man from humble roots, Abdul Sattar Edhi is not just Pakistan’s greatest philanthropist
and humanitarian, he is pretty much the only one. He is also ninety years old and deeply
concerned about the future of those who rely on his network of orphanages, shelters,
and hospitals. We meet one of his young
wards up-close-and-personal and come to know one of his employees to a lesser
extent in Omar Mullick & Bassam Tariq’s ruminative documentary These Birds Walk (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
is ten-ish and a frightful handful, but he has never experienced the support
that comes from a loving home. The
closest thing he knows is the relative safe haven of his Edhi orphanage. Frankly, adult supervision appears rather lacking
here as well, but it beats the streets.
Omar asserts himself through bullying, because it is the only defense
mechanism he has.
sort of understands this. He was once in
Omar’s place. Now he is one of the many
drivers working for the Edhi Foundation.
It is his job to return children to their parents when the Foundation finally
has enough of them. He usually does not
see tears of joy from anyone during these runs.
Nonetheless, he often risks his life, venturing into Taliban-controlled
Birds is a short
film, but it is dominated by long, slow, impressionistic sequences, punctuated
by jarring depictions of abject neglect and disregard for Pakistan’s cast-off
children, so pick your poison. What viewers witness is often shocking, but
Mullick & Tariq never ask how things got this way.
More to the point, why is it Edhi has so
little competition—or so the audience is clearly led to believe. In terms of
religion, Pakistan is a remarkably homogenous country and it is not without its
privileged class, but Mullick & Tariq avoid the obvious question like the
third rail. Frankly, their strictly
observational approach seems to be a deliberate strategy to evade such awkward
issues. Still, the fact their
documentary starts and ends with Edhi and his concerns regarding impending mortality
speaks volumes. After all, he was
pushing thirty by the time of the Partition.
Mullick & Tariq capture some striking
images, but more often than not, they serve to fetishize the extreme poverty of
its subjects. Birds convinces us Pakistani children face a grim reality, but then
what? Well intentioned perhaps, but
hollow inside, These Birds Walk opens
this Friday (11/1) in New York at Village East.