Although many in the Western world are unaware of the good deeds of Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, if it was up to Edhi, it would stay that way. So when Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick approached the humble humanitarian to make a movie about his life, he passed on the offer, leaving the door ajar only slightly when he asked that anything made about him should reflect his work, not himself.
Little did Tariq and Mullick know at the time that Edhi was giving them the opportunity to make something far more unique with their feature “These Birds Walk,” refocusing what was to be a film about Edhi’s impact on Karachi where he had provided aid to hundreds of refugees who had been displaced by the Taliban into the story of a young boy named Omar, one of the countless children who run away from their impoverished conditions in Pakistan and take up residence in an Edhi Foundation orphanage. As Tariq and Mullick discover, the boy is still running, even though he’s got a roof over his head, torn between returning to a family that can’t afford to keep him and a place that never will really feel like home.
His restlessness is caught by Mullick’s stunning camerawork which follows Omar’s fancy footwork throughout the streets of Karachi and within the halls of the orphanage where the young boy tussles with his peers and ultimately the decision to live elsewhere. Omar’s story is paralleled by that of Asad, an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation who takes the runaways back to their relatives and identifies with the children since he came from the streets himself. Between the two, “These Birds Walk” sheds light on Edhi’s unconventional yet effective social services system in a country where such amenities would be hard to come by otherwise, yet in the filmmakers’ exquisite, exuberant storytelling, “These Birds Walk” becomes unconventional and effective in its own right, soaring alongside Omar as he figures things out for himself and chases a life that would seem to be just beyond his grasp.
Shortly after the film premiered at SXSW earlier this year, I had a chance to talk with the New York-based Tariq and Mullick about about their first feature, which opens this week in Los Angeles.
How did you become interested in making a film about this?
Bassim Tariq: It was about four years ago when I picked up this autobiography of Abdul Sattar Edhi that was translated from Urdu to English. It was a really poor translation and I don’t think it really did a good depiction of who he was, so I felt like maybe there’s something deeper there. Omar was really into this idea as well and he had just done a gallery showing in Chelsea. His photos were incredible, so I was like, “You’re going to be the DP and we’ll just work on this together.” That’s how we went into Pakistan. When we got there, Edhi was not interested in being part of the film and he threw the challenge at us, “If you want to know me, look at my work.” From there, we started visiting all the different centers and as we found the runaway home, it was the crux of our story because that’s where we found Omar the little boy and we started from there.
That sounds like that might’ve been a blessing in disguise since it must’ve been disappointing initially to be turned down by Edhi.
BT: We had actually met Edhi earlier in New York, and he said, “Oh yes, please come to Pakistan. You guys will have all the access you need and I’ll be there,” so we were really excited. We got some money saved up, we told everyone we were going to have this unprecedented access with Edhi, and we get there and he’s like, “No, I didn’t say that.” I [insisted], “But you said this to me,” and he goes, “Well, that’s just the trickery of your western tongue.” So we were very dismayed and I felt a little defeated, but we kept going because it was so early in our trip to Pakistan. It was like the second day we were there that we got this cold water thrown at us, so we had to figure out what we were going to do and we had to figure out quick.
Out of all of the different parts of the Edhi Foundation, what drew you to the runaway home?
BT: We were drawn to the runaway home for a lot of reasons, but one specifically was the fact that for these kids, there was a choice. They had a family and they fled. Omar says this really well, but the tragedy’s clear cut. These kids left home and now they are conflicted on this idea of where they want to be. Every night when you’re at the runaway home, these kids will cry because they miss their families, because …they’re kids again. Throughout the day they’re in this “Lord of the Flies” environment where they’re all trying to be the leader, the chief, and at the end of the day, they still need the comfort of their mother and father and the fact that they know what it feels like to have that comfort is something that’s also really interesting.
Omar spoke about feeling a “restlessness” about the presentation of Pakistan in other films. Was that a guiding light as far as the visual style of the film?
