The feature documentary centers on The Edhi Home and Ambulance Foundation in Pakistan, a highly respected philanthropic organization in Pakistan and part of a social welfare system pioneered by Abdul Sattar Edhi, sometimes called “Father Teresa of Pakistan.” Edhi has spent decades helping unwanted or runaway children.
The film opens with eighty-six year-old Edhi washing malnourished bodies of baby children who are now in the care of his foundation. He talks about building things up, seeing things break and then having to build it all up again, asks why the children look “half dead” and wonders aloud who will wash the children when he is gone. The aged humanitarian then says if you want to find me you will find me among ordinary people.
It moves away from the story of Edhi to the stories of ordinary boys who have come to the Edhi Home; boys like Omar and Shehr. “Everyone here is poor,” says Omar. The food they are given to eat each day is more than what their parents can put on the table. They participate in daily prayer. And they are largely trapped inside the home, which has a metal fence around it to keep the boys from running away from the foundation.
The home, while helping the children, has a way of making them ashamed of their existence. It gives them more than enough time to think about running away from their parents and whether what they did was right or not.
One of the boys breaks down and cries during prayer begging to be able to go home. There’s also a heart-wrenching scene where the camera holds a shot on Omar and another boy, as they sob into their hands.
This vulnerability comes with risks in the home. An unforgettable scene involves Omar trying to show he is tough as he confronts some of the boys who are bigger than him. Running around and hitting them, they fight with each other. It is never a brawl where someone is certain to be hurt, though the cinematography keeps the tension making one wonder if one of the boys will be injured. It is about power and putting Omar in his place so he knows not to cross the older boys.
Parallel to Omar’s story in the film is the story of Asad Ghori, one of the foundation’s ambulance drivers. He picks up runaway boys and takes them when it is safe or time for them to be returned. But sometimes this conflicts with another job he is supposed to complete, which is the transportation of injured bodies to the hospital or the delivery of dead bodies to the morgue.
Ghori has to deal with confronting the scale of poverty in Pakistan when he takes the boys home. In one of the scenes, he takes a boy home who does not want to go home because he says he is abused. He is afraid and Ghori reassures him that he can come back to the home if he is hurt again. When they arrive, Ghori is told that it would have been better for a corpse to have been delivered than this boy.
Returning boys can also involve trips into Taliban strongholds. It can involve dropping off boys to return to their parents, who let them go to the home because they thought it would be good for them since they are unable to take care of them and provide food.
Directed by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, it was filmed over a period of three years. Mullick and Tariq were able to capture the kind of “fly on the wall” scenes in the film, where the boys appear to have no idea they are there filming, because they spent so much time in the home.
Some of the shots in the film linger for long periods of time. The shaky camera manages to add some authenticity to the content on screen. Also, multiple scenes feature point of view shots; for example, as Omar is running up the steps to get away from a military officer.
It is not an issue-based film. Mullick and Tariq do not attempt to diagnose why there is this kind of poverty in the country. They put it on film for us to see the humanity of people who struggle to live their lives each day. They immerse viewers in the worlds of these boys who wonder if their parents really love them and if life has anything to offer them.
The film challenges American viewers.
“When it’s dealing with subjects in America, when films are predominantly dealing with white people, it’s easier for them to accept a film that’s more immersive,” Tariq said in an STF Docs interview. “But when it comes to people from different parts of the world it becomes harder. I think the problem is that you have to justify further why the story is interesting. Or why it matters, or why we’re being immersed in the subject’s culture, which I think is a little racist.”
“People want to be immersed in the cultural tropes that they’re okay with. And when you pull them out of their comfort zone sometimes it gets really hard,” Tariq added.
Given that Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars is nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, this statement from Tariq is also profound:
What I don’t like is when people ask me, what are you hoping for people to get from the film? I feel like documentary filmmakers are expected to be message-based filmmakers. I think for some filmmakers that’s fine, and I respect them, and I think they’re making very powerful films. Dirty Wars, is, to me, a message-based film. It’s got a very clear thesis and it’s a great film. I think Jeremy Scahill is a saint. But I don’t know if that is whatThese Birds Walk is. For people to come into documentary expecting that, I feel like that’s being a little lazy.
Tariq likes it “better when film leaves you with a question, and you are forced to come up with your own answer.” That challenges Americans’ cultural exceptionalism.
What Americans may think of Pakistan is that there are a “bunch of terrorists” hiding out there and what use is the country to the world. Rather than explicitly tell viewers why they should be interested, as Dirty Wars does, These Birds Walk colors in areas unknown to most people in order to present a portrait of life aside from the violence that makes headlines.