"These Birds Walk" opens in the darkness just before dawn with a young boy racing into the tide. Shirt and shorts are soon soaked, the sense of freedom absolute.
Omar is only 9, but he's been running for most of his life. He is one of Pakistan's lost children and the centerpiece of this affecting new documentary that throws open a window on his world.
First-time filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq had an entirely different subject in mind when they went to Karachi. Abdul Sattar Edhi is the country's foremost philanthropist, his Edhi Foundation serving as an ad hoc safety net for the country with an extensive network of orphanages, women's shelters, welfare assistance and hospitals. They hoped to follow him.
Instead, in the rare glimpse that Mullick and Tariq catch of Edhi, we see an ancient man on the floor helping to bathe small children one by one. Notoriously private and dismissive of the idea of talking about himself or his humanitarian efforts, Edhi tells the filmmakers that if they want to know him, they should walk among the ordinary people.
They do exactly that.
Shot over several years, the result is a remarkably assured documentary that shows us, as much as tells us, about a forgotten generation growing up in strife and poverty. Deeply moving and devoid of melodrama, "These Birds Walk" is as pragmatic as its subjects. No one seeks pity here, or saving. Mullick and Tariq follow survivors.
The most compelling footage comes from the months the two New York-based filmmakers spent inside one of Edhi's small hostels for runaways and the foundation's ambulance-dispatch office next to it. There they found their stars — Omar, the Pashtun boy from the film's opening, and Asad, a former street kid who now drives one of the ambulances. Asad splits his time between retrieving the bodies piled up by ethnic fighting, street crime and gang warfare and returning the runaways to their families.
There are no talking heads in the film. There are no title cards with the numbers of runaways. No statistics on their fate. There is, however, extraordinary footage, as if Mullick, Tariq and their cameras are sharing space with the rest of the flies on the wall as Omar, Asad and others from the streets, their voices unrestrained and uncensored, tell their stories.
What the filmmakers managed to capture is made more impressive by the fact that so much of the film follows Omar. And Omar runs — at one point disappearing into a crowd at the Mazar shrine, leaving us to wonder if that's the last we will see of him.
Omar is a charismatic subject, by turns a charmer, a brawler and a peacemaker. He has an infectious smile and a vocabulary heavily salted by the wrong side of street. Adults are barely present in the house, the boys left to their own devices much of the time. Between the call to prayers, they act as boys do — wrestling for the power position in the group, playing, laughing, crying and talking about their plight. All are runaways, most have escaped difficult and often violent circumstances. And yet most, including Omar, long to return home.
Asad the ambulance driver stands as what Omar may grow into. The young man has found his place in this world by working for Edhi, and in helping the boys. Funny, cynical and street savvy, Asad's expectations are tempered by what he sees. His free-floating observations shape the context for the film. As he talks of the bodies he retrieves, the neighborhoods he fears going into, the crumbling infrastructure, the political unrest, the numbers of his comrades — unarmed ambulance drivers — who've become casualties themselves, a portrait of a country in a free fall emerges.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking. One young boy is unable to hold back the tears as Asad drives him back to a family with a history of beating him.
Still, this is not a dark film. Omar brings an unaffected effervesce, the footage is poetic, and the score is haunting. The story may be anchored to Asad and Omar, but "These Birds Walk" serves as a reminder of the resilience of children and how little it takes to keep hope alive.
'These Birds Walk'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes; in Urdu with English subtitles
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills