‘These Birds Walk’ takes an intimate look at the lives of Pakistan’s runaway children

BY Noreen Nasir  January 30, 2014 at 10:58 AM EDT

“These Birds Walk,” a documentary by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, tells the story and the struggles of runaway children and those who look after them at the Edhi Foundation in Karachi, Pakistan.

In a busy neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan, there is an elderly man who lives in the back room of a modest building in a cramped alley. Abdul Sattar Edhi sleeps on a simple cot and knows that his days are numbered. “I feel as if I could die tomorrow,” he says. “But the days keep coming.”

His long, wavy, white beard, dark kufi cap and the deep wrinkles in his face give him the appearance of any old man living a simple life in the heart of a bustling city. But this is a man who is revered across Pakistan — he’s known to the people as a “living saint.” And he runs the most well-known humanitarian organization in the country — The Edhi Foundation, established in 1951.

These Birds Walk” is a feature-length documentary directed by filmmakers Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick, who spent three years traveling to Pakistan to spend time with Edhi, the people working for his organization and those it benefits.

But Edhi’s work is not highlighted in the film through a direct portrait of the man himself. Instead, the directors, both of Pakistani descent, tell the stories of those impacted by this aging altruist — a young Edhi ambulance driver also working with the foundation’s runaway home, and Omar, a Pathan boy from Taliban country, who fled from his family and found himself at Edhi’s doorstep.

Art Beat recently spoke with filmmakers Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick during a stop on their screening tour.

ART BEAT: Tell me a little about the background of the film.

BASSAM TARIQ: In 2009, I picked up the autobiography of Abdul Sattar Edhi and he actually came to New York for a short trip. We met him there and he said, “Come to the foundation, and we’ll talk.” And when we came out to Pakistan, he had no interest in being a part of the film. But he did tell us that if we wanted to find him, we could find him in the stories there — around the country, or just at his foundation. And from that, we found this small runaway home and at the runaway home, we found Omar [the runaway boy].

ART BEAT: What was it like when Edhi turned you away that first time you showed up?

BASSAM TARIQ: I remember a moment when Omar and I were sleeping in a bed together in Karachi and he goes, “We just flew halfway across the world. I’m away from my son, and we don’t have access to this guy. What are we going to do?”

ART BEAT: Panic mode.

OMAR MULLICK: Yeah, panic and frustration, for sure.

BASSAM TARIQ: Edhi was less empathetic than I thought he would be. I guess I expected more of a fairy-tale like saint.

ART BEAT: What was he actually like?

OMAR MULLICK: He’s a normal person, he’s very focused. He has a lot of energy, hes also a little cranky at times and he can be a little stubborn. But what he has done with his tenacity and his principle has no parallel that I’ve seen in the country. And I think that’s what people respond to. Sure, [Edhi and his wife] are sitting upon millions and millions of dollars in donations, but you see where the money goes. Whenever there’s a bomb blast [in Karachi], you’ll see the cops running away from the scene, but the first people there at the scene are wearing Edhi hats and Edhi vests.


Edhi washes a young child who lives at his foundation.

ART BEAT: What about this concept of a runaway home for these children?

OMAR MULLICK: There’s no parallel. It was a new idea, even for us. This is the extent of his charity. You know, you give to people who come from bomb blasts or external tragedies, but these kids have run away from home. And whatever their deal is, here’s a home where they can eat safely. And it shows a really profound, insightful understanding of his country and his people.

ART BEAT: What was Edhi’s relationship with the children?

BASSAM TARIQ: A lot of the kids don’t even know who he is. They just call him Baba, “that guy.” Which is really amazing, because if you think about these other foundations around Karachi, around Pakistan — they put their photos up everywhere they have a second to do so. They advertise a hell of a lot. I remember when we first came in, we were going to barter with Edhi and say “okay, we’ll make this awesome promotional video and then you give us all this access” and he said, “I don’t need a promotional video. I’m fine. What are you guys going to do for me?” And it’s true — he doesn’t need it.

ART BEAT: Tell me about Omar, the main boy in the film. How did he compare to the other boys?

OMAR MULLICK: I’ve looked at photos of Omar and he doesn’t come across in the photos the way he does in the film. When you just look at him, he’s not Hollywood pretty. He’s got a short, shaved head. He’s scarred. And usually, when you go to these areas, they go for the green-eyed kid. It’s a cosmetic wild factor. And Omar, at first glance, is a very ordinary looking kid. And so that should speak volumes about the personality, that kind of swagger, that heartbreak that is written all over him.

BASSAM TARIQ: I think right away when we entered the runaway home and we spent our first day there, he and (his friend) Shehr — they stuck out like a sore thumb. A lot of the kids were really interested in being in front of the camera, but Shehr had no interest. He was in his own world. He had an innocence that I think a lot of the other kids — I wouldn’t say lost, but I think they kind of grew out of. [laughs] It’s important to note that a lot of these kids — their situation is their situation. We’re not there to show or highlight a problem in Pakistan. We saw some powerful universals that everyone can latch onto, especially when you want to talk about these kids having a choice. They ran away from a home. They ran away from a family. And that’s something that happens everywhere.


Omar faces the prospect of living at the foundation without his friend Shehr.

ART BEAT: In the film, the boys often speak about issues that seem so much bigger than what you’d imagine a young child to ever talk about. What was it like to hear them talk this way?

