In Karachi, Pakistan, the Edhi Foundation (named for its founder, Abdul Sattar Edhi) picks up runaways and lost children and provides a home for them. If they can be reunited with their parents, ambulance drivers will take them home; if not, they're allowed to stay. These Birds Walk follows a few of the children staying with Edhi and the people helping to run the organization, including Edhi himself. The majority of the film focuses on two people: Omar, a young runaway struggling with anger issues stemming from poverty and neglect, and ambulance driver Asad, who volunteered to help out simply because he had nothing better to do, and discovered something to live for.
Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq take a lesser-used approach to the material, opting out of the usual talking-heads or a very specific narrative in favor of a more dramatically ambiguous "average 48 hours" feel. Although the movie depicts a series of events with a distinct end, Mullick and Tariq are happy to stand back, allowing their footage of Karachi and its economic, spiritual, and social environment to speak for itself. When the film ends, there's an almost instinctual expectation that statistics will appear on the screen, or there will be a text-based epilogue to the events of the film, designed to pull the viewer toward a specific cause, but neither appears. The film is practically a mood piece, and it's an effective one at that.
Through some truly incredible candid footage, the filmmakers capture Omar's emotional complexity. Identified as either eight or nine years old, the viewer is introduced to Omar in a scene where he asks another Edhi boy, Shehr, about the importance of parents. Omar's treatment of Shehr in this scene practically paints him as a villain, inflicting pain on his close friend that stem from misplaced ideas of manhood and the way of the world. Later, Omar's fears and emotional weaknesses are highlighted when he struggles to interact with other children, who mercilessly taunt him. Throughout, his surprising maturity is apparent in the way he speaks and processes information, and in fact the same is true of most of the kids. A discussion between Omar and another boy, Mumtaz, is heartbreakingly practical, bordering on cynicism.
Asad is an interesting counterpoint to Omar, a young man who once had suicidal thoughts until he volunteered to become an ambulance driver. He is simultaneously positive about the work while struggling with the practical limitations of the job. Every ambulance driver at Edhi is forced to split their time between driving kids home to their parents and picking up the dead, and there is also a gas shortage. Edhi, of course, tells Asad to focus on the children, but it's not always easy work. At one of his stops, a parent tells Asad point blank that it would've been preferable if he'd discovered the child dead instead of alive. The same boy cries on the journey home, positive that his father will hit him. Although Asad tells him he'll return the boy to Edhi if he doesn't feel safe, there's an ominous air to the way his brothers and sisters lead him silently into his house and shut the door.
Stylistically, there's a raw beauty to the film's cinematography that brings to mind Terrence Malick, but occasionally the artfulness of the photography and cutting are so dynamic and intrusive (more like a fictional feature) that it threatens to undermine what the subjects are saying. Still, much like Malick, the roving camera captures a spiritual element to the world that dovetails with the culture in Karachi. Although Omar screams "I'll fuck your mother!" at a bully and occasionally seems disillusioned, he is deeply religious, even forcing Asad to make a stop at a temple before he returns home. The sight of Omar slipping past the cops in a crowded marketplace, praying in front of a shrine among a crowd of adults, is a uniquely affecting image, indicative of These Birds Walk's poetic approach to a subject rooted in harsh reality.
These Birds Walk gets the traditional Oscilloscope treatment, arriving in a very nice matte cardboard package. A gatefold section with a sheath for the disc slides inside an outer slipbox. The outside art features the original theatrical poster, with the Oscilloscope collection number on the spine, and the gatefold is covered with photography, either from the shoot or directly from the film. When the package is new, a mail-away postcard to become a subscriber to the company's monthly DVD / Blu-Ray by mail service is included. As most of O's releases are, it's very handsome.
The Video and Audio
As with most documentaries, These Birds Walk was shot on a variety of low-budget digital video sources, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation reflects this. Aliasing, smearing, noise, and other instances of digital harshness are often visible, but fine detail is frequently excellent all the same, and colors are natural and bright. Sound is a crisp and surprisingly well-separated Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation that captures more ambience and authenticity from the footage than expected, whether it's the crashing waves of the ocean right at the beginning, the film's incredible score (by Todd Reynolds), or footage of the kids simply talking to one another. English subtitles accompany the Urdu audio, and a 2.0 stereo track is also available.
Two bonus features are included on the disc. The first is an audio commentary with Mullick and Tariq. It's a decent track, filling in the details of the production, and filling in background on the kids and the environment, but the co-directors pleasure with the way the movie turned out can drift slightly into insensitivity, as if the kids were simply there to assist in realizing their vision. This is accompanied by a lengthy selection of deleted scenes (17:41). Separated for the film, these clips don't quite have the atmosphere as the finished picture (the film's music plays a big part in its tone), but there are some interesting bits here, including more with Edhi himself, a reporter visiting the center, and even a wedding.
Trailers for Unmistaken Child, Burma VJ, Youssou N'Dour, and Dark Days are available on the main menu under "Oscilloscope Releases." An original theatrical trailer for These Birds Walk is also included.
These Birds Walk finds an unusual way to draw the viewer into the story of the Edhi children, capturing a slice of the day-to-day for those who work at the foundation and those who the foundation is helping. It's not about statistics, or a plea for help, just a portrait of the situation as it stands. It's unexpectedly ambiguous, yet distinctly moving. Highly recommended.
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