'These Birds Walk' wants to be a 'vehicle for empathy'

Mar 1, 2013

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

Over the course of three years, filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq filmed on location in a transitional shelter for young runaways. The resulting film, These Birds Walk, provides an intimate glimpse into the life of Omar, a precocious young runaway living in the shelter, as well as the caretakers around him.

Tariq says he got the idea to make the film after reading an autobiography of the Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, whose foundation runs the shelter. After a chance encounter with Omar Mullick at a gallery showing, the two decided to pair up to make the film.

Mullick says he hopes the film will act as a “vehicle for empathy” and get audiences to recognize their shared humanity with the characters, a quality he finds lacking in most news reports about Pakistan. To this end, the film delves into the complex relationships Omar has with other runaways, and explores the definition of family.

“We’re trying to get people to get behind [the characters] as if they’re people that they know in their own neighborhood,” Tariq says.

On what the two hope to accomplish with the film:

As they just see that people in different parts of the world are very similar to them, I feel like at least we’ve started a different conversation on the region.--Bassam
Tariq In terms of craft, we’ve done a few things that have at least tried to push the craft a little bit. The whole thing was shot largely at a 50 mm focal lens, which is essentially the focal length of the human eye. --Omar Mullick

 On discovering Omar 

We found our central character on the first day that we got to the runaway home. And he’s sort of larger than life. And his friendship with one of the other characters there just loomed over everything. And in fact, the pivotal footage for their relationship I think we shot on the first or second day. --Omar Mullick

 On feigned neutrality in documentary work 

There was a train of thought when I was shooting documentary photography that you don’t get involved and stay outside. And I think it’s that feigned neutrality that actually leads to a lot of the problems. I hope that in least in these stories we were human beings first, and what I mean by that is we maintain relationships with these children. And had we not done any of those things, then we would have risked going to bed without a clear conscience about some of this stuff. --Omar Mullick