Seattle 2024 review: Hajjan (Abu Bakr Shawky)

“Abu Bakr Shawky succeeds in telling a moving story with exhilarating race sequences while simultaneously elevating this familiar material into the level of myths and folklore.”

Egyptian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky burst onto the festival scene in 2018 when his directorial debut Yomeddine unexpectedly cracked the main competition at Cannes. That small-scale but affecting work was distinguished by its sensitive portrayal of a leper community and by its neorealist aesthetic, so it is quite surprising that Shawky’s follow-up project is a handsomely crafted, rousing epic with a considerable budget. In Hajjan (which can be translated as “jockey,” though the word seems insufficient to capture the cultural specificity of the title), Shawky travels to Saudi Arabia and finds inspiration in the little-known world of camel racing, a sport which remains virtually invisible in the west despite being immensely popular in the region. Since its premiere in Toronto, this highly enjoyable crowd-pleaser made several notable stops on the festival circuit and recently played at the 50th anniversary edition of the Seattle Film Festival, one of the oldest and largest audience-oriented events in North America.

Hajjan effectively combines the conventions of an exciting sports drama with a universal coming-of-age story. The titular jockey is teenaged Matar (Omar Alatawi), whose devotion to and deep connection with his camel Hofira forms the film’s emotional core. In the very first scene, a young Matar witnesses the difficult birth of a calf and miraculously brings her back to life when everybody else gives up on the newborn. We quickly understand that Matar and Hofira’s bond will be a significant asset in the highly competitive camel racing circuit, but the thrilling races begin even before Matar starts riding. The first of the film’s many set pieces depicts a race in which Matar’s brother Ghanim suffers a tragic fate, leaving the young man with elders who have their minds set on separating him from Hofira. He eventually manages to make a deal, but now has to prove his worth as a jockey if he is to keep his beloved four-legged companion.

Hajjan’s greatest asset is the remarkable Saudi setting, which provides more than a picturesque backdrop to an otherwise predictable story. Through exquisite cinematography and rhythmic editing, Shawky portrays the desert as a land of wonder, which adds gravitas to Matar’s journey and brings the film a mythical quality. There are sweeping landscapes and imposing mountains, for sure, but Hajjan goes beyond an exotic postcard portrayal of Saudi Arabia by emphasizing the complex and contradictory relationships between the territory and the people who inhabit it. Perhaps the most fascinating character in this regard is Jasser (Abdulmohsen Al Nemer), who sees the desert as something to be conquered and owned in his attempts to improve his social status and gain an honorable position. He is both the obvious antagonist of Matar’s story and its most tragic figure; he is overwhelmed and fooled by the vastness of the land, and yet he becomes obsessed with the idea of winning and conquest at any cost. His futile efforts to control the natural surroundings create a striking contrast with Matar’s calm and composed understanding of the terrain, his willingness to become one with the desert rather than trying to rule over it.

The second notable thematic preoccupation in Shawky’s fable is patriarchy and the place of women in this traditionally male-dominated world. Perhaps surprisingly for a Saudi film set in a milieu often reserved exclusively for men, Hajjan features two female characters who play key roles in the story. The expertly staged race sequences gain an additional layer of resonance once it is revealed that one of the jockeys in contention is actually a girl who hides her gender in order to participate in the competition. Furthermore, a major twist late in the film arrives when Jasser’s wife makes an unexpected choice and decides to step out of her husband’s shadow. While several male characters keep giving Matar unsolicited advice on what it means to be “a real man,” it is worth noting that he actually learns much more about honor, honesty and the true meaning of valor from these two women and Hofira.

Considering the recent investments in film production in Saudi Arabia, with the film industry in the region still at a nascent stage, Hajjan marks a major leap forward in terms of craftsmanship, artistry, and crossover potential. This is an old-fashioned big screen epic in the best sense of the term, with a rare sense of grandeur and a fresh take on evergreen themes of growing up and finding your place in nature. It is both pleasantly conventional in its plotting and impressively unusual in its world building. In Hajjan, director Abu Bakr Shawky succeeds in telling a moving story with exhilarating race sequences while simultaneously elevating this familiar material into the level of myths and folklore.