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'These Birds Walk': The Story Of Pakistan's Runaway Children


In the opening scene of the new documentary "These Birds Walk," we see a boy joyfully run into the sea. But when the camera pans in, his face is full of sadness and worry - far more than there should be for a child of his years. This is a film about Pakistan's runaway children. "These Birds Walk" is set in the teeming city of Karachi inside a home for runaways. This past week, we spoke to Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, a filmmaking duo who spent three years in Pakistan making "These Birds Walk." I started by asking Bassam Tariq whether they planned to make the runaway children the focus of the documentary.

BASSAM TARIQ: One thing that we've noticed about orphans is that the tragedy's a little clear cut. We know that they don't have a family. But with a lot of these runaway kids, there's choice. They ran away from family and they made that decision. So, I think that healthy tension that gets created from still programmed - you know, these kids are still programmed to love their families, but at the same time, they're not sure where they want to be because they're in this middle way. And I think the runaway home is also something that's very unique to Pakistan or at least the area that we saw because here in America we've got social services, we've got foster care. But over there, this is sort of this - I mean, it's a bad way to put it - but it's kind of halfway home or purgatory where these kids make the decision on their own on when they want to go home, or if they want to go home.

LYDEN: Let's focus on the people that you introduce us to, and that would be the ambulance driver who goes out to pick these kids up or eventually deliver them home and the boy you call Omar. We meet them in a police station, and Omar is a fascinating little boy. Tell us about him.

OMAR MULLICK: You know, Omar was very interesting because he had this kind of swagger that you see in the film, which he just couldn't back up. You know, on the one hand you wanted to both hug and comfort him; on the other, you wanted to, you know, tell him to just knock it off already, you know.

LYDEN: He's about 9 maybe.

MULLICK: He's about 9 years old. And actually when you see him in the film, he's sitting with his friend Cher(ph), who is, you know, possibly the most innocent little boy we found in that (unintelligible), desperately wants to go home. And on the one hand, they're sort of very affectionate and on the other hand, you know, you see that they're a little battle-worn. But Omar's tension and his personality, which he wore on his sleeve, was immediately apparent to us and I think we knew almost instantly, certainly that day, that we were going to chase him wherever it led.

LYDEN: And so you basically put a microphone on him and did that just that.

MULLICK: Yeah. You know, it's, people are always shocked to hear this, but the first 15 minutes of the film and actually one of the most important exchanges between Omar and his friend and our instruction to him, it all took place in actually the first day of shooting. And, you know, Cher actually went home promptly after that first day of shooting. And their relationship and their personalities were set from just that one day.

LYDEN: Just to describe that - it's a really compelling scene. Omar is getting to know this little fellow, Cher, who's even smaller than he is. And he's alternately beating him up and hugging him. And you get the sense that this must be what goes on in Omar's own family. He's showing us his scars. He's got a scar on his forehead - we don't know where that's from - then he says there's a scar on his leg; this is from his parents beating him. And Cher is so sad. He's just the saddest little boy in the film. It must have been hard to just sort of let this play out as filmmakers.

TARIQ: Yeah. I think we striked(ph) a balance in the filmmaking, I hope, when it came to showing something of the way these kids were vulnerable, but at the same time they were looking out for each other. And I think that's something important to note, because something that I had felt throughout the filming of this, is that nobody here is looking for our pity. That instead they're working hard on the little resources they have, but they're trying to make the best of the situation. So, even if they may come from a broken family, even at the runaway home, they're working very hard to build some semblance of a family with each other.

LYDEN: Which they do. I mean, there really is, at least in the home, a sense of community, which is why there's that tension about whether or not to go back. One of the other people we get to know quite well in your documentary is a young man who's an ambulance driver for the foundation. And like so many characters in the film, he has pretty narrow options. At one point he says I was drifting and I wanted to end my life until I found this place. Tell us about him.

TARIQ: And so Assad is - Assad was probably the hardest person for us to film when we were working with him. He actually works in the same center as the runaway home. He is an ambulance driver. So, as we were coming in and out of the runaway home, Assad became just this guy that just was always very involved with the kids, very involved with us as well. So, he became sort of the point person that would drop off these kids. And I think there's this one exchange when he's dropping off one of the kids who says that, you know, my parents beat me and I don't want to go home. When we deliver the kid back home and he says to his uncle, he goes, look, don't hurt this kid. If you don't want him, we'll take him back. And it was one of the first times we saw somebody standing up to the injustice of what's happening to these kids.

LYDEN: One of the points you make is that this film isn't really - it isn't specific to Pakistan. I mean, while we hear a lot about other aspects of the country, children run away from home the world over. You know, you don't need to speak Urdu to feel what they feel.

MULLICK: It's interesting. I used to want to emphasize particularly that there were universals that people could tap into when they watched the film - the element of sort of dysfunctional home. I think equally though that while there are universals, there are, I hope, things that surface through the film that are particulars about this culture and this place that people can be open to. So, scenes and moments that I'm equally fond of, the way boys will share food, eat with their hands, the way the conversation is peppered with religious references and then profanity right next to it. You know, and I think this is something that is particular to the region about which I certainly have a great deal of affection, and that I'm happy for a change to see on the screen as opposed to, you know, a region reduced to political symbols.

LYDEN: Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, co-directors of the film "These Birds Walk." It's available for purchase on iTunes and it'll be coming out on DVD on April the 29th. It's a remarkable piece of work. Thank you both so very much.

MULLICK: Thank you. Thank you very much.

TARIQ: Yeah, thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.