The trailer for These Birds Walk
Is there anything left to say about Abdul Sattar Edhi? Filmmakers Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick think so.
The two are about to release their documentary “These Birds Walk,” which portrays the Edhi Foundation through the eyes of a runaway boy, an ambulance driver and by shadowing Edhi himself.
How different can their portrayal be of a man who is already quite transparent, who never wavers from what he says and has hardly changed his appearance over the years – from the same grey shalwar kameez, a Jinnah cap and a beard that is slowly going white.
Perhaps this is the challenge the film takes on: to depict a subject already well-covered in local and international media, hoping that audiences come away with something they had not known or seen before.
“These Birds Walk is not a traditional biography,” says Mullick, “He (Edhi) puts it out there and we look at the work he does.”
Mullick highlights the painstaking efforts put into the two-year making by saying, “It is not a man speaking about himself. It is the city, the country and the people who have been affected by him that speak for him.”
For the filmmakers, who co-directed and co- produced the film, the endless stories, news and tales surrounding Edhi compelled them to travel to Karachi and make the documentary.
“It was his demeanor, just to see him speak in interviews, there was something deep there that a lot of people weren’t getting. I wanted to get to know him better,” says Tariq. “All you hear in the Pakistani media is: Hey, he is the Mother Teresa of Pakistan. It is all very superficial. I wanted to do something a little more nuanced.”
Whether it is his critics or admirers, the views on Edhi seem black or white. His critics say the millions of rupees donated to him don’t go where they should yet there are millions who defend him as a living saint. Even the Taliban have assured that they have no intentions of harming him.
For Mullick, it was the trust that people put in Edhi that caught his eye. “The degree to which Pakistanis trusted him and the foundation was something that inspired me. All other conversations could be quite cynical with regards to politics and how things are going,” explains Mullick. “But when people talk about Edhi, they say they trust him. They put their money down for him.”
With such thoughts and inspiration, the two set out from New York to Karachi, with two DSLR’s and some sound equipment to boot. A project that began in fall of 2009 would finally wrap up in the summer of 2012.
With their self-confessed idea of “not a traditional” biography-based documentary, it took the duo five weeks of shadowing Edhi and two years of flying back and forth from the United States and Pakistan for their story to take shape.
Through the two years of its filming, “These Birds Walk” was selected as a grantee of the Sundance Film Institute, helping Tariq and Mullick acquire funds to finish the film. Now in its final stage of editing, the filmmakers hope to have it ready for airing in the next two months.
Whether they manage to capture the side of Edhi they set out to highlight, will be seen when the film is released.
Mullick went into filming not interested in ‘hero-worship’ and unlike Tariq, he did not read or research on Edhi before arriving in Karachi. “I wanted to see what it was to meet him,” he says.
“On the one hand you get a hero worship and on the other hand, I heard this, he is not very transparent, there is this kind of cynicism about it. I think both get you off the hook as a viewer and participant,” explains Mullick.
“What we have done, we look at who he is. He said it’s not about me it’s about the work, if you want to look at me go look at the work.”
Tariq and Mullick both have been raised in the West. Mullick was born in London and now lives in New York and Tariq has lived in the United States since he was a toddler.
Both heard about Edhi from their mothers.
For Tariq, these stories about Edhi, would later help him find someone who he could associate with Islam. “I was going through a stage in my life where Islam was important to me and I wanted to see people who put Islam in action,” says Tariq, and in Edhi he found someone who did.
“When I started reading about Edhi, I saw something interesting there, and I saw something unapologetic about his demeanor and the way he acted.”
The filmmakers hope they have, however, captured more than what is usually seen.
“We are pretty excited of when people see the film because of the conversations that are incorporated in it. We were just able to be there,” says Tariq, explaining that a lot of people who will watch the film will get the chance to absorb conversations they don’t usually hear.
Audiences can catch a glimpse of such candidness in the trailer of the film, especially in the runaway home, where the boys seem to be so used to the camera, that some rather touching conversation are caught between characters.
“If I was a superhero I would throw you across the fence and you would land in the bus,” says one young runaway to another.
Another main character of the documentary, Omar, while falling asleep in the candlelit marble floor of the runaway home whispers a little prayer asking God what to do and where to go.
“We didn’t know he was going to say that. He was just whispering,” recalls Tariq from that day, “that is the beauty of documentary and non-fiction filmmaking, you let things happen and they just unfold.”
Sara Faruqi is a multimedia journalist at Dawn.com