One of a handful of innovative new documentaries will be featuring at the LRFF this year is These Birds Walk, from Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick about a poor runaway boy and a reluctant ambulance driver in Karachi, Pakistan who are brought together by a dying humanitarian leader upon whom so much of their daily lives depend. I spoke with the filmmakers about the organization in Pakistan they featured, the unique style of the film, and what is like working together as a team.
1. How do you guys know each other? Was this the first project that you all had done in Pakistan?
B: Omar and I met through a very close mutual friend of ours, Musa Syeed. After getting an early glimpse of a photo gallery he was putting together, I sent him a long-winded email about this film project I’ve been trying to get off the ground about Abdul Sattar Edhi, the elusive humanitarian that kickstarts the film.
O: The only thing I would add is that Bassam and I had not been friends for very long, but after a few chats about aesthetic interests and risk, it was clear we would attack the film with a shared sensibility.
2. What is the Edhi Foundation? Are they making a difference in Pakistan, in your opinion?
B: The Edhi Foundation started off as a rogue ambulance service by Abdul Sattar Edhi in the 1950′s. It’s now the largest and most important social and health service provider for the majority of folks in Pakistan.
Before we left to Pakistan, I was watching a livefeed of a bombing in Karachi from the comfort of my office in NYC. It was a frantic scene. Everyone was running away from the blast, including the police. The only people that were running towards the smoke were Edhi’s ambulances. I don’t know what Pakistan would look like without his services.
3. Can you talk about the film’s style? These Birds Walk has a frenetic pace. Was this a conscious decision? If so, why?
O: There was a conscious choice certainly to capture the physical energy and rhythm of Omar, the central character, and his friends. So much of his character feeds off a kind of coiled tension that then explodes into these confrontations or great flights, either within the runaway home or outside it. We were also committed to making as immersive and experience as possible to sidestep standard approaches to people that reduces them to socio-political slogans. Movement, sound, intimate conversation – all these points of emphasis are the avenues in we pursued to the narrative.
B: There is a level of angst and frustration that plagues the runaway home. Everyone is waiting. The ambulance drivers are waiting to get dispatched. The kids are waiting to get home. The energy is constantly bottlenecked.
4. Omar has a photography background. This was your first time shooting a feature documentary. How did your photography background inform the visual style of the film and the equipment you used?
O: I used the Canon 5DmkII with essentially two lenses with rare exception: the 24mm – 105mm as my go to glass and a prime lens at night. I almost always went for a 50mm prime when shooting the children talking. I read something, I think by filmmaker Stan Brakhage, where he talked about the eye’s focal length being close to a 50mm lens, so I thought that would push the verite to further intimacy if also kept at or around eye level. You can see that visual choice at key elements in the film. Beyond that, I actually do not believe that a photography background necessarily makes for good cinematography at all. Good cinematography for me is probably more informed by other disciplines like dance and architecture. It is almost an entirely different muscle and way of thinking. That said, if I concede the point a little, I would have to admit that some thing in the color palette of photographers like Mike Brodie, who shot hobo kids riding rails, and Todd Hido’s book A Road Divided were swimming around my head as we went in to this film.
5. It seems as though this film tries to steer clear from social commentary. What made you all make that decision?
B: Early in the edit, we tried a version of the film that opened with statistics of runaways in Pakistan. We had unintentionally oversimplified the role of all the people in our film. Every frame afterwards would have to warrant this “thesis”. I almost vomited when I saw the title card. The people on the screen have shared their lives with us, they told us things they wouldn’t tell their families, they talk about their depression, they weep, they talk of redemption, forgiveness from God. They have trusted us with their lives. And we would sidestep it all for this idea of “relevance” or “social context”. I never understood that because I believe every scene in our film gives you social context. The claustrophobia in the runaway home, the praying, the ambulance driver trying on tight jeans. This is all context, texture. If we can show complexity to a region that is continuously marginalized, than I feel, maybe, we are doing something interesting, worthy of being shared.
6. How long did you all stay in Pakistan to film? How were you able to gain access to your subjects?
B: On and off, three years. We were able to gain access by perfecting our broken Urdu and drinking tea without crashing.
7. Do you all have any future collaborations in the works?
B: I am scribbling some ideas that Omar will have to polish. We will then film them immediately. Maybe we’ll get funding, but if we are as bold and ambitious as we hope, we won’t.