Canadian Doc on Child Camel Jockeys Gallops Into Amsterdam

Vic Sarin's "Desert Riders," which exposes the dark side of the Sport of Sheiks in the United Arab Emirates, is having its international premiere at IDFA.

TORONTO - Films about child exploitation like Slumdog Millionaire and Born Into Brothels are common.

Films about small boys brought, or bought, to the Persian Gulf to ride as jockeys in camel races are not, and one is the Canadian documentary Desert Riders, set for an international premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

“Child poverty has been dealt with in film before, but never for a multi-million dollar sport,” Noemi Weis, producer of director Vic Sarin’s expose of the sport of Persian Gulf sheiks, where tiny children as young as four or five years, prized for their lightness, race atop galloping camels.

The smaller the boys, the faster the camels, Weis explains.

She and Sarin travelled across the Middle East, and to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mauritania to interview child smugglers, camel owners, government representatives and the young boys themselves.

“They work in slave conditions,” Weis said of the poor camel jockeys, who face exploitation, injury and even death.

A 2004 HBO sports documentary about camel racing led Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to ban the use of children as jockeys in the sport.

So Desert Riders explores the aftermath of the sport ban, which saw around 3000 children repatriated back to their original countries for yet more exploitation.

“They have no clue what home is. They don’t know the language or recognize where they are. They will never be the same. A lot of the boys are still missing and some never returned home,” Weis said.

She adds Desert Riders is in part a positive story in that the HBO documentary spurred NGOs and western governments to pressure the Persian Gulf states into ending child exploitation in camel racing.

Canada’s Documentary channel will air Desert Riders in 2012, as will TV5 in Quebec.

Java International is shopping the international broadcast rights to the Canadian film, and Weis is looking for a theatrical release in North America and abroad.