A little more than a month ago, These Birds Walk, a new documentary chronicling runaway kids who have been saved by the street-level philanthropy of Pakistani humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, played at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
As she attempted to ask a question after the screening, a woman in the audience broke down into tears.
Having just emerged from Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick’s moving glimpse inside a Karachi, Pakistan, home for runaway children, she recalled how she herself ran away from home before she was a teen, fleeing a dire situation at home.
“That was a revelation; when that one lady was like, ‘Well, that place actually seemed pretty damn good,’ ” says the film’s co-director Tariq. “To me, what was pretty great was it wasn’t like she said she saw [something on] CNN about runaway boys in Pakistan. No, she looked at her own story.”
The woman’s comment, and Tariq’s reaction to it, reflect the universality of the story Tariq and Mullick have captured. That deep response of personal identification, for better or worse, hasn’t been uncommon as These Birds Walk makes the rounds of the film-festival circuit, including a stop this week at Toronto’s Hot Docs, en route to theaters everywhere in August.
Still, These Birds Walk is also a story unique to Pakistan, where the large-scale phenomenon of runaway children caught between precarious family situations and the streets has led to creative solutions. One of those solutions is the home Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi has built for such kids in Karachi.
Initially, Mullick and Tariq sought to make a film about Edhi in particular. The low-key — but massively effective — humanitarian would have none of it, insisting: “You will find me among the people. My story is there.”
The filmmakers took his edict to heart. They surveyed Edhi’s many organizations — his string of hospitals for the poor, his ambulance service for the destitute, his alms raising — and settled upon this safe place where children are able to find shelter and education.
Once the filmmakers focused on the home for runaways, an unexpectedly compelling narrative formed between Asad, an ambulance driver often charged with driving these children home, and Omar and Shehr, two young boys shown in all their wild glory, roaming freely even though they are in what’s essentially a foster home.
“We were drawn to the runaway home for a lot of reasons, but one specifically was that [for] these kids, there was a choice,” Tariq tells TakePart. “They had a family, and they fled. But they are conflicted on this idea of where they want to be. Throughout the day, they’re in this Lord of the Flies environment where they’re all trying to be the leader, the chief, and at the end of the day, these kids will cry because they miss their families, [and you see] them as kids again.”
While These Birds Walk is giving American audiences a rare insight into Pakistan, the filmmakers also hope it might change perception from within. As Mullick notes, a conversation he overheard during downtime on the streets of Karachi opened his mind about what was unfolding in front of his camera.
“I sat around some people who were actually quite critical of Edhi and quite critical of the work he had done,” says Mullick. “They had thrown into question the transparency of this and said, ‘Look, why isn’t the institution run like this?’ I was hit so hard by how wrong that [perception is].'”
“In fact, the way that Edhi and his foundation has autonomy, and can do what he wants, is actually the best way that these people are getting help. Asad [the ambulance driver] can actually go in there and get his hands dirty in the situation and say [to parents], ‘Hey, you’re taking advantage’ or ‘If you don’t want the kid, bring him back’ and [to the kids], ‘If the parents are bad to you, well, then they don’t have to pick you up.’ These are things that aren’t in any protocol. And thank God they’re not. It allows the Edhi Foundation to adapt, which is what I think Pakistan demands.”