If you’re here because you’ve heard about THESE BIRDS WALK and are trying to figure out if you want to watch it, let me save you the trouble. Just go see it. In addition to being a lovingly crafted example of an observational documentary, THESE BIRDS WALK is also a nuanced window into the lives of several people in Karachi, Pakistan, a part of the world that is too often to subjected to the sort of drive-by journalism that leaves Western audiences with a reductive and cartoonish view of the country’s people. Further, directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq have delivered a much needed rebuke to journalist Nicolas Kristoff’s problematic rationale for the use of “bridge characters”–usually white or Western subjects whose presence is intended to give viewers of a similar background an empathic jumping off point for documentary work set in a world that’s unfamiliar to them.
Tariq and Mullick began their film with the intent to tell the story of the revered humanitarian figure Abdul Satar Edhi. However, Edhi’s soft resistance to documentation eventually led them to instead focus on several runaways who had sought shelter in Karachi at the Edhi Foundation, along with an ambulance driver who is compelled to help them despite his financial impulses to the contrary. I spoke with Tariq recently on audience expectations, the use of music as a tool for manipulation, and other subjects.
THESE BIRDS WALK starts a theatrical run on Friday, Nov. 1 at Village East Cinema, and Tariq and Mullick will be in attendance at all of the screenings this weekend, beginning with the one at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.
Stranger Than Fiction: You have a pretty varied background–I know you work in advertising and you’ve been a contributor to Boing Boing. You created a “transmedia” project called 30 Days/30 Mosques and another called 30 Days Ramadan. What made you want to take a more linear documentary approach to THESE BIRDS WALK?
Bassam Tariq: The funny thing is that THESE BIRDS WALK was in production or in pre-production before any of that stuff had happened. When I first came to New York I was just working in advertising. I think within a year I had the idea of making this film. The way film works–it just takes forever to get through one. You end up doing so many other things as you’re working on it. I think that’s the one thing I’ve realized, I can’t just do one thing. Some people focus on just one film, and it becomes their life. And that’s what ended up happening in post-production for us, we ended up just working on the film. But it’s very emotionally taxing as well because after you’re done with the film, if you don’t get the reception that you were looking for it’s really devastating. I think it’s hard not to have high expectations–or expectations at all–when you work on something. I think the best way to not have them is to have multiple projects going.
STF: Do you feel like you got the response you were expecting?
Tariq: I’m grateful, honestly, for how far we’ve gone with the film. I think I’m a little taken aback sometimes by the way people respond to the film, in a good way and a bad way sometimes. Sometimes I feel like people are looking for a more straightforward doc film. When they think of documentary they’re looking for a very clear issue-based film. And I’ve noticed in some Q&As that some people have been very upset about some of the risks that we’ve taken. But I also realize that when it’s dealing with subjects in America, when films are predominantly dealing with white people, it’s easier for them to accept a film that’s more immersive. But when it comes to people from different parts of the world it becomes harder. I think the problem is that you have to justify further why the story is interesting. Or why it matters, or why we’re being immersed in the subject’s culture, which I think is a little racist.
STF: That kind of leads into another question I wanted to ask you. Do you think that some people misinterpret, or get something fundamentally wrong about the film?
Tariq: Yeah, I think it’s the immersion. People want to be immersed in the cultural tropes that they’re okay with. And when you pull them out of their comfort zone sometimes it gets realy hard. [Composer Todd Reynolds] played a very instrumental part–literally–in getting that feeling across.
STF: You’re answering all of my questions before I can ask them. I was also going to ask you about your approach to music.
Tariq: I guess what I can say about music is, I think [documentary filmmakers] have all advanced when it comes to visual language. But when it comes to music, we still use music for manipulation. I hate it when music is manipulative. And I’m not going to lie, I think our trailer is a little bit manipulative, but I hope that’s okay because it is a trailer. In our film, we were careful to make sure the music in our film was never too saccharine. Music in documentary, from my perspective, should only evoke catharsis. It should be meditative. It should allow us to reflect. And it should be ambiguous, it should never tell us exactly how we should feel. But it should at least point us in our own internal direction of where we want to go with it, if that makes sense. And I think there’s only one track in our entire film that kind of leans in that direction a little too much, and it’s the end credit music. But I’m okay with that, because it’s the last track of the film.
STF: You’ve been doing a lot of interviews since the doc hit the festival circuit. Have you noticed any themes emerging in the types of questions that people have been asking you?
Tariq: What I don’t like is when people ask me, what are you hoping for people to get from the film? I feel like documentary filmmakers are expected to be message-based filmmakers. I think for some filmmakers that’s fine, and I respect them, and I think they’re making very powerful films. DIRTY WARS, is, to me, a message-based film. It’s got a very clear thesis and it’s a great film. I think Jeremy Scahill is a saint. But I don’t know if that is what THESE BIRDS WALK is. For people to come into documentary expecting that, I feel like that’s being a little lazy.
STF: What do you think about the idea of people leaving the theater with some feeling of ambiguity?
Tariq: A filmmaker friend of mine said recently that film should always raise questions, it shouldn’t necessarily answer them. It was funny because there was another filmmaker there who was more accomplished than both of us, and she said, no, a film is a period. It’s a full stop. There’s no question mark at the end. I feel like everyone has a different approach. I like it better when film leaves you with a question, and you are forced to come up with your own answer.
STF: Has there been any particularly moving experience for you–and I don’t necessarily mean emotionally, it could have just been surprising–that resulted from an audience Q&A following a screening?
Tariq: I think at some screenings people have cried. It caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect anyone to have a reaction like that. I think the problem with any kind of filmmaking is that you become so clinical in post, that you lose the emotion very quick. You have to continuously do things that challenge and surprise you along the way. [Composer] Todd Reynolds was one of the last people to touch the film. He brought life into the film that helped me see it afresh.