The opening of Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk pulsates with youthful energy, as the camera follows a child running across a field and into the ocean, where he splashes around freely, seemingly without a care in the world. These images encapsulate the kind of freedom implied by the film’s title, and it’s one that, for reasons that have to do with the chaotic environment the boy is in, will mostly be denied to him and the rest of the Pakistanis featured in the film—except in stray moments that are given expressive emphasis under the filmmakers’ strikingly cinematic sensibility.
At first, These Birds Walk seems as if it will be a tribute to the laudable humanitarian efforts of the Edhi Foundation, a nonprofit social-welfare program, founded by celebrated philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, devoted to helping runaway youths in Karachi, Pakistan, a city that constantly teeters on the edge of collapse thanks to rampant poverty, violence, and ethnic conflict. But Mullick and Tariq mostly zero in on Omar, the runaway featured in the film’s opening scenes, and Asad, who himself used to live on the streets as a kid and who currently works for the foundation as an ambulance driver. Through these two individuals and a few other peripheral figures, the filmmakers catch poignant glimpses of larger social and political forces at work in Karachi that even the well-meaning Edhi’s best efforts can’t hope to fully address.
Mullick and Tariq use a wide range of cinematic techniques to convey the tenuous environment in which their subjects find themselves: the uneasy sense of oasis the runaways feel at one of the Edhi Foundation’s clinics and those occasional moments where youths such as Omar lash out, puncturing the establishment’s haven-like feeling. Many of the scenes within the clinic are captured in long takes and fixed-camera shots, but with certain images beginning out of focus before slowly becoming clearer—a clever way to suggest undertones of doom-laden tension amid the outward calm. Within such a context, one can’t help but notice those isolated moments of explosive energy that erupt within the foundation, perhaps most memorably in an extended handheld tracking shot that follows Omar going up and down a hallway picking fights with other runaways as he struggles to find a missing slipper.
But far from being just shallow gambits to make the film seem spuriously “cinematic,” such visual tropes serve to highlight a sense of rootless dislocation among runaways like Omar, one borne out of a profound lack of a sense of “home.” The final 10 minutes of These Birds Walk crystallizes this feeling, as Asad drives Omar back to a dangerous and desolate Taliban-controlled village that doesn’t appear to even have any houses to speak of. And when Asad discovers that Omar’s family members didn’t necessarily mind that he ran away in the first place (because anywhere is safer than his particular village), one begins to get a fuller sense of the kind of deeply human emotional complexities that underpin even the most well-meaning of philanthropic efforts in such a troubled milieu. Edhi may admit to feeling “closer to God” when he helps children, but the truth on the ground, as ever, is painfully complicated—though that, of course, hardly means that the fight isn’t worth keeping up in the first place.