Filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq discuss their new documentary about the runaway children of Karachi.
These Birds Walk—a documentary shot in Pakistan—narrates the struggles of a runaway boy and the efforts of a humanitarian foundation to help him and scores of others like him. Neither Omar, the 10-year-old whose story is most prominently featured, nor Asad, one of the Samaritans from the Edhi Foundation, know quite where they belong or where “home” should be in their city of Karachi. The film battles with these questions too, as it tails characters in an almost haphazard fashion, through crowds of worshippers or bands of schoolchildren on packed city streets.
Asad regularly risks his life to reunite runaways with their parents—and sometimes, when money or space prevents the child from having a decent life at home, the Edhi Foundation takes the children in, granting sanctuary, support, and hope. Although Abdul Sattar Edhi remains Pakistan’s most admired philanthropist, he is glimpsed only momentarily on camera after expressing his disinterest in being included. He preferred the people working with him, their successes and tribulations, to be recorded in his place. Edhi’s established system of shelters, orphanages, and hospitals—and the many humble altruists who come together to work under his name—are in stark contrast to the country’s gang violence, ethnic conflict, and poverty.
However, the small details of These Birds Walk, rather than any grand socio-political commentary, are what elevate the film. Mullick and Tariq quietly train their camera on scores of young boys who have abandoned home in a quest for something better; their dirty feet, long dark eyelashes, and delicate little features can be shocking in contrast to their firm religious stances and tough talk. These Birds Walk is poetic and simple in its presentation, relying on uncontaminated emotion rather than on commentary or talking heads. The screen swells with vivid colors, textures, and the bustling life of Karachi—but is also steeped in the hard reality of the orphans. I sat down with filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq to talk about the challenges of filming in Pakistan, and the ways in which documentaries might present a more fulfilling experience for their audiences than whatever 3D spectacle is getting the most attention at the multiplex.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Where did the title for this film come from?
Omar Mullick There’s an indie self-publishing photo blog-type thing called These Birds Walk. And we thought, “This would be the perfect title for our movie.”
Bassam Tariq It stuck with us. Our editor didn’t like it at the time and people wanted us to change it. But Omar and I loved it. It lent itself to a lot of the actions of the film and will make sense to the audience—or we hope it will.
OM I don’t like metaphors that beat people over the head. If you do a bit of work, it’s not hard to see what we’re circling. Obviously the kids are kind of like birds, and they’re caged in, and even the adults are, too. But to say more than that would ruin the poetry of the title.
AJG I heard that the famous Pakistani humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi, was reluctant to be filmed or share his story with you. He’s only in the film a little, at the very beginning. Why do you think that was?
BT Initially, he told us he would give us whatever access we needed. We raised some money based on that and went to go follow him, and I think at that point, he had a mood swing; things were a little difficult in the foundation [The Edhi Foundation]. It’s a tense time in Karachi, especially when we went there. When we first starting working on the film, I think bombings had just begun in Karachi, and his ambulance service workers were frequently the first responders for a lot of that stuff. So when he sees these two young guys walk in from America to do a story on him, he just doesn’t care. But we did warm up to him. And in his defense, a lot of journalists come from abroad, they’re there for two minutes, and then they leave. And he sees none of that; he said he never sees those stories. We had to build trust with the people who worked at the foundation, and with a lot of the kids. Even the ambulance driver Asad took a long time to trust us, even though he showed us around. He was the hardest person to film.
AJG You often didn’t have enough money to pay for taxis—so he let you ride around with him with your camera a lot.
OM Yeah. An ambulance is also perhaps the safest thing to be in in Pakistan. No matter what side of any fault line you’re on, either the politicals or gangs or clans, an ambulance is just a humanitarian thing. The one time I got robbed there, I got robbed by the police.
AJG How did Edhi’s restrictions help to inspire the film you eventually made?
OM He told us, “You came here to film me, but if you really want to know me, then look at the work I’m doing.” So we looked at it as a really novel entry into a biography of a man through the work that he’s done. The guy we went there to film was a guy we’d heard about, who was doing work for 60 years in the country, and he’s now an old man. You can’t film history. But the people there whose stories we were able to film show exactly what he’s been doing for 60 years. Hopefully we took up his challenge well enough to merit something that honors him.
