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How to Make a Documentary that Rises Above the ‘Social Issue’ Cliches, from Directors of ‘These Birds Walk’

How to Make a Documentary that Rises Above the 'Social Issue' Cliches, from Directors of 'These Birds Walk'

The filmmakers behind “These Birds Walk” have gotten high marks from critics for resisting the cliches of documenting non-profits in the so-called developing world. Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s film focuses on the Edhi Foundation, which helps street kids in Pakistan.  In his review for Variety, critic Peter Debruge says, “Documentary subjects don’t come much more shy than Pakistani humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, though the same could hardly be said for the attention-starved Karachi street children his world-renown welfare org attempts to shelter and support. After giving ‘These Birds Walk’ directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq permission to tell his story, Edhi demurs, saying, ‘If you want to find me, look to ordinary people.’ So the helmers do exactly that, focusing on several camera-comfortable youngsters…”

After seeing the film this spring, we asked the filmmakers to share with us their tips for making films in the hopes that they could provide inspiration for other filmmakers who need to remember to not reproduce the well-trodden cliche stories we see so often.  Here’s what Tariq and Mullick shared with us.

“These Birds Walk” opens in limited release tomorrow, November 1.  Check out the trailer here.

Some small notes to keep in mind if you ever decide to film in Pakistan or anywhere in the world. To make them easy to digest, here they are in easy-to-chew bullet points.

Most Importantly…

Since you might stop reading this article after the first paragraph, let’s say the most important thing first: take your narrow worldview and throw it away. Yes. You have a narrow idea of Pakistan. In fact, there is a good chance that you already have a thesis in mind. We did and we are kids of the diaspora. We had a very clear idea of what we thought Pakistan was and were proven wrong on every turn. In fact, we lost so much time because we were continuously relearning about the country that we are from. And if you do not do that. If you come in with an idea of what Pakistan is, (i.e. a hotbed for terrorism, acid throwing capital of the world, saintly man holds country together, etc ). Go away. Your story is unoriginal. It’s been done before. You can google it and an already written article will do a better job than you. Drop your fixer. Learn the language, journey through the buses. Get lost in the streets. Trust the locals in showing you how to get to your compound. That is how you will dodge the tropes and stereotypes that have defined the region for the last 200 years. That is how you will move away from sitars and the time-lapse cues for the call to prayer. That is how you will breakthrough from the clutter of monotonous documentaries on Pakistan. And if you don’t do that, it will show. The talking points of your subjects will be apparent. Your laziness will cloud every frame.


With that said, be stubborn with an idea. On a dry erase board in our small apartment in Karachi, we wrote “No Voiceovers” and circled it. It was important for us to not have any voiceover in the film and push verite as far as we could in hopes of humanizing our subjects and the region in a way that many hadn’t seen. And because we stupidly stuck to our guns, our two and a half month shoot dragged into a three year journey. We spent many weeks building trust with our subjects and filming countless moments that never made it to the final film. In one scene our main subject, Asad, a tough, streetwise ambulance driver finally lets his guard down and confesses to why he became an ambulance driver. The scene is pivotal to the film for it is the only time our character lets us in his head. It lasts less than two minutes and it took three years of friendship to get it.

Editing: All Things Go

What’s funny is, we did end up putting in voiceover in the final film. We were rigorous about where we inserted it, but that was in post and in the edit all ideas are fair game, as long as it doesn’t hinder the larger idea.

Subtitle carefully.

Pakistan, like everywhere else in the world, is nuanced and so is their language. If you don’t speak the language, get someone that does. Not everything translates as smoothly. One of the few light scenes in our film has Asad, our young ambulance driver trying on jeans. His friend remarks on how beautiful the “ice blue” jeans look on him. In Urdu, the inflection and the adjectives make the scene hilarious. In English, they sound cold and hollow. We still haven’t been able to bring the humor out of the scene. Bring on a specialist or someone who understands the nuances. Not only is it a point of integrity, but it is the difference of giving someone a voice and taking it away from them.

Find Your Jesus

And lastly, have faith. Yes, that thing. Whatever you believe in will work here. The road ahead is difficult. Your subjects will cancel on you. Your gear will go missing. You will get rejected from major film festivals and distributors will say it’s a lovely film and walk away. And the only thing you will have at the end is that thing that keeps you going. And that thing has to be bigger than you. It has to be intangible. Because if what you are fighting for is a decorative laurel or a nice quote block, you have wasted your time. You have bored the universe. There is something bigger than you out there. And that is what we all are fighting for.

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