"These Birds Walk" opens with a young boy running at breakneck speed down a Karachi beach toward the Arabian Sea, where he throws himself into the water with reckless abandon.
The boy is Omar, a resident of the Edhi Foundation's runaway home in Karachi, and he becomes our charismatic guide through the back alleys and hallways inhabited by runaways and orphans.
But this kinetic, visceral documentary is not here to preach about the socioeconomic climate in Pakistan, where an estimated 70,000 children are runaways, at least 15,000 of them in Karachi alone. Instead, the film opts for an observational tone that communicates universal messages of family, childhood, and resilience.
"Family is complicated, no matter where you are," the film's co-director Bassam Tariq told GlobalPost. "Kids run away all the time. We weren't examining [this issue] sociopolitically; we wanted to hit on the universals."
"These Birds Walk" certainly accomplishes that, creating intimate portraits of children who've run away from radically different homes — no matter how broken — but still feel ties to them. Omar's friends, from the orphanage's devoutly Muslim prayer leader Mumtaz to sweetly innocent Shehr, illuminate the incredible diversity of the children and families who are struggling in Pakistan. The boys are constantly talking about making big escapes from the orphanage. They put their heads in their hands wishing for returns to families who, we find out, are far from perfect.
"We tried to attach ourselves deeply to this story as human beings," co-director and cinematographer Omar Mullick said, after the film's screening at the True/False film fest in Columbia, Missouri.
The closeness that filmmakers Mullick and Tariq — themselves children of Pakistani immigrants — cultivated with their subjects comes through the big screen immediately. Aside from their decision to shoot with a small camera often held at shoulders' height and to use a lens that forced them to "go up close in [the orphans'] faces," they also crossed the fourth wall so many documentaries set up between the filmmaker and subject.
"We'd break up fights if they went too far, as in, life-threatening," Tariq said of shooting the boys, who often rough-housed and taunted each other within the runaway house's halls. "And sometimes they did."
The movie was first envisioned as a portrait of Abdul Sattar Edhi, 85, a philanthropist who created the humanitarian foundation in 1951. The Edhi Foundation continues to provide shelter for orphans, runaways and the mentally ill, as well as taking care of burial services, medical care, and other emergency services.
After three years working on Edhi to agree to be the film's subject, Mullick and Tariq finally gained access. However, Edhi told them that if they really wanted to know who he was, they should look to his work — which is where they found Omar and his fellow runaways.
The filmmakers also met ambulance driver Asad, an orphan himself who now works tirelessly for Edhi's cause, often shepherding the boys back to their broken homes.
Though Asad says in the film that his work has "distanced him from his own pain," it also brings fresh wounds.
"It's easier to transport dead bodies than to take these kids home," he says in the movie, after returning one of the boys, Rafi, to an abusive father. The boy, however, had returned by choice — just as he had run away by choice. The orphanage will not return children to families if they do not want to go, Mullick explained, but once a child expresses a desire to go home, they are obligated to take him.
As Asad said: "In this country, everyone is running towards a prayer."
"Pakistan is a country of corruption, but it's also a country of extreme freedom," Tariq said, though Mullick was clear that he and his co-director are both loathe to make any sweeping statements about Pakistan.
"It's a constantly shifting perspective," said Mullick of the country. "I want to end this phenomenon of one class of people speaking for the whole country, be it Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, or anywhere else, and I hope the film does that."
But the two filmmakers did come away with a concrete message from the four years they spent working on "These Birds Walk."
"The people in this film are more resilient than we are," Mullick said.