Saturday, January 18, 2014

These Birds Walk

THESE BIRDS WALK                       A-         
USA  Pakistan  (72 mi)  2013  d:  Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick       Official site

This film is an eye opening and transcendent experience, reminiscent of Kiarostami’s magnificent film LIFE, AND NOTHING MORE…(1992), part of his Kokar Earthquake Trilogy that was shot in the ruins of a deadly earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.  What attracted first time filmmaker Bassam Tariq and longtime photographer Omar Mullick to Pakistan was the benevolent work of Abdus Sattar Edhi, now in his mid 80’s, considered one of the great humanitarians of the world who is often mentioned when speaking of laudable candidates for the Nobel Prize.  In 1951, with 5000 rupees (about $81 dollars), he formed the Bilqis Edhi Foundation, a nonprofit social-welfare program named after his wife, dedicated to serving Pakistan's abandoned and abused women and children, mostly devoted to helping runaway youths, where today the foundation runs over 300 centers.  Edhi discovered that many Pakistani women were killing their babies at birth, often because they were born outside marriage, where one newborn child was stoned to death outside a mosque on the orders of religious leaders.  So he placed a little cradle outside every Edhi centre along with a sign that reads:  “Do not commit another sin:  leave your baby in our care.”  Edhi has so far saved 35,000 babies and found families for approximately half of them.  Regarded as a guardian of the poor, to this day he owns two pairs of clothes, has never taken a salary from his organization, and lives in a small apartment over an overcrowded Karachi clinic.  Notoriously private and dismissive of the idea of talking about himself or his humanitarian efforts, Edhi shuns the attention when the filmmakers point their cameras at him, assuming these people have read about him from thousands of miles away, where he tells them “You came here to film me, but if you really want to know me, then look at the work I'm doing…If you want to find me, you will find me among the people.  I come from ordinary people, and to find me look among ordinary people.”  With this simple proclamation, he alters the direction of the film, as over the course of three years, the filmmakers observe what transpires inside the Edhi center in Karachi, a city of 9 million where one-third of the population live in slums due to the rampant poverty, ethnic rivalries, and ensuing violence. 

What we see are hordes of young children, some beaten, neglected or outright abandoned, all mostly under 12, with a large group of half-starved babies that have been left on their doorstep, where Edhi himself sits on the floor and bathes each and every one of them, where every week in Karachi the Edhi center feeds over 10,000 people, rarely turning anyone away, providing a safety net for the country with an extensive network of orphanages, women's shelters, welfare assistance and hospitals.  Early on we hear the voice of twenty-year old Asad, with no knowledge of his own parents, whose dire situation living on the streets was so desperate that he was ready to take his own life, but he saw a “Help Wanted” sign when passing by the Edhi center and decided to work just for a few days caring for others.  Several years later, he’s been able to move beyond his original trauma by splitting his time between retrieving the dead bodies piled up by ethnic fighting, street crime, and gang warfare, and returning the runaways to their families, by now claiming he’s seen it all, murders on the street, suicides, and horrible accidents.  But lost children have become his teachers, where learning from their circumstances has helped distance him from his own pain, becoming one of the empathetic faces of the institution as he’s able to identify with each child.  Far from being an exclusively harrowing experience, however, the filmmakers do an excellent job of mixing raw footage with often poetic cinematography by Mullick, and a simply awe-inspiring electronic, violin-centered musical score by Todd Reynolds, which adds a touch of experimental films, where an exposé on the human condition becomes artfully presented, often illuminating the overriding feeling of loneliness with solitary images that have a painterly feel.  This juxtaposition of momentary beauty is interspersed throughout with Asad’s steam-of-conscious observations, offering a contrast to the rough edges of the story.    

Most of the subsequent footage focuses on a few of the older kids assigned to the Karachi home, as the center is overrun by kids and there’s little recreational activity for them to do, where the children are fed, with medical care provided, but they’re not comfortable with the idea of calling this place their home, as many remember their families, where most of the children feel abandoned, longing to return home, often seen praying for this salvation.  One of the more agitated kids is Omar, who couldn’t be any more than 10, but he’s often seen bullying others or showing a surprising degree of aggression, using in-your-face profanity, where he brags how his parents beat him (wearing the scars on his face), but he refused to shed more than a single tear.  When picking on others doesn’t work, as there are bigger and older kids at the center who intervene, he’s often left alone, seen crying afterwards, literally overcome by his own misery.  While the Edhi centers can protect these kids from the harsh reality of the outside world, many continue to have suicide tendencies or believe God has abandoned them as well.  One of the most heartbreaking moments is witnessing Asad returning one of these kids back to his family, where the boy is shivering in fright and in tears at the thought of having to be returned to the family that continuously beat him, where the family is not happy about his return either, uttering “I’d have been happier if you’d brought me his corpse,” where as impossible as it seems, home life may actually cause greater grief and sorrow than the solitary isolation of the shelter.  Here it appears there are 20 or 30 people to a one-roomed house in an overpopulated slum, obviously too many mouths to feed, where the boy running away was no accident, but something he was driven to do by an uncaring and hostile family, which, when confronted with Asad’s allegations of beatings and abuse, quickly denies before the cameras that they ever laid a hand on the boy. 

Asad’s final delivery is Omar, who lives deep into Taliban territory, offering a uniquely human and sympathetic face never before associated with that of the enemy,where the circuitous journey into the heart of darkness includes an elusive race by Omar disappearing into a massive crowd at the Mazar shrine, which he insists on visiting, eluding authorities to be able to pray next to a shrine before they continue their long and arduous journey through the night and into the next morning before arriving at one of the most desolate places on the planet, where there are no houses or standing structures, only the flattened, bombed-out ruins of a destroyed village, likely from a drone attack or a long forgotten battle scene, where one instantly mourns for any signs of humanity forced to live in these ghastly conditions.  Omar points out his home, where there is no water, gas, electricity, or even a roof, just half destroyed, ramble shack huts where his family suggests he’s actually safer and better off in the shelter than living here, acknowledging they have many more children who remain under the protection of other Edhi shelters, where the family has no intention of looking for them.  It’s only here that one gets the fuller picture of what these kids are running away from, where as painful as it is to admit, life in the overcrowded Edhi shelters may actually bring these children closer to God’s grace, where they are fed and clothed and protected from the appalling conditions of utter destruction, famine, and brutal poverty.  Deeply moving and void of any pretense, these are graphic depictions of a life unimaginable just about anyplace else in the world today, evidence of a kind of prehistoric dawn of man, even worse than the devastating, war ravaged rubble of Rossellini's GERMANY YEAR ZERO (1948), more reminiscent of Hiroshima, as everything is flattened, where no buildings survive.  Out of the calamitous ruins of destruction new life forms may thrive, where one can only hope and pray that one of them is human.  After driving in a car all night and much of the day just to find this place, it’s nearly unfathomable to imagine how Omar and his siblings are actually making the dangerous trek back across the country on foot to find their way back into the protection of the Ebhi shelters so many miles and miles away, where they may as well be lone survivors of the apocalypse, but as the film suggests, they must learn to walk before they can fly. 

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