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Five Questions for the Filmmakers of ‘These Birds Walk’

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These Birds Walk opens in New York City at the Village East Cinema on November 1, 2013.

These Birds Walk, a lyrical documentary haiku about a young boy and an ambulance driver who try to find their way on the streets of Pakistan, is opening today on one screen in Manhattan. Ender’s Game, a sci-fi action adventure starring Harrison Ford about a young boy who saves humanity from alien attack, opens on 3,406 more screens than These Birds Walk.

This, friends, is what’s wrong with the movies, and the people who go to see them, today.

To help rectify that wrong, I spoke with These Birds Walk directors, Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, about their debut documentary and how they initially set out to make it about a humanitarian but ended up with a cinéma vérité masterpiece.

Didn’t you first set out to make the film about Abdul Sattar Edhi? When he didn’t want the film to be made about him, was this a case of making lemonade out of lemons?

Bassam Tariq: We initially set out to make a film about Edhi. He was weary in the beginning, but in the end, he did let us spend a lot of time with him. Since he is a lot older now, the day-to-day life has him sitting on his couch and literally twiddling his thumbs. He has done the work and instead of just having him talk about it, why not find a cinematic and meaningful way of showing it?

Omar Mullick: We did set out to make a film about Edhi, aware, painfully so, that he was getting quite old. If I remember it correctly, that posed some welcome challenges because we were also determined to avoid the obvious move: in this case, a saccharine hagiography of an admittedly great man. The refusal by Edhi to shoot with us initially stung, but days after that we found Omar in the runaway home and from that moment our course was set. Also, to be candid, we had cheerfully burnt a few bridges on the way out of New York. By that I mean, left jobs, security and raised a modest amount of money to start shooting. There was no going back.

Are you familiar with how other doc directors have tried to make films about a particular subject but were denied and ended up making modern classics (Thin Blue Line, Capturing the Friedmans)?

Mullick: I am aware of other filmmakers who were thwarted along the way, and then pushed on stubbornly to a pot of gold they least expected. The Thin Blue Line remains, years later, a miracle of cinematic inquiry and as compelling now as it was the first time I saw it. A certain openness to the mess of life is par for the course and something to be embraced, however difficult it might be in the moment. And it is difficult.

What lessons can be gleaned from this for other filmmakers?

Tariq: You really give your all when you’re making a film. It is an emotionally exhausting process and when it’s finally out there, it’s hard not to start comparing yourself to other films and filmmakers. Don’t do that. There will always be films that will do better than yours. It’s hard to believe that each film has its own path, but it’s the truth. The problem is every film blog and critic is always doing these “top 10 lists” and awards predictions. There is no use for any filmmaker to get stuck looking at that stuff. It will only stifle your creativity.

Mullick: Stay the course. Our film was laughable on paper—we shopped around a two page PDF and raised very little money from private donors to cover plane tickets and a camera. It was an extremely difficult time. I am proudest of our confidence then, more than now, when we’ve been praised by a group of our peers. But there is a difference in being stubborn and sticking to a good idea. If an idea is good, it should be able to withstand being tested, so it should be tested quickly among any one you respect. We did that. Some ideas stayed and others, the good ones, remained. In the end, I have emerged from this experience with more respect for tenacity than talent as a virtue to see though a film.

I was struck by how much the film recalled 400 Blows and other French New Wave films about kids; was that your intention? Did those movies inspire you at all?

Mullick: Candidly, if there were inspirations for our film, then they would be Streetwise, by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark, which focuses on a group of runaways in Seattle in the 1980s. Also, there is a much neglected and under seen film called The Three Rooms of Melancholia by Pirjo Honkasalo. There is nothing better on war, in this case Chechnya, or more lyrical. It is a transcendent visual experience. These two movies are difficult to unsee once they’ve been seen, and I think, in all fairness, any film on childhood made after them is irrevocably in conversation with these films when it touches on violence and youth.

I believe this was one of the few docs that Oscilloscope has worked on through production (not just as an acquisition); please tell me how they helped the film, and what their specific contributions were.

Tariq: Oscilloscope came on board while we were in the thick of post. They really have some huge balls. Most distributors wait to see how the critics and festivals receive the film before they get in bed with the filmmakers. Dan Berger and David Laub believed in our film when many didn’t. It really meant a lot to us that someone believed in our film and saw the market and critical potential. We knew we had a difficult film and they developed an unorthodox festival strategy to make sure that people caught the film.

I have to tip my hat to David, Dan and company. I remember pushing back on a lot of the decisions they made, and looking back now, I must say, they were right about almost everything. I’m grateful to have them as champions and supporters at such a pivotal point in our film and careers.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki