"These Birds Walk"

Documentary subjects don’t come much more shy than Pakistani humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, though the same could hardly be said for the attention-starved Karachi street children his world-renown welfare org attempts to shelter and support. After giving “These Birds Walk” directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq permission to tell his story, Edhi demurs, saying, “If you want to find me, look to ordinary people.” So the helmers do exactly that, focusing on several camera-comfortable youngsters in a piece of verite portraiture sure to impress on the doc-fest circuit, but ultimately bound to earn better accolades than receipts.

Oscilloscope Laboratories was so taken with Mullick and Tariq’s on-the-ground look at the Edhi Foundation that the company got involved early, stepping in as producers (a first for the indie distrib), while leaving the helmers to pursue the film they wanted to make. Though that spirit of independence gives the doc a certain creative integrity, it results in a less professional form than auds might prefer, composed of striking moments rather than assembled according to a disciplined design.

Edhi, who claims to have forgotten the names of all the awards he has won, found his calling in caring for the country’s neediest children, and even though his foundation now operates hundreds of clinics and aid centers catering to individuals of all ages, it’s the kids who remain his primary concern. After the opening scene, which observes Edhi carrying out his weekly ritual of bathing the scrawny, bird-like infants, the subsequent footage focuses mostly on a handful of slightly older kids assigned to the same Karachi youth home.

Instead of explaining the system through conventional narration, which would have been extremely helpful, the filmmakers immerse auds in the world they found, capturing its subjects’ behavior with startling candor. (When driver Asad Ghori returns one kid to his home, a relative barks, “I’d have been happier if you’d brought me his corpse.”) As in Luis Bunuel’s landmark narrative film “Los Olvidados,” remarkably unsentimental footage offers a rare glimpse into a childhood experience leagues removed from even the toughest American upbringing, but still not without hope or play.

Approximately 10 years old, agitated Pashtun boy Omar quickly seems to forget he is being recorded. Whether sprinting along the center’s stone benches or picking on the other kids, he shows an alarming degree of aggression toward his peers. As he recalls an incident in which his parents beat him (and wears the scars that reveal a history of such abuse on his face), Omar brags that he “only shed a single tear.” But he’s not as tough as he claims, and the cameras later observe him crying after his bullying backfires.

Though the Edhi centers can insulate kids from the harsh outside world for a time, at least, the thick-skinned urchins have clearly absorbed much of the surrounding violence. Despite the film’s overall optimistic spirit, the helmers certainly recognize that a threat of real danger surrounds them: While rough-housing, the kids could injure one another at any moment, and routine ride-alongs with Ghori have a nail-biting quality as he ventures deep into Taliban territory for the pic’s last delivery.

A terrific inspirational documentary could certainly be made about Edhi, his motivations and the enormously positive impact he has had on Pakistan. Mullick and Tariq referenced multiple news stories and Edhi’s own untranslated and out-of-print autobiography in prepping the film, then shifted the focus onto his young charges for a less conventional result. An effective yet unobtrusive violin score complements the unsteady handheld footage, amplifying the docu’s haunting quality.

These Birds Walk

(Documentary) Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Visions), March 10, 2013. Running time: 72 MIN.

An Oscilloscope Laboratories release and presentation with the support of Sundance Institute, IFP, Cinereach, NYSCA. Produced by Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq, Valentina Canavesio, Sonejuhi Sinha. Executive producers, Daniel Berger, David Laub.

Directed by Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq. Camera (color, HD), Mullick; editor, Sonejuhi Sinha; music, Todd Reynolds; sound, Damian Volpe.

With: Abdul Sattar Edhi, Asad Ghori, Omar, Shehr Ali, Humeira, Mumtaz, Rafiullah, Saqib.

(Urdu dialogue)

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