Omar Mullick: I’ll say this simply – Pakistan is beautiful. I didn’t beautify it and sometimes there’s a temptation because we’ve seen this region of India, Sri Lanka and these places shown as only poverty-ridden. Sometimes I think it’s a shock to see that maybe the region as we see it, right? But that said, we were sensitive when we went out there to things that are beautiful about the place and not afraid to show it. The children are beautiful – the way they move and run and play is beautiful. The light quality is stunning, the color, the dust and the color of the earth when you go outside Karachi. The busload of noise is interesting. It’s an exciting place, but I actually don’t think I shot it in a Pakistani way. I just shot it in the way I’d shoot anyone I was close to or that I love and feel a kind of intimacy for.
You’ve actually cited “Streetwise” and “Dark Days” when talking about this film since they both dealt with homelessness, but were they actually influences on the style?
OM: If you watch “Streetwise” and “Dark Days,” our film is nothing like those films and I don’t think they were influences like that — that’s to pay them a compliment. But I think they set the bar for wow, this is really possible. “Streetwise” is one of my favorite films and it’s because it’s really intimate and they really get into these lives and they show those kids with real dignity and complexity. Bassam and I both felt we could really do that and because of some of the access we had, [we felt] that we could slip into the culture and it hadn’t been done before. One of the reasons why Bassam and I have worked so closely is that even when we disagree creatively about the movie, we share a restlessness about wow, that’s been done before. What’s around the corner? Can we go around the corner? We’ve been going around the corner now together for four years and that’s the thing I’m very grateful for.
What was something unexpected around that corner for you on this film?
BT: If there’s one thing that changed it for me, it was…remember, I’m still a westerner coming into Pakistan, so when I’m at this runaway home, I wasn’t necessarily sure it was the best place for these kids because I wanted them to go home too. But then when you start taking these kids home and you see what they’re living in, it really changes how you see the [Edhi] Foundation. It really shows that they’re doing an incredible job for giving a roof over these kids’ heads. They’re giving them an education, they’re giving them food, they’re giving them clothes. It puts it all in perspective that it’s actually a great option for these kids to have.
OM: For me, if there was a turning point, it was actually a pretty big arc where I left Karachi for a while. I hung out with a couple other Pakistanis [back in America] and Bassim had gone back and finished shooting and I sat around some people that were actually quite critical of Edhi and the work he had done. They had [wondered about the organization’s] transparency and said, “Look, why isn’t the institution run like this? Wouldn’t this be more efficient if it was clearer? We could defend it better.” I was hit so hard by that because it was so wrong. In fact, the way the Foundation [operates in a looser fashion] is actually the way that these people are going to get help. I do hope you see some of that in the film.
The way [the ambulance driver] Asad can actually go in there and actually get his hands dirty in the situation and say, “Hey, you’re taking advantage or if you don’t want the kid, bring him back” and “If the parents are bad to you, well, then they don’t have to pick you up.” These are things they’re not in any manifesto, they’re not in any protocol. And thank God they’re not because it allows the Edhi Foundation to adapt, which is what I think Pakistan demands. It demands you to be able to adapt in a way that is uniquely Pakistani.
What would you like audiences to take away from the film?
BT: It was interesting during the Q & A [at SXSW], the way people were engaging was exactly the way we want – we want people to be having a conversation and then also to pulling from their own personal stories and they can relate to that. That was a revelation yesterday night when at the screening, one lady was like, “Well, I was a battered child and at the age of six, I was running away and that place actually seemed pretty damn good. I wish we had something like that.” That to me was pretty great because it wasn’t like she said, “I saw this CNN article about runaway boys in Pakistan…” No, she looked at her own story.
OM: We’re very humbled and very grateful for the way people have engaged. Bassim and I walk around and we talk about this. There are people who have nothing to do with that region that come and watch this film and completely surrender to these characters. That’s something that is overwhelming, even as I speak about it right now.
“These Birds Walk” opens at the Music Hall 3 in Los Angeles on November 29th. A full schedule of future screenings can be found here.