At daybreak twilight, an unsteady camera captures a young boy Omar running to the ocean and his wordless reveling at reaching the water, these opening shots bordering on Malickian. As with most moments of pure joy and freedom, it's not to last as we see him taken into police custody and then to a youth home, the central subject of Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq's "These Birds Walk." The film cuts from the frolicking boy to an old man washing clearly malnourished toddlers, his concerns over their poor health being brushed off by their caregivers.
The man is Dr. Abdul Sattar Edhi, founder of the Edhi Foundation, a Pakistani welfare organization that offers 24/7 emergency assistance and runs the Edhi youth home. At the time of filming, the elderly Edhi is visibly waning in health, but continues performing his duties and running the organization, which under his leadership since 1951 grew from one single room clinic to 300 care centers. Rather than focusing on this extraordinary figure (dubbed by some as the Mother Theresa of Pakistan, though Edhi protests throughout the film that he is merely ordinary, "from ordinary people" and humbly that "what I've been given is for doing good"), the directors use his interviews to frame this story of ordinary people in dire straits, focusing particularly on the children who are intrinsically the most vulnerable, without adding the typical feel-good sugarcoating of a happy ending or overarching silver lining.
Along with Edhi's paternal overview, directors Mullick and Tariq follow the interweaving storylines of Asad Ghori, an Edhi ambulance van driver, and Omar, the boy from the opening sequence who ran away from home. Having had hit some rough times himself (including an ill mother and suicidal thoughts), Asad looks out for the boys as much as he can, driving them from the streets to the youth home and a lucky few to their actual homes. Now a few years on the job, he has a pragmatic tone, offering Omar the chance to leave the ambulance van before they arrive at the youth home, but at the same time ominously stating, "Things are dangerous these days. I'm not responsible." With the looming possibility of kidnapping or worse, Omar stays in the van and goes to the youth home. After everything he has assumedly witnessed as the driver for runaways and corpses (it's the latter for which he actually gets paid), Asad still is astonished by the uncaring and inhumanity that surrounds him from families that don't want their lost, runaway children back (one uncle says "I'd be happier if you brought his corpse") to realizing "it's easier to transport dead bodies than to take these kids home." World weary and inspiring beyond his years, Asad continues on assisting those who need his help or can't help themselves.
Speaking of those who can't help themselves, the central subject is the children of the Edhi youth home, with Omar leading the narrative as a strong and strong-headed character. When his more homesick, fellow housemate Shehr asks him whether he had ever seen anything better than his parents, Omar responds with unaffected and unflinching frankness, "I've seen many things better than parents." Crucially, the filmmakers visited the youth home over the course of three years and built a strong rapport with the boys, gaining their trust. It's through this trust that the filmmakers are able to capture the rawer moments of the film, from Omar revealing that his parents were abusive, showing the scars to prove it, to a fight between the boys involving punches, threats and cursing all without a supervising adult in sight.
Happy to be away from his family, Omar is initially bombastic, declaring, "I'm a Pathaan! A man of destiny." But as the film progresses and Shehr, who's become his chief cohort, returns home, Omar's frustrations grow and his assertive personality becomes more bullying as he picks fights and taunts the other boys. This compounded with trouble sleeping makes Omar turn toward much darker thoughts, asking God whether he should kill himself. (SPOILER) When Omar does finally return to his family, his future looks just as desolate as the gray, flat land they are living on in Pakistani Taliban territory, with both of his parents wondering why Omar came back at all—his father asking Asad for a job and his mother telling him that most of her children had stayed at the youth home at one time or another, treating it more like daycare than an orphanage. Ultimately, Omar's story arc showcases the underlying sadness and ultimate detriment of being uncared for and/or unloved, made all the more heartbreaking by the hopelessness of his surroundings. (END SPOILER)
The film not only tugs at the heartstrings but also immerses the audience into its subjects' storylines and culture, particularly through frequent shaky POV shots (from following Omar running to being in the midst of an almost-to-the-death fistfight between two young boys to bouncing along in Asad's ambulance). Utilizing the imagery of flying birds and iron bars, the filmmakers illustrate the longings of its subjects and the constraints of their surroundings, with Omar looking through the youth home's gates into a bright beam of light and Asad falling asleep in the ambulance looking out onto the horizon. Both look toward a literal and figurative brighter tomorrow, but in turn, seem to have come to terms with the reality of it being just beyond their grasps, though that won't stop them from reaching. Thinking along these lines, the title itself can be seen in at least two different lights; one being that these birds (or characters) walk freely and another being that these birds walk (struggle) rather than fly.
Considering all of the themes at play (poverty, welfare, child abuse), the filmmakers chose to reveal the poignancy of the story through strong narrative threads and striking cinematography rather than focus on political statements. (Mullick explained his motivation behind this to Filmmaker Magazine as "There's this schoolboy-ish upstart in me who wants people to watch a film set in Pakistan the way they would any film about homeless kids, and not reduce these people to political or social symbols simply because they live in Pakistan.") As with real life, there aren't any stock characters, clear morals, or easy solutions in "These Birds Walk." Edhi's no Daddy Warbucks and Omar and the other boys aren't Little Orphan Annie and her misfit gang, with the children returning to their unhappy home lives ultimately, if they're lucky.
Eschewing a neater plotline, rather remarkably for their first feature-length documentary, the filmmakers stayed true to reality and followed Albert Maysles's recent advice on making a good documentary—"Authenticity is at the core of a good documentary. You are giving a picture of really what's going on." The filmmakers offer glimpses into the daily lives that capture the core of each of the subjects: Edhi and Asad giving back to society to their best abilities (whether that's running a large-scale humanitarian organization or driving that organization's ambulance van), Omar and other boys in similar predicaments neither wanting to stay in the youth home nor return home to abusive parents, and the families unable to properly take care of these children due to poverty and related socioeconomic issues. Following the authenticity of its subjects, the film doesn't offer a solution or a political statement other than the hinted hope that more people will get involved in helping those less fortunate than themselves, particularly in their own communities. [B+]