There is a difference between direct observational documentary and directed observational documentary. These Birds Walk is the latter, a film that very rarely feels empirical in its approach to the story of a runaway boy in Pakistan, the group home he’s temporarily brought to and the ambulance driver who eventually brings him back to his family. The categorization is not necessarily a negative one, and it’s a tradition going back to Edison’s nonfiction style of filming actualities on a stage in his famous Black Maria studio. Today many filmmakers blur lines by making the world their Black Maria. They box life in with carefully situated framing and cutaway shots that look too meticulously slotted to have been incidentally recorded.
These Birds Walk is not a false film, but it does often feel like an artificial one. Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq have constructed a diorama with real people, and that’s more suited to ethnographic cinema than narrativized nonfiction. If this is indeed meant to be the kind of doc that plays like neorealist or nouvelle vague fiction, a trend that doesn’t always make sense in concept or execution for me anyway, then the cinematographic set ups are too distracting, often taking us out of the action by way of offering an overbearing sense of presence of the cameraman. And knowing that the characters are real people makes their disregard for that presence come off as a lie, or a sign that they’ve been told how to be during filming.
It begins as a different movie, one about Pakistani humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi. He is of course too humble to accept having a film made about him, and he says as much to the filmmakers in the bookending moments centered around this old man. “If you want to find me, look to ordinary people,” he tells the camera, and that’s a set up for a documentary within a documentary, one that is of Edhi and his foundation. That the next hour is technically an example instead of a distinctly meaningful story keeps it from being a moving one. The featured boy, Omar, is neither compelling nor should he be if he’s merely a representation of many. The driver, Asad, is also just a piece of the Edhi puzzle, but he is at least an intriguing character. Unfortunately we don’t spend more time with him than the kids.
To criticize how the doc seems to be made requires some reading on how it actually was done. Mullick and Tariq shot in and around Karachi for three years, filming different parts of the Edhi Foundation after being redirected by Edhi himself. It had to have been a more experiential and random accumulation of footage than what’s on screen, though still the style indicates a lot more planning at play than improvisation. To what purpose? To make a more dramatic work? Why not allow the beauty and the misery of these lives to unfold naturally rather than through artistic shots of silhouetted characters in doorways and bogged down with a heavy, emotion-triggering score?
These Birds Walk doesn’t pull us into a world and let us follow with wonder as to where that world may take us. There is a pane of glass separating subject and viewer, and we’re seeing something presented to us rather than observing something shared with us. But in part because of the original interests and intentions of the directors, the point of the film gets quite confusing in the end. It can’t be a film both about and of the Edhi Foundation. If a decision was made to just tell us a simple story of a runaway who ultimately winds up back at home, why should we care? Mullick and Tariq don’t give us enough reason to. And why even use actual people? It’s fine for a documentary to play like a narrative film, but it shouldn’t be interchangeable with one.
This is the kind of nonfiction film that many critics use as an example of why docs should be reviewed the same way as fiction films. I think it’s greater proof that not only shouldn’t docs be reviewed as if they were fiction but they really can’t be. There’s way too much more to consider with real people, whether or not the doc means to be accepted as a fully real and true story. These Birds Walk is far more complicated than any narrative counterpoint just by working with actual events and characters and by being constructed out of that material. The central story could have been a nice drama. The bigger picture and context could have been a nice documentary. But it doesn’t work in between.
Admittedly, the film has two exceptional scenes of visceral, kinetic, unpredictable action that comes surprisingly in the final third. One sees the boy take off in a sprint through a crowd, presumably to escape Asad’s watch, and the camera (manned by Mullick, I think) runs after him. It’s intense and raw and especially jolting given the lack of memorable moments up until that point. The second comes shortly after as we join Asad in delivering Omar home and we’re right there with the driver curious and concerned in anticipation of what we’ll find at the end of the long trip. It’s the first time, even including the run through the crowd, where we can feel like we’re along for the ride. But while these are both invigorating for the film itself and quite memorable, they’re not remarkable enough to recommend These Birds Walk for them alone.
These Birds Walk is now playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles at the end of the month.