BASSAM TARIQ: You know, the media literacy for these kids is so low — they may have seen maybe one or two films in their entire life. So they didn’t know how to act in front of a camera. The kids in Pakistan are very mature. These are kids that grow up and are very streetwise. I think that if we had brought any other two kids in a room, they would have talked about God, they would have talked about the importance of family and running away.

ART BEAT: The film has a very natural quality to it — there’s not a moment of narration or track. Is that how you originally wanted it?

OMAR MULLICK: Actually, I’m very proud of that point. We wanted something that wasn’t reducing that region to just statistics, in the interest of making it very immersive and very intimate. We were also painfully aware of how that region has been spoken about and not spoken about by the people in front of the camera. So we wanted the characters to, as much as possible, deliver themselves to a witnessing camera.

BASSAM TARIQ: I think the hope was to meet the characters on their terms.

'These Birds Walk' filmmaker Bassam Tariq

Co-director and producer Bassam Tariq has produced fea­ture sto­ries for TIME mag­a­zine, Boing Boing, Atlas Obscura and Huff­in­g­ton Post.

ART BEAT: You worked on this for three years, on and off. How long did it take for your subjects to feel comfortable with you around?

BASSAM TARIQ: Towards the end of our shooting, we had finally started mic-ing up the kids because we had built up a little bit of trust. But I think right away, the kids forgot about us. And we both knew the language, so we had no fixer on the ground with us. We literally had no one helping us. We didn’t have a driver. We’d take rickshaws to get around and that was it. I don’t know if that was the smartest way to do it, it wasn’t the most efficient way. But for us, it [shortened] our learning curve.

OMAR MULLICK: And you know, I don’t think there’s a shortcut for trust. We were determined. We believed in the spirit of having good intentions. And we stuck around and slowly people began trusting us. I don’t think there’s a shortcut for that.


The runaway kids and their caretakers deal with a blackout in Karachi.

ART BEAT: When you started working on the film, did you ever have a particular audience in mind?

BASSAM TARIQ: It was just us. I really think that the audience was just us. I know it sounds ridiculous and even pretentious, but I believe it. [Some of the film foundations] really helped us toward the end of the film in terms of direction, but I’m thankful they didn’t come on in the beginning of our journey. At one point, we had statistics in the beginning of the film, and it made no sense — it reduced all our characters to that thesis point in the beginning. So everything that we did in our edit had to then rack up to that statistic of “runaway kids in Pakistan.” And it took us some time to fight that.

ART BEAT: If you look at a lot of what you’re portraying from just a statistical point of view, it can seem very ugly or sad. But there’s so much beauty in the film. How did your shooting factor into that?

'These Birds Walk' filmmaker Omar Mullick

Omar Mullick, the co-director and cinematographer for “These Birds Walk,” is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic.

OMAR MULLICK: There’s this well-intentioned misnomer, that if you go somewhere that’s poor or if you go somewhere where there’s some kind of struggle, well then you better show it as ugly. You’re taking that poverty or whatever it is and you’re saying to people: look over here, there’s poverty. Let’s help and let’s do something about that. Now, another way of looking at this, and the way we see it is that actually these people have quite a bit of dignity, and there are quite a few virtues lacking in my own life. And there are occasions of such great, staggering beauty in their daily lives and all I did was really point the camera at those occasions of beauty. So I didn’t actually beautify or graft some beauty onto something that is in and of itself poverty-stricken. Actually, we both looked at those occasions of great beauty and dignity in their daily lives and have simply come back with a different report than what you’re used to seeing.

BASSAM TARIQ: If you listen long enough, if you’re patient, you’ll find it. We wanted to make sure we weren’t misguiding or misdirecting anyone from what we did see. It sort of offends me when people say “you aestheticized the film”. What does that mean? What did we do? We didn’t use any different color palettes. The music was not manipulative in any way. If anything, we worked very hard to make sure the music in the film never led you to an emotion. Because I think that’s the biggest problem in documentary — the music can be so manipulative that it wants you to feel a certain way. Especially when it comes to people in the developing world. Because it’s easier to otherize them when you do that.


Omar races through a market and past guards to pray in a temple in Karachi.

OMAR MULLICK: Yeah, I mean, the light is beautiful in Pakistan. The children are beautiful. Their resilience is beautiful. Their gestures are beautiful. The nighttime in Karachi is stunning. I’m actually not a good enough shooter to beautify all of that.

ART BEAT: Let’s talk about the birds. The title of the film is “These Birds Walk” …

BASSAM TARIQ: I thought it was “These Birds Run.”

OMAR MULLICK: I thought it was “Brown is the Warmest Colour.”

[laughs]

ART BEAT: What about the title that you guys finally settled on?

BASSAM TARIQ: I think it’s really interesting to see how the critics have interpreted the films title in different ways, so we’ve been kind of quiet about it. I think Omar has a different way of taking it and so do I. After shooting, our editor compiled this really great scene for us — there’s this interlude of music and birds. And we thought, oh, there’s something really interesting here. Because we didn’t even really see a motif of birds in the film until she started bringing it to light.

ART BEAT: This is a story of Pakistan that hasn’t been told, and it’s very different from the story of the country we often get here in the States.

OMAR MULLICK: Yeah, I hope that people do recognize a side of Pakistan that, at least before we started making it, we had not seen presented. We knew what we were seeing about the region was not reflective of our mothers, or fathers or relatives. And that kind of intimacy, with that side of Pakistan deserves to be out there. And in some small measure, I hope the film does that.