AJG Rather than doing a socio-political piece about the bigger issues of Pakistan, or using the characters you feature as icons or symbols for such problems, you wanted to make a more personal, emotional, intimate film. Can you talk about why you felt that approach was more effective?
OM That’s very personal for me, because when I’ve worked as a documentary photographer before, I became very jaded with the ongoing, incessant conversations about politics, politics, politics. Everyone is reduced to these pawns in a conversation about extremist political forces. If there’s any region that has suffered a lot from that, it’s Pakistan. But that’s not reflected in my mother, father, and family. There’s a place for that kind of politicized work—and there are amazing people who do stuff like that. We’re now friends with Jeremy Scahill, for example. But there’s also a place for this, for moving a viewer with something they might recognize and empathize with, for them to see the characters as people just like themselves. And frankly, I don’t think that’s been done before for this region.
BT The problem with a lot of the films that come out about this region is that your avatar, your central character that you mirror as an audience, is American or is from the West, and then the characters they interact with actually end up meeting them on their terms, speaking broken English. One main question we get asked about our film is, “Wow, these kids are really eloquent, did you give them lines?” But no, this is just the way they speak. They’re smart. They’d make minced meat out of me if I was there as a kid. They know how to get around. And for us to meet them on their terms was important.
The word “effective” is so interesting, because I think a lot of documentaries are expected to have a “message.” That’s something I’m battling with, because I don’t know what the message is supposed to be. I hope the film leaves people with questions, and they come up with answers for themselves. There’s a difference between confusion and mystery.
AJG Why do you think there are so many runaways in Karachi?
OM I don’t know that there are more or less in Pakistan than anywhere else. But the ones we met run from home for very mundane reasons that anyone else might. Had that not been the case, we wouldn’t have made the film. Nobody we shot was running from a flood or a war. They’re running away from home because there’s violence in the home, domestic abuse maybe. And poverty.
BT Yeah, the same reason kids would run away in America.
OM In our press blurb, it says our film brings up the question of “home” in a kid’s life. I think we knew that question was an entryway for a foreign viewership to say, “Oh, I have problems with my parents too.” That’s probably more common ground.
The documentary Streetwise [about kids living on the streets of Seattle] is amazing, and impacted me a lot—actually, there’s a little homage to that film in our film! The main character jumps off a bridge in Seattle; and so we went to a bridge in Karachi, where kids were jumping off, and I said “Oh, my god!” and we filmed it.
AJG The one thing that’s so different from kids running away in the West is that the kids in your film all have such strong religious belief. They look at God as a protecting force, seeming to rely on him much more than they would rely on their parents. I realize that worship is a big part of everyone’s everyday lives there. But the kids, even without their parents’ urging, retain that faith in God.
OM It’s really interesting and it’s really great you mentioned that! I don’t want to be the brown guy who rags on Westerners who parachute into Pakistan. But, with their educations here, they might come back and say “Hey man, don’t worry, we’ll have democracy in this country in ten years.” And it’s kind of scotch-and-soda secularism.
AJG I love that expression.
OM It’s mine! As well-intentioned as those elites are—and they are, I’m from the educated classes myself—they have simply not spoken for the bulk of those countries. The bulk of Pakistan is informed by Islam in terms of cultural identity. That doesn’t mean everybody is religious! But it is undeniable that the culture’s identity and the bulk of the people’s lives are shot through these kids. Not to show that is actually a betrayal of the culture. I used to be diplomatic about that, but I’m not anymore, because I’m getting too old. It’s great you picked up on that.
AJG Why are there so many street boys, but we don’t see any girls who are runaways?
BT There is a woman’s center, but unfortunately we didn’t have the access to film there. That’s also one of the reasons we hyper-focused on the runaway home and on these boys, because we didn’t want to say we were doing a definitive piece on “a foundation,” since that sounds kind of boring. But this is what we had the privilege to be a part of. We’re hoping that somebody else will do an equally powerful piece about the girls. The Edhi Foundation does an extraordinary job of protecting and nurturing them, too. My wife went inside the women’s center, but we weren’t allowed.
AJG As mentioned before, the kids you filmed are incredibly articulate, but you claim you didn’t prompt them. How were they in front of the cameras? Did you ever find them to be acting, or were they completely unselfconscious?
