Review: 'These Birds Walk'

“These Birds Walk” might be the single most beautiful documentary of the year so far, or at least of those films given a theatrical release in the United States. Much of it is absolutely breathtaking. Co-director/cinematographer Omar Mullick’s camera rushes through the busy streets of Karachi, finds quiet moments of humbly framed prayer in an orphanage, and takes a ride through rural Pakistan in an ambulance. Sometimes we tell ourselves that documentaries don’t need to be seen on the big screen, at least not as much as fiction films do. That is always nonsense, but few films prove that with quite as much style as “These Birds Walk.”

All of that said, there’s much more to talk about. Mullick and co-director Bassam Tariq have crafted a film about faith, family and poverty that tries to say both a lot more and a lot less than your typical non-fiction take on the children of the Global South. This is no “Born into Brothels,” thank heaven. The initial subject of “These Birds Walk” is Abdul Sattar Edhi, founder of one of Pakistan’s largest charitable organizations. The Edhi Foundation operates orphanages, women’s shelters, clinics, nursing homes and rehab centers, and runs the world’s largest ambulance service. Mullick and Tariq wanted to make a film about Edhi himself, and indeed they book-end “These Birds Walk” with footage of the man at work and voice-over quotations from this national hero.

Yet, as one of the early quotes suggests (“You will find me among the people”), Edhi isn’t interested in becoming the sole subject of a documentary. And so, on his request, Mullick and Tariq instead made a film about the work of his foundation. They went to an orphanage and filmed a number of boys, one runaway named Omar in particular. Then, as a second protagonist, they followed an ambulance driver named Asad who was once a runaway himself. These two are the lens through which we see not only Edhi’s influence, but the larger social landscape of Karachi and Pakistan.

The balance between character study and urban social portraiture is not easy to manage. Mullick and Tariq have crafted a film that tries to have it both ways, with mixed success. It actually ends up sitting almost as a midpoint between two of last year’s Oscilloscope Laboratories releases, both among the best films of 2012. “These Birds Walk” gives Omar and Asad depth of character, but not as much as that of the three California teenagers featured in “Only the Young.” At the same time, however, Karachi does not come to life as the focus of the film in the way that New Orleans is symphonically rendered in “Tchoupitoulas.” In the light of recent nonfiction films about youth, one isn’t entirely sure what “These Birds Walk” is.

But what about an entirely different context? The way that Mullick and Tariq introduce crucial elements of the life of this community, most notably Islamic faith, are reminiscent not so much of documentaries but rather of other classic films of youth. Grand moments of prayer are placed alongside powerful sequences of action, perhaps most notably a scene in which Omar bolts up the stairs to a temple, past an angry policemen and through the crowd. Mullick follows him intently, and the result only feels a little staged because it evokes the spirit of fiction films. “These Birds Walk” has as much in common with “The 400 Blows” as it does with “Only the Young.”

Again, however, this is not quite enough. In the opening scene of the film, Edhi is shown washing a group of orphan infants. It’s a saintly act, of course, which is much of what Mullick and Tariq are trying to portray. Yet Edhi’s voiceover also very clearly reminds us the presence of the filmmakers. That run up the temple steps does the same thing, as does the very last shot of the film. In an unexpected way this puts “These Birds Walk” in the company of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose films are also ostensibly naturalistic works of nonfiction that foreground the location of the camera and the role of the filmmaker as architect of footage.

So at the end of the day, what is “These Birds Walk”? It’s not a perfect film. Perhaps its most significant flaw involves the way it informs the audience, leaving a number of basic questions about Edhi and his organization off screen. This isn’t to say that they’re hiding it, but to truly understand what’s going on one does have to do a bit of extra reading. On the whole, moreover, “These Birds Walk” raises more questions than it answers. Many great films do the same. Oftentimes, however, the most visually stunning films are forced to keep things simple. Mullick and Tariq did not need to sacrifice their big, inchoate ideas in the name of beauty, which is something to be thankful for.

SCORE: 7.9 / 10