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Fariha Roisin

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These Birds Walk: A Profoundly Important Documentary

Posted: 12/06/2013 9:59 am

"If we broke our parent's hearts, would they forgive us?" This line echoes through this child, a young boy barely eight, emaciated as children often are in the shots that are fed to us of the developing world. His face is droopy, filled with a resistant kind of hope, yet his watery eyes are filled with terror. His name is Shehr and he has run away from his family home as many of the children have in the documentary, These Birds Walk. Some of them are in denial of why they ran, instead painting stories of accidents that occurred. One young boy named Mustafa declares that he didn't run, and instead uncomfortably explains that when he was walking home one day the police stopped him and took him to where he, and the rest of the kids are, now: the Edhi Home and Ambulance Centre. A sanctuary for the lost souls of the youth of Karachi.

In an opening shot of an old man with a white long beard washing the skinny, shivering and broken bodies of toddlers that can barely stand on their own, we are introduced to Abdus Sattar Edhi. In 1951, he formed the Bilqis Edhi Foundation, named after his wife, dedicated to serving Pakistan's abandoned and abused women and children. His independent Foundation runs over 300 welfare centers, having rescued 20,000 abandoned infants, 50,000 orphans and trained 40,000 nurses in the last sixty years. The patron saint of the forgotten people, the untouchables, Edhi reminds the camera that he doesn't remember the names of the awards that he's gotten over the years, nor does he care to.

First-time filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq have created a spectacular film showcasing the darkness that these young boys face. Cast in the shadows of Pakistan's domestic and international struggles, it is easy to forget that there are unseen faces beneath all the sensationalized media. Mullick and Tariq humanize the story of Pakistan by showing what's underneath that veneer, and the quotidian struggles and the abject poverty faced by these children reeks through every ounce of the film.

The boys all lament about their homes and families that they so dearly seem to miss and yet they tragically recall moments of severe abuse inflicted onto them by their parents, or siblings, or sometimes both. It seems that they are frustrated that the life outside their familial violence is as marred as their lives back at home. Frustratingly, there seems to be no respite, no reprieve from the loneliness and abandonment they feel, even though it's clear that Edhi seems to be a glorified utopia around the streets of Karachi. When a son is returned to his mother she remarks at the camera that he loves Edhi and that this is why she sometimes just keeps him there. "He's fed better there than he is at home." You're not sure who it benefits more, the mother, or the child.

Omar, another young boy, is tough. In one shot he talks with pride, already a wise sage, describing memories of the times his parents beat him up. He shows his friend a cut on his ankle where his father cut him with a dagger. The wound looks deep, and though healed, the scar is ladled with heavy history. These children are torn between the duality of pain and loving, knowing that it's their responsibility to love their parents, but struggling to find the resolve to do so, especially after the terror they've experienced mercilessly at their hands.

Omar talks, romantically, already a poet, about how one single tear fell down his cheek as he was beaten senselessly by his father, "If anymore drop, then I'm not a man's man." There is a discerning bravado that's apparent within each and every shot of this film. With no role models to turn to these young boys have been forsaken to create their image in stereotypes, the ideas of what makes a man, a strong man, with no room for diversity or quirks. These young boys fill their days with activities that are aimed to make them forget and be better: they pray, they eat, they sing, but in the end they do what many young boys do, they mostly just fight. There are extended scenes of these taunted bodies fighting each other as if to kill and defend their own precious lives, and there within these shots exists a brutishness and ferocity that evokes a sensation of fear in the audience. Who, or what, do these boys turn to if they don't feel or experience love? What will come of them if they never do?

When they fight it seems as their delicate souls are alive. Suddenly there is a light that shines in their eyes and their passion is like a Greek tragedy. Most of them are both the tormented and the tormentors and they strike any who come in their path with brawl, unoriginal comebacks (sisterfucker) and the most quasi Oedipian takedowns one can muster (I'm going to fuck your mother). But you connect with their insolence as it is somewhat endearing how ostensibly fearless they seem to be, and, yet, how truly sad they are beneath all that pretense. In a shot while everyone else is sleeping Omar lies underneath the bright hinge of candlelight and begins to talk out loud to God. He asks God what he should do, should he kill himself? You feel the desperation, the loss and the dependency of some kind of exterior power to guide him towards the right direction. He is not yet ten.

It's a beautiful and rich film filled with a human tragedy that is so devastating simply because of the reality of it, and the cinema verité is translated through the masterful editing by Sonejuhi Sinha. Profound, these interwoven stories that we are introduced to showcase the jolted and beguiling characters of the slumdog world that have been faced with the jarring and horrific realities of life in destitution, proving that the only thing to do when you are dealt with these cards is to keep on moving towards the light. As I think and meditate on this, the final moments of the film's dialogue begins to resonate: "This country is such that everyone runs after a prayer." A truly heroic piece, it's fervor reminds us that real divinity exists in actual humanity.

 

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