OM It would simply be an untruth to say that anyone stays the same in front of a camera. I like big, generalized statements that are difficult to defend, but I think that one’s pretty easy to defend, right? There’s even a moment in the film where Omar says to another boy before they fight, “Oh, you’re trying to be a big shot for the camera?” And by leaving that in there, we’re simply more transparent than most about our own involvement in this, our dropping in—and therefore more comprehensive. But I do think, at the same time, there are many moments in the film where they did forget about the camera.
BT They also don’t have much literacy when it comes to films. They’ve probably seen one or two. They don’t know how to act in front of a camera. But the adults, they were the harder ones to break into, because they’re more aware.
AJG Adults are often therefore less interesting to watch than kids; they have more hang-ups. Have the kids or Omar in particular seen These Birds Walk?
OM Not yet. They will, though.
BT We keep in touch with the families. We showed Asad the film, and he was happy. It is who he is, but when he saw himself on camera, he said, “Oh my god, you put that scene in where I’m trying on pairs of jeans? What are my parents going to say?” It’s a little graphic for them.
AJG How hard was it for you to separate your job as objective documentarians from feeling empathy for the kids or wanting to help them out?
OM We didn’t separate that at all. I don’t think either of us feel any attachment to the antiquated idea of objectivity. We’re pretty transparent about our aesthetic and cultural position and bias with the film. We wanted something immersive, and something that reflected what we knew and know about the culture—its warmth and life. And also to defend us, I don’t think there’s any objectivity for other people who claim that either. I’m generally very suspicious of that.
BT When you have a camera and you’re putting it at a certain angle, that’s already your perspective.
AJG The film illustrates the gang violence, ethnic conflict, and poverty a little, but I think it also shows how much people want to help each other. Is it a hopeful message?
OM I think those aspects are, aren’t they? I think the way Asad becomes kind of a reluctant hero; the way he gets involved, he doesn’t shy away from it. I’ve always fancied myself quite intrepid and quite bold, but watching him I often thought, Would I have done that? Even in the end when he says to Omar’s father, “You really bummed off the Edhi Foundation, didn’t you?” In some of these dangerous areas, he would drop the kids off at home and say to the parents, “If you don’t want your kid, we’ll take care of him.” He’s speaking for all of us. These kids are sort of tossed into their realities.
BT I don’t think anyone is looking for anyone’s pity—that was the thing I got really quickly when I was in Karachi. We come from privilege, here in America. We have the choice of leaving Pakistan whenever we want to. We’re there for two months and then we can go home again. I came in with this idea, that we’d make a difference for these people in Pakistan; right away, I got the feeling they didn’t really need us there. They were doing just fine without us making this movie. And within two months of following Asad, he felt sorry for us! We’re trying to make this film, and we’re having a lot of difficulties. He just thought “Oh these poor guys, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
OM We had a look of desperation about us.
BT And I realized, they don’t need our pity. We should just make ourselves useful.
AJG What about Edhi himself? Has he seen the film or given you any feedback?
BT No. It’s funny, I was in Pakistan for my brother’s wedding, and I told Edhi I wanted to release that scene with him in the film, where he’s watching the kids, because that scene really moved me. I promised I’d come by to show him the scene, and I went to his office, and recorded him watching it. And he watched for about a minute and then said, “I gotta go now,” and went back into his room.
AJG Was he uninterested?
BT He’s just getting old and he gets tired! At the end of the day, I really wish we would have developed this amazing bond, like it was Tuesdays with Morrie. It was more like Breaking Bad. It was like he’s Walter White, and we’re both like Jesse, trying to be his friend. He’s got bigger things to deal with, and that’s fine. I think we love him more for that.
AJG Did Omar end up going back to live at the Edhi Foundation, or did he stay at home after he was returned by Asad?
BT He’s been at home for a long time now. One of the reasons he didn’t feel so much at home then was they were living alone in this remote area. But now, he’s living in one of these larger colonies with his extended family. Economically speaking, it makes more sense to live with a larger family there.
AJG It’s fascinating because in Karachi, there seem to be so many family members all packed inside these cramped spaces together. But in America, everyone wants so much space. In a family, often everyone is able to get their own room. When the Foundation would drive the boys home, there would be scores of curious neighbors and people watching and coming to greet the boys. It’s so different from the common mind-your-own-business sort of mentality we have here.
