Many people who hop into documentaries casually expect a certain amount of overt filmmaker guidance — voiceover narration, talking head interviews, infographics, archival footage; anything to help impart information. Yet the vérité doc resists those impulses in order to record reality as it happens. Filmmaker guidance occurs through the editing rather than with voice or outside imagery, and I think that’s why these kinds of documentaries can be the trickiest to pull off.
I’m starting out by saying this because These Birds Walk is a documentary that really pushes the vérité elements as far as they can go. There is minimal hand holding in the film, and I think that’ll put off people who don’t watch many documentaries or have an aversion to the vérité style.
And yet even with that caveat, I think These Birds Walk is an extraordinarily beautiful film about runaways and abandoned children in Pakistan. The documentary has a subtle narrative structure (as much as real life can have a narrative structure, at least) that helps accentuate both the heartbreak of their existence and the brief moments of exhilaration when they seem the most alive.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2013. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
These Birds Walk
Directors: Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq
Release Date: November 1, 2013 (New York), limited release to follow
The Edhi Foundation was started by Abdul Sattar Edhi. The charitable organization has many facets to it, including ambulance service, women’s shelters, foster care, nursing homes, and rehab clinics. We see Edhi himself, a man in his late 80s or early 90s, bathing children using buckets and a basin. While directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq could have made a traditional documentary profile on the group and the man — something inspirational and expected (which I don’t mean in a dismissive way) — Edhi instead says that they can find a portrait of who he is in the work his group does and the normal people that his organization employs and helps.
The filmmakers turn their focus on an ambulance driver named Asad and the runaway children of a Karachi orphanage, particularly a boy named Omar. He’s seen at the opening of the film rushing toward the Arabian Sea with an excited kind of abandon. I couldn’t tell if it was twilight or dawn — it’s that uneasy in-between look of the sky and the light that always throws me — but Omar’s joy is palpable, both in running and in finally hitting the water; it’s what being carefree looks like.
As the film unfolds, we watch Omar and the other children of the orphanage fluctuate from piety, innocence, vulnerability, and rage. One child leads prayer with due diligence while a few of the other kids slap at each other and goof around. In little conversations between the children, none of whom could be older than 10 or 11 tops, they insult each other and smack each other around but then apologize like brothers. The only adults present are the filmmakers and their camera, which was probably held at abdomen or hip level to help immerse the audience in the world of these kids.
I’d briefly mentioned the idea of the observer effect in my review of Matteo Garrone’s Reality last week, and I think it’s appropriate to bring it up here as well. Even though the vérité doc is meant to capture reality, the mere presence of an observer means that the observed will act differently. (It seems even more likely if the observer has a camera.) There’s an extended scene where we watch the runaways play together. Amid the laughter and smiles, Omar sprints back and forth along a corridor, occasionally leaping into the air — like his small, handmade kite on a short string, this is the closest he can get to a full sensation of flight.
But then things get brutal. A skirmish begins between Omar and one of the other kids, which escalates into a full-blown fight. Omar gets pinned and the bigger kid keeps telling him to calm down and apologize. Instead Omar just shouts a muffled, “I’ll fuck your sister,” his face on the ground. It’s so raw, it’s so real, and maybe some of it’s an act of some kind. I have no doubt these kids get rowdy — they’re expressing a rage of abandonment and bleak future, but also expressing the freedom for boys to be boys — but I wonder if some of it was played up because someone was actually paying attention to them.
In the Q & A after the screening, Mullick and Tariq both acknowledged this, and this kind of acknowledgement is made in These Birds Walk as well. Though they also said that the children have barely seen any films, maybe just one or two Bollywood movies in their lives, so their sense of vamping for the camera is much different than people from the West, or more well-off citizens of Pakistan, I’d imagine. What’s interesting is how Mullick and Tariq refuse intervention, let their camera hold the moment, and do their best to observe and do only that. If the moment of roughhousing was initially a kind of acting out for the camera, it suddenly becomes real again — it’s only the moment of roughhousing and suffocation, the second where the camera disappears and there is only the need to break free from being held down.
It’s a wonder that the directors were able to find some beauty in all this heartache and sadness, which may be another one of those distancing things about documentaries — we are with the world of the film because we feel a closeness to the subjects but always apart from it through our ability to aestheticize. The children sleep by candlelight, and in that half-lift dark, Omar says a prayer to be reunited with his family. The camera is on him, but he is absolutely sincere about what he’s saying. He doesn’t countenance the camera. There is only the flame and his wish for family rather than temporary foster care, for real siblings rather than this brotherhood of the lost and abandoned. It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking; we are with Omar but only always watching.
Asad, who I mentioned earlier, drives an ambulance for the Edhi organization, but is also charged with picking up runaways and returning runaways to their actual families. We watch different kinds of reunions. One is tearful while the other foreboding. Some of these runaways left their homes because of abuse or neglect, and to return to that home means something far less desirable than the care of the Edhi Foundation. Perhaps returning home is more dangerous than life out on the streets.
Omar’s family lives in a very dangerous part of Pakistan, one which people would generally avoid given its close association with the Taliban. Yet Asad has to make the trek to return this boy to his home, which should be an answer to Omar’s prayers. And yet given the other children, given the reality of Omar’s life, I wondered what would happen. Going back to that shot at the sea, we’re at a spot in between day and night. Omar asks Asad to stop at a mosque so that he can pray before they continue his return to his family. Once out of the ambulance, Omar takes off running. The camera darts through the crowd trying to keep up. Is he running away again? Is he simply excited?
In moments like this, my intellectual concerns about observer effect and the way filmmakers affect reality are moot. This moment — the excitement and all the ambiguity wrapped up in it — is true. The camera struggles to capture reality like chasing a runaway kite.