Desert Riders: The Lost Children of the Sports of Kings (Garden Thieves Pictures, NR)

dvd Desert-RidersRacing camels is a hazardous trade where broken limbs and even death are not unusual.



“The world is not kind to little things,” said Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote. Truer words may never have been spoken, and that statement could be the tagline for Vic Sarin’s documentary Desert Riders, which chronicles a scandal most Westerners are probably not even aware of: the use of young boys, most of them kidnapped or recruited through false promises made to their parents, as camel jockeys in the Middle East, particularly in the United Arab Emirates.

Sarin achieves remarkable access to the players in this sordid trade, including many former camel jockeys, their parents, camel farmers and trainers, government and NGO officials, and even the traffickers themselves, as well as Western journalists who cover this issue. The lack of concern showed by some involved in the trade is startling. One trainer claims he looked after the boys as if they were his own children, which prompts the question of why he doesn’t put his own children in the racing trade if he thinks it is such a healthy profession.

Independent of the fact that the jockeys are children who should be with their families and attending school, racing camels is a hazardous trade where broken limbs and even death are not unusual. Abuse of the young boys (who typically start work at age five to seven, according to one trainer) seems to be par for the course, a perhaps not surprising circumstance since no one is present to look out for their interests. They are overworked and starved (the better to maintain a bodyweight under 20 kilos) and sometimes used for sexual purposes, as well.

For all the grimness of the story told in Desert Riders, this is not a depressing film; in fact, you will be impressed by the enduring spirit of the former jockeys and their parents, who relate their stories without the drama that you might expect given the harshness of their experiences. It’s also a film of great visual interest, thanks to many onsite interviews (the jockeys come from countries including Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan, and Pakistan) and race footage that ranges from the splendor of a major race meeting to the scrubbiness of minor races (which are no doubt equally if not more dangerous than the large races).

Best of all, there’s something of a happy ending, as in 2005 the UAE outlawed the use of jockeys younger than age 15. Robotic jockeys have also been developed—and they are quite the sight to see—although there’s some suspicion that children are still being used, out of sight, to train the camels. Nonetheless, with the assistance of UNICEF, many of the jockeys have been sent back to their parents, with medical and social support to help them reintegrate into their communities.

Unfortunately, follow-up visits with some of the traffickers reveal that most suffered no more than minimal legal consequences for their activities. The root problems also remain, including dire poverty and a lack of respect for other human beings. In addition, some parents continued to treat their children as cash cows, claiming the compensation paid to the former jockeys by the UAE rather than spending on their care.

There are no extras on the DVD. | Sarah Boslaugh

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