Desert Riders: Film Review

David Higgs
It's no spoiler to reveal that this poignant doc has a happy ending.

Vic Sarin's documentary recounts the story of how thousands of young boys were trafficked to the United Arab Emirates to serve as camel jockeys.

The world is full of horrific injustices about which the majority of the population remains blissfully ignorant. One such travesty is detailed in Vic Sarin’s documentary detailing the story of how thousands of young boys were trafficked from such countries as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sudan and Somalia to serve as camel jockeys in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. Although the situation seems to have thankfully been resolved several years ago due to the pressure applied by governments and international organizations, Desert Riders nonetheless serves as a bracing cautionary tale.

The children, some as young as two and three years old, were imported to participate in this sport which is as popular in the Middle East as horse racing is in Europe. Naturally coveted for their small stature, they were often physically and sexually abused as well as starved to keep their weight down.

The film features extensive testimonials from these young victims who detail the horrific conditions they were forced to endure. Also interviewed are representatives from various human rights organizations—one of them claiming that the entire economy of the United Arab Emirates is based on exploitation--and, most chillingly, several of the traffickers themselves, expressing varying levels of guilt. As the film makes clear, most of them received little or no penalties.  

The film has a happy ending of sorts, as thousands of the children were eventually repatriated and compensated for their ordeals. But not all of them, as no precise figures as to how many were trafficked are available. And the camel races do go on, only with small robots for jockeys. Score one victory for technology.

Opens April 24 (Garden Thieves Pictures, Filmblanc)

Director/director of photography: Vic Sarin

Screenwriter/producer: Noemi Weis

Executive producers: Bruce Cowley, Noemi Weis

Composer: Jack Lanz, Orest Hrynewich

Not rated, 78 min.

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