Omar is a Pashtun boy, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, who is living in a shelter for runaways in Karachi, Pakistan. The shelter is run by Abdul Sattar Edhi, the aged humanitarian whose Edhi Foundation provides medical and social welfare assistance throughout Pakistan, where he is received as a sort of patron saint.
“These Birds Walk,” a remarkable documentary codirected by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, was originally supposed to be about Edhi, but he backed off, telling the filmmakers that the best way to honor him would be to make a movie about the recipients of his work. Crotchety and wily, the blunt and bearded Edhi does make occasional appearances in the film, but his instincts proved correct.
Instead of a testimonial to a great humanitarian, we get something far more complex: a portrait of a young boy caught up in the maelstrom of present-day Pakistan, and of the ambulance driver, Asad, who ministers to the runaways and, in the face of grave danger, returns them to their homes.
We first hear Omar singing gently to himself some Islamic folk songs. He seems both inconsolably lonely and fiercely strong. A pint-sized rapscallion, he picks fights with boys twice his size (which he loses) and dreams of running away from the shelter. The circumstances of his running away from home are not altogether clear but, as with so many of the other boys in the shelter (we see no girls), it appears very likely that he was physically abused by his father.
One boy that we see, Omar’s friend Rafiullah, doesn’t want to be returned by Asad to his family because he fears retribution. Sure enough, when he is dropped off, his father is less than pleased. “Don’t hit him again,” Asad tells him, but as the boy disappears into the mass of family members and gawkers and a door closes behind them, we feel as helpless as the boy doubtless does.
Asad was himself a castoff who made the decision to help others in order to, as he says, “help distance my pain.” His heroism should not be undervalued. (Ambulance drivers are fair game for the Taliban.) His special bond with Omar is obviously more than professional – there’s a real spiritual kinship there. He may sound as if he’s spouting platitudes, but when, in discussing his ravaged life, he says, “Why not spend it caring for others?,” he means every word.
The poignancy of this film, made over a period of several months, is that the boys are both afraid of going home and passionately desirous of returning to their families. They are bewildered by their predicament. Omar tells a friend, “Just talking about home makes me cry,” but he goes on to proudly declaim that he only allows one tear to roll down his cheeks. (More than that would make him a sissy.)
The friend tells him that “there is nothing better than your parents,” and Omar answers, “God is better. God wants you more.” When Asad drives Omar home, the boy escapes from the ambulance and races into a crowd to seek out an Islamic shrine. In this country, Asad remarks, everybody runs after a prayer.
Mullick and Tariq are New York-based independent filmmakers in the best sociopolitical documentary tradition; that is to say, they put a human face on global concerns without resorting to the sort of instructional, talking-head PowerPoint stylistics that make so many films of this type so deadly dull. The directors have a great appreciation for the ineffable stillnesses in the lives of these people who are living in such tumult. They don’t insert themselves into the action or put their people on the spot. The Pakistanis’ humanity – the dailiness of their lives – is honored.
In the face of so much misery, “These Birds Walk” is nevertheless an improbably hopeful experience. The resilience of these boys, and of their protectors, is revivifying to behold.