Across the Arabian Peninsula, there are few bonds more powerful or enduring than that between man and camel. That relationship is the focus of Hajjan, an upcoming film produced by the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, also known as Ithra, just in time for 2024 – designated by the UN as the International Year of Camelids.
To this day, camel races, beauty competitions and auctions are among the most popular cultural phenomenons in the region – and yet, to this day, no film has ever truly honed in on what makes the species so special, says the film's producer and head of performing arts and cinema at Ithra, Majed Z Samman.
"We wanted to show what camels are, to show what they signify to us and how respected they are in our region," Samman says. "It's not just a giant animal. They're smarter than dogs or horses."
Centred on a young Hajjan (camel racer) called Matar (Omar Alatawi), the film spans a wide array of themes, including love and loss, masculinity, honour and the crucial, often overlooked, role of women in the Arab World.
That formula has already made an impression on audiences, with viewers at one private screening attended by The National leaping out of their seats, cheering, clapping and screaming – as if they were at a camel race.
Samman tells The National the project started back in December 2020. After watching the final cut, he was struck by how "pure" the film is. "The project is made with love," he adds. "It's simple. We tried to make everybody heal. Even the bad guy."
Samman joined forces with acclaimed Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy's Film Clinic to help give the production a "human" and "real" appearance. "It's very organic and raw," he says.
The team also enlisted Saudi Arabian Mufarrij Almajfel and Egyptian Omar Shama to write the screenplay, with visual effects by Syrian-French filmmaker Chadi Abo and music by French composer Amine Bouhafa.
Hefzy, who has more than 40 credits to his name, says: "We knew we wanted to shoot in Saudi Arabia and with Saudi actors."
He describes the film as a "coming-of-age story" about a teenage boy who undergoes a transformation, from tragedy to hope. "It's a film about good vs evil, resilience, and more – all ingrained in the Bedouin and Saudi culture and camel racing."
Hefzy reserves particular praise for the film's young star Alatawi: "It was really exciting to work with these actors who bring this level of authenticity to the screen."
Director Abu Bakr Shawky, who previously worked with Hefzy on Yomeddine, which received rave reviews at Cannes Film Festival in 2018, says he wanted to bring stories usually told around the fireplace to the big screen. "It was an intriguing proposition, because even though we knew about the world of camel racing, there was no distinct story about it.
"If you get the freedom to write a story around that it gives you great liberties. I have always wanted to do a desert epic that tackles the stories of Arabic folklore and fairy tales, and the narratives and stories of the desert."
The film was shot in the north-west of the kingdom in the second half of last year.
"That area is pretty interesting because a lot of it is untouched," says Shawky. "I don't think there are film crews in specific areas and ... the mountain ranges and that neighbourhood is really intense and interesting.
"Historically, I think, millions of years ago it was all on the water," he says.
While tapping into the striking landscapes, Shawky also took inspiration from some unexpected influences.
"I grew up watching a lot of American Westerns, where somebody rides into a lawless town on a horse and tries to restore order. That was a theme that I really like to explore, especially in the desert, because I feel that's almost like our story – while also maintaining that Arabic folklore," he says.
Hajjan will have its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and releases worldwide early next year