None of the reliably irritating qualities of the social issue documentary gall quite so acutely as the tendency to venerate mere awareness.
Audiences are invited to leave such films duly pleased for having cared enough to watch, congratulated by the filmmakers for recognizing, from the comfort of the theater or living room, the iniquities of a strife-ridden world.
The injustice addressed by Desert Riders is a particularly alarming one: Many thousands of young boys, we learn, have been trafficked over the years from their homes in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sudan to the United Arab Emirates, where, regularly starved and abused, they are commissioned to ride as jockeys in the country’s popular camel races. Survivors of this system emerge bedraggled and pained, and, as dozens testify to the extent of their mistreatment, it’s difficult to imagine anybody remaining unconvinced of the sport’s cruelty.
By this point in likeminded documentaries, a spirit of vicarious activism usually kicks in: We’ve been persuaded that the situation is dire, and we want to know what the world ought to do about it. Can we purchase some sort of supportive ribbon or rubber bracelet?
But it soon transpires that the camel-racing issue has already been resolved — nearly a decade ago, in fact, after HBO aired a documentary on the subject and the U.S. was called to intervene. (The camels are now ridden by small robots.) Well, that’s certainly a relief.
We’ve been made aware. And we don’t even have to do anything about it.