OM We grew up here, so our idea of personal space is very different, but really quickly I realized that we had to let go of that if we wanted to take part in this. My family was very OK with us having privacy growing up, but generally speaking, people in Pakistan would ask us right away, “How much money do you make?”
AJG No boundaries! Questions that would be considered very rude here.
BT Yeah! Or if our health was bad, people would say “Your health is bad because you don’t do this.” Or they’d say, “Hey you’ve got some gray in your hair, you need to take care of that” and then give us suggestions for remedies.
OM All the guys there dye their hair. I’m cheerfully embracing my George Clooney phase.
AJG I love the music in your film. Who did that?
BT A guy named Todd Reynolds. He’s a music teacher. We lack any language when it comes to music, but Omar and I both had a taste we agreed upon. Music was the last thing we did on the film and it was also the most important part. In documentary films, I’ve noticed music is used to manipulate the viewers, and I hate that. We tried really hard not to do that, not to use music to get a feeling out of our audience. The music evokes a catharsis, or allows people to reflect a bit. We used sounds that I’d call “accidental,” and those imperfections brought humanity to the score. Music allows us to connect better, sometimes. It’s a far away region, so it’s even hard for me to find a connection to it sometimes; but music is universal.
OM One thing I want to add and credit Todd with is a life lesson I got from sitting with him: he is egoless. And that makes him a genius. He’d work for 12 hours on something, and then we’d say “but can we try this instead?” and he’d say, “OK!” He was willing to go anywhere, and that lack of rigidity was magical. Andrei Tarkovsky said that was his key to making great works: the lack of rigidity.
AJG Did you ever feel people were reluctant to have you film them, like when you were on the streets, pushing through crowds? Or when Omar took off running to the shrine through throngs of people, and you followed him?
OM Yeah, some people did have a problem with us, and others wanted to wave to the camera which was annoying. I’ve never been accused of being shy with the camera. But cameras are annoying. We had someone in here for ten minutes shooting an interview photo of us, and I found it annoying.
AJG Why was Omar so desperate to get to the Shrine?
OM I think he just was. I think seeing that is rare. And is the liberal and generally secular West ready to see a film like that? It’s more of a question of why someone wouldn’t go to the shrine. To say he goes to the shrine because he needs a security blanket, or because he’s a homeless kid—that’s reductive, and it’s not necessarily true. Someone could go to the shrine who’s actually quite wealthy. The question for me, reframed, is that if you spend enough time with a person, can you start to empathize with his impulses?
BT But you also don’t need to make everything for everyone. That’s a bad way to make films. Like with the films 12 Years a Slave or Gravity, Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón are pushing things, but they’re also doing it in a way that they make millions of dollars at the box office. And you have to make a good film to get the numbers that high.
OM Sometimes the idea of what is “bold” is total bullshit. A lot of films don’t really challenge you or give you something new to think about, or draw you any closer to something. Whatever this moving image stuff is, the art form of our generation or century or whatever—the way the novel was before—its potential is really dizzying. As a result of that, I’m curious about those who push those boundaries. I kind of resent a passive viewership, “feed it to me while I’m having my popcorn.”
I find accusations of being pretentious to be very pretentious. You’ve got to have some pretentions! People often think if it’s something simpler to get to, somehow it’s less pretentious. I don’t think that’s true. That’s just using a language that someone’s used to and you’re only used to it because someone very pretentious came around and introduced it to you and made it ordinary.
AJG So you want to challenge viewers?
OM Well, I’m saying it’s an interesting question. I don’t think we’ve made a film that challenges viewers like that yet.
AJG It will show people a culture they possibly have little to no concept of—that’s challenging.
OM Yes, but it’s not challenging in its form. Do I think we pointed a camera at something that is not seen? Yes.
BT It’s funny, some great films get released and no one goes to see them. It’s hard to get people to come to the theaters for documentaries. That’s fine, but it’s changing now, which is exciting. We have to figure out new and inventive ways to get people to come.
AJG Then again, it really only takes a few people to see and appreciate your film. You don’t need masses.
BT We agree!
These Birds Walk opened in NYC on November 1st at Village East Cinemas.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.