WILLIAMSTOWN -- A new documentary captures the dark world of Pakistani runaways and the streams of light that manage to get into their lives.
"These Birds Walk" screens at Images Cinema on Monday, July 22, at 7 p.m., with an appearance by Todd Reynolds, the film's soundtrack composer.
Co-directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq originally wanted to do a documentary about Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Satar Edhi, founder of the Edhi Foundation, the largest non-profit welfare provider in his country. Edhi manages various welfare centers around Pakistan, including shelters for battered women and children, and runaways. He is not well-known in the west, and Mullick and Tariq thought it was about time his work was introduced more widely here.
"We didn't know what it would look like or what it meant, but he had given us the access," said Tariq. "When we got to the ground, he told us that he wasn't really interested in being part of the film."
Even though Edhi -- notoriously humble and bordering on being an ascetic -- did not care to have his personal story glorified, the filmmakers were still given complete access to anything within the organization they cared to include in a documentary.
"We started visiting all the different centers and we found this small runaway home," Tariq said. "There's no equivalent to that in America. We have foster care, we have social services, we have all these different systems set up for kids that are runaway or lost, but over there in Pakistan, it was a very scrappy system that Edhi put together on his own because there was no government infrastructure for something like this."
The film includes several people, but focuses mostly on orphaned Omar and a foundation ambulance driver, Asad, who is also charged with returning the runaways to their homes. Mullick and Tariq recall being drawn to Omar as their likely subject from the moment they entered the facilities.
"The way you shoot a documentary is very unglamorous," said Mullick. "I'll sweat behind the camera lens and then Bassam's got this boom pole right behind me, and I think that first day that we spent there, we almost instantaneously gravitated toward the one boy, Omar, who was all puffed up, and then cheek by jowl with him is another boy, who's completely oblivious to everyone around him and just clearly in his own world, missing his folks, and just really quite sad. It's funny because I think my earliest memory of that day begins with them."
One challenge to the filmmakers was the reality of the kids' lives -- both in the facility and outside. Mostly left to their own devices, the filmmakers liken some of that experience to being reminiscent of "Lord of the Flies" and the question became at what point do they step in the story and intervene for the safety of the kids.
"We thought of ourselves as human beings first, and that laid out the parameters of what we were shooting and when we would jump in and stop it," Mullick said. "And there were some things we actually did stop once or twice, it was getting out of hand. At the same time, these incidents were representative of the intense love and tension that comes when you bird cage these little kids in an environment like that, which, ironically, may even be better than the streets outside the runaway home."
And despite the situation within the home itself, the filmmakers had to traverse some gray areas in the children's welfare when measuring what was actually best for them -- to stay in the home or to return to their families. The answer was not the one they expected to come up with.
"When we saw these kids and got to know them, we were very invested in them and we were like, ‘okay, we need to make sure these kids get home,' " said Tariq. "And then when we finally started showing up at their houses, and we saw the conditions that they live in, when we came back to the runaway home, we told these kids that they should be grateful that they were here. And I think it floats to the viewers, also, what the runaway home actually means for these kids because they have three solid meals a day, they have clothes, they have education."
Several kids get a horrible reception from their families upon their return, possibly the most chilling one involving an uncle, who tells the ambulance driver he'd have rather they brought back the child's dead body. The filmmakers say that they saw other reunions that disturbed them even more,
"The coldest response we ever saw with a family toward a child didn't actually make it into the film," said Mullick. "The family turned up to pick up their kid and it was like they were picking up groceries. I remember we were stunned.
The attitudes in these encounters speak to the condition that some of the kids are in when they first arrive and what brings them to that physical state. Tariq notes that the boy who was almost rejected by his uncle was in a deceptively great state of health upon his return home.
"When we saw him earlier, he had these pocks on his face and he was completely malnourished," Tariq said. "He was very skinny. When you saw him in the film, when he was in back of the ambulance, he was in great shape and he was a healthy kid, and he was having just a normal child's life while he was at the foundation.
Mullick and Tariq say that one of their biggest intentions was to steer away from a statistical, cold presentation that revealed the region by the numbers counting its misfortune. Part of this desire meant going without any sort of narration or even context built from hard data.
"We're collectively tired of seeing that region reduced to socio-political slogans and symbols, good intentions and statistics on just how bad things are there - this many runaway boys, this much poverty, this much of a failed state," Mullick said. "Those were things we wanted to shy away from very early on and once we created that conceit going into it, we latched ourselves to that mast and didn't emerge until years later."
Context, in their minds, became about what the actual people in the film, and their surroundings, provided, rather than any wider examination. The idea is to make the audience part of their world, rather than watchers outside a fish bowl.
"We had earlier cuts where we had numbers, because I think back then, I had this false idea that that was context," said Tariq , "but context to me, especially now looking at the film and how it unraveled and came together, is how the kids touch each other, how they speak to one another. I feel like that stuff really informs the cultural experience, the region, and everything the film is about, so I hope that all of that stuff enlightens and that none of this stuff is wasted."
"One of my favorite scenes in the film -- and I'm actually amazed we got that level of intimacy -- is the kids slapping each other around in the middle of prayers," said Mullick. "They really are oblivious to us. You couldn't have dreamt that up. I hope that things like that, religion as a lived reality, come across in the details. That's just really obvious when you're on the ground in the country.
In the end, the film offers no easy answer, instead plumbing the depths of the country's complexity and the way people cope. The co-directors say that is exactly what they hoped to achieve.
"I think films that have too neat an ending don't correspond to a reality that I'm aware of," Mullick said.