most family movies. Bakr Shwaky shies away from overplaying the melodramatic aspects of the story throughout, encouraging performances from the child actors that are remarkable in how subtle and underplayed they are. First-time actor Omar Al Atawi is adept at affording Matar restraint, conveying depth simply through action and, at times, touching the Bressonian.
Visually, Bakr Shwaky never strays far from classical, conventional storytelling, yet his understanding of cinematic grammar is deep enough to remain compelling and subtly surprising throughout. The four showpiece camel races that feature regularly across the film are delivered with enough layers of stylistic variation that even the thuddingly obvious outcomes of each — the kid’s going to win, of course — feel fresh and captivating each time. After the first two races, standout sequences filled with Eisensteinian montage and Spielbergian sentimentality, Bakr Shwaky, in a remarkable move, even hedges away from the actual camel riding across the final pair. The third race is rendered as one long, low-tension close-up of Jasser while the race is heard offscreen through the announcement system, while the fourth consists mainly of close-ups of various spectators observing the event. As we’ve become conditioned to expect popular filmmaking in America to be executed without a single trace of personality behind it, it’s enlivening in a film like this to see so much care, concern, and craft put up on the screen. And, at the end of the day, something as superficially routine and familiar as Hajjan succeeds almost entirely through this craftsmanship. Qualified praise, perhaps, but in a cinematic landscape where the bar has been so measurably lowered, that reality can covertly lend a film like Hajjan far more weight than expected.