These Birds Walk

The subjects of Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s exquisite documentary may not be able to fly, but they’re hardly just walking. Street kids who’ve been swept into an orphanage in Karachi, Pakistan, they’re individual maelstroms of action and emotion. One minute they’re taunting, slugging, and wrestling with each other, the next they’re clinched together in commiserating sobs. Most restless of all is Omar, a 9-year-old with sorrowful eyes and an untamed id who takes to running with existential abandon—into the sea, through a crowded mosque (with Mullick and his camera scampering in his wake), and around the orphanage like a pent-up cub.

Long-take, Lord of the Flies–like sequences following the kids within the Edhi center—a sanctuary founded by aging humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi—alternate with scenes of former street refugee Asad, whose job as an ambulance driver consists of returning runaways and transporting the dead. The filmmakers never underscore this irony, yet it haunts everyone from Asad, who’s offered higher commissions for dead bodies than live ones, to boys who’d rather die than return to an abusive household, to impoverished families unable to feed their children.

Such callousness is refuted by Asad’s battle-scarred empathy, old man Edhi’s endurance, and the poetry of the film itself, which finds beauty not in poverty but in glimpses and gestures that transcend it. “What’s up with your running?” Asad asks the silent Omar, but no explanation is necessary.