Naga: How a film about a vengeful camel is inspiring Saudi women

In a new Saudi film streaming on Netflix, Sarah's rebellious day-long adventure ends in tragedy, but it perfectly captures how Saudi women are becoming more fearless.

A poster for the 2023 film Naga
A poster for the 2023 film Naga

Naga: How a film about a vengeful camel is inspiring Saudi women

Saudi filmmaker Meshal Aljaser’s latest film, Naga (Arabic for camel), is currently streaming on Netflix after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and screening at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah.

With compelling cinematography, it may leave viewers puzzled, but to many Saudis, this film is crystal clear.

From the start, events in Naga are readily understood to unfold in a Saudi setting. The scenes are packed with distinctive symbols of the country.

From the desert and the camel to the cups of Arabic coffee, the film is a powerful expression of Saudi culture, intensified by the gripping sound effects and stylistics.

To understand this film is to understand that the things shown and depicted often represent something else: the desert’s shifting dunes represent the maze in which the heroine, Sarah, finds herself lost. The camel she is confronted with is a subtle nod to a restrictive society that curbs her movements and sows fear and terror in her heart.

To survive, confrontation is her only way out.

A snapback to 1975

The movie opens with a flashback to 1975, perhaps a nod to the emergence of religious extremism in the Kingdom.

The first victims are women and their supporters — even doctors, who were simply doing their job and delivering their patients’ babies.

We learn that everything that happened since 1975 was a mere extension of what happened that year, which, in the present day, seems so far away.

Mirroring Sarah's constant struggle since that day in the mid-70s, the relentless psychological thrill seeps into your bones from the very first scene – a shaky shot that offers a chilling prelude to the doctor's bloody murder.

The camel she collides with is a subtle nod to a restrictive society that curbs her movements. To survive, confrontation is her only way out.

Shots of dunes and the desert labyrinth, exacerbated by the mind-bending delusions and hallucinations Sarah sees in her intoxicated state, serve to up the tension.

We soon understand how Sarah overcomes her fear. When she calls her friend for help, the latter reassures her that she has gone through the same experience more than once and survived.

With that, the fear becomes a collective experience.

Playing on fear

Aljaser does not try to embellish Sarah's fears. He portrays it honestly. Still, her willingness to rebel remains.

In the end, she slaps her young brother for no other reason than to perpetuate patriarchal behaviours as an adult. Similarly, she exposes a fake poet by publishing a damning recording without fearing the consequences.

Sarah squirms her way out of every situation, determined to make the curfew she promised her father that she would keep.

Naga is a Saudi film set in a Saudi environment, tackling a Saudi problem. 

She throws bait, then her shoes, to the camel. She runs to avoid crowds instead of going to the hospital. She thinks nothing of eating camel meat.

These expressive images showcase Sarah's efforts to burst the bubble of fear, as well as her desire for revenge once she gains a little strength.

Still, she cannot entirely shake off the fear which prevented her from enjoying the adventure she embarked on in defiance of family, society, and the environment.

Perhaps she never wanted that adventure in the first place, and all she wanted was the freedom to choose. 

A still from the 2023 film Naga

Locality and meaning

This is a Saudi film set in a Saudi environment, tackling a Saudi problem. The desert and the camel — two of the most obvious Saudi symbols — anchor the movie in place and time far more effectively than sound effects and cinematic style ever could.

Most remarkable was the depiction of the desert and its ability to churn out a vortex of emotions. Often in film, deserts are portrayed as symbols of drought or distance. In Naga, however, the desert is an expression of fear, instability, stillness, and the boundless wildness of imagination.

The camel, too, serves as a dual tool of expression. We fear her when she grunts and growls but sympathise when she gurns and cries after losing her mother.

A still from the 2023 film Naga

Some will like this film, others will not. A lot relies on grasping the meanings behind things like the camel, the desert, or even the mountain that appears as an ode to freedom.

The job of art is to ask questions and stoke our imagination, often by using visually pleasing images. To that end, Naga does a pretty good job.

The film is an example of the power of symbols in cinematography to communicate ideas and feelings that resonate with global audiences despite their local focus.

With Naga, Aljaser leaves a remarkable imprint on Saudi cinema through his distinctive portrayal of a young woman's day-long adventure and the fear embedded in her every step.

It is a testament to the ability of Saudi Arabia's changing reality to break with that fear.

It is often said that a problem well stated is a problem half solved. This Saudi production states, loud and clear, that a new stage has been set for Saudi women — one on which fear has no place.

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