‘Hajjan’: A beautifully crafted Saudi film

‘Hajjan’: A beautifully crafted Saudi film
Image: HAJJAN film still.

The Saudi Arabian film industry is only fledgling, which is hard to believe when you see the calibre of films such as the recently released Hajjan (2023). Currently doing festivals and screenings around the world, Hajjan is a beautifully crafted story with commensurate performances and glorious vision and sound to match. 

Set against the sepia landscape of a Saudi desert, Hajjan begins with two young teenage boys who are orphaned and living with their uncle. Ghanem (Azzam El-Nemr), the older brother, is handsome and charismatic, and has successfully been competing in the prestigious sport of camel racing. In a high-stakes and very dangerous race, Ghanem is knocked off his camel by unscrupulous rival jockeys, and killed. 

Matar (Omar Al Alatawi) in HAJJAN Image: film still.

Younger brother, Matar (Omar Al Alatawi), does not share the same passion for racing but has a very close affinity with their camel, Hofira. When his uncle explains that they need to sell the camel, which he believes is only good for its meat, Matar strikes a bargain with him: he will race Hofira and if they win, he gets the keep the camel. 

Matar and Hofira, against all odds, do win a race that qualifies them for the highly prized Great Race, but alas, that only makes the camel more valuable and the uncle more motivated to sell, which he does. The sale is made to Jasser (Abdulmohsen al Nemer) a wealthy nobleman with a stable of camels and riders. 

Sara (Alshaima Tayeb) and Jasser (Abdulmohsen al Nemer) in HAJJAN Image: film still.

Matar, unable to be parted from Hofira, becomes one of Jasser’s riders. He soon discovers that Jasser is vain, greedy, unscrupulous, willing to do anything to win. Matar also unwittingly discovers that Jasser’s champion jockey, Majd (Toleen Barbood), whose face is always concealed, is actually a girl. This is forbidden in camel racing. 

The film burns slowly at first, with detailed exposition and exploration of characters and relationships. It gains momentum rapidly in the middle act and has a very thrilling climax — one that has had many audiences cheering out loud. 

The camel race scenes are fast and fascinating. Trainers, spectators and even the race caller drive alongside to the racetrack in SUVs in what seems as skilful and dangerous as the camel race itself.  

Camel race scene in HAJJAN Image: film still.

Action scenes are balanced with poignant moments between various characters, and with spectacular panoramas of the landscape. 

The performances are all stunning, most notably, young Omar Al Alatawi as Matar. Alatawi is a real life jockey and inexperienced actor who very capably handles some very emotional scenes. 

Abdulmohsen al Nemer is also excellent as Jasser, refraining from playing him as a clichéd villain, and instead, giving him a complex personality with human weaknesses. 

It’s a male-dominated cast, but Alshaima’a Tayeb is powerful and impressive as Jasser’s wife, Sara. In fact, though Sara and Majd (the female jockey) are the only two female characters, they actually have a huge impact on the narrative provide a surprisingly female empowering twist. 

This is a wonderful film and a perfect example of the quality and cultural richness that hopefully will continue to be offered by the Saudi film industry. 

★★★ 1/2

Available on SBS on Demand

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