It’s the stuff of dreams. Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq started out on a no-budget journey to make their first film about one man, a non-proselytizing humanitarian in Pakistan named Edhi. The film, These Birds Walk, just premiered at SXSW to sold out crowds, with Oscilloscope Laboratories coming on board in their first-ever producing role; the film will probably play in theaters later this year. Our Q&A follows.
After nearly 3 years of filming, following children in a Karachi orphanage, playing dead in the back of ambulances through dangerous territory, and telling ‘little white lies to save your ass,' These Birds Walk is an ethereal, lyrical journey where we get unprecedented access. Co-directors Omar and Bassam were kind enough to sit down with NFS and explain how they pulled off this statistical anomaly.
NFS: First, give us a little back-story. How did you two meet and start collaborating?
O: Filmmaker Musa Syeed introduced us at a dinner at his place in Harlem in 2009. Bassam was cooking homemade Dhaal. I brought Cheesecake from an Albanian Bakery in Brooklyn. It may have been that night that Bassam spoke of reading a biography of Edhi and raised the idea of making a short film on him. A shared sensibility, first time naiveté about making movies…
B: Omar invited us to his house for dinner and showed us some of the photos he was taking for a solo gallery opening. He had spent seven years taking these photos. I was blown away by the ambition and the wild ideas that were floating in his black and white photography. I really wanted to work with him from that point on, it was just a matter of time that the right project would appear.
NFS: How did you decide These Birds Walk was the right first project?
O: We met with Edhi when he visited NY briefly. He invited us to come out and shoot video of him [in Pakistan]. He denied this when we got there, but at that point we were now making a movie.
When Omar & Bassam arrived in Pakistan, Edhi conveniently forgot who they were, and didn’t want to be in a film about his work. He challenged them instead to show his work through other characters -- and that is what they did. From the filmmakers:
THESE BIRDS WALK is the story of Omar, a high-spirited
young boy of 9 or 10 who is living in a house for runaways; he has fled his difficult rural home life for the dangerous streets of Karachi, and is trying to find a safe haven somewhere amidst the chaos of his country and his family.
NFS: So did you do any test shoots or compile a short film of any sort before production halfway across the world?
O: No, we jumped in to a pool with two deep ends from day one and kept swimming.
B: Though we didn’t really test gear, I think everyone should do that before going. I didn’t know how to use a boom mic or the Zoom H4N. We lost some crucial audio clips because we didn’t know how quickly the batteries drain. There is one thing visiting forums and reading articles, but it’s a complete other world to do some small shooting and editing. We were in a developing country with people who didn’t know much about cameras and mics, so when we fumbled around, luckily they didn’t know.
NFS: OK, so you find yourselves in Pakistan, filming over the course of many trips for 3 – 4 years. Did you have permits to shoot? Or did you just try to be incognito?
O: No permits to speak of, except a smile and some chai here and there, sitting for long occasions to get informal permission. The children were more accepting of the shooting gear than adults, in this case because these runaway kids don’t grow up inheriting a visual language the way kids do here or the adults around them. They barely watch television. In that regard, the children quickly forgot about us, while the adults often took time to loosen up. Bassam had a boom and headphones constantly, while I took my bag, monopod, and camera everywhere, so incognito would not have been an option. When we transported gear and drove through dangerous areas, we would be in an Edhi Ambulance. One of us would lay in the back on the stretcher like a patient, while the other sat up front with an Edhi baseball cap on. The gear we tucked under the stretcher and threw a sheet over it.
B: We tried to be discreet as possible. I think white lies are OK to save your ass. Many times I would tell cops or people in the streets we were students working on a small promotional video for Edhi. That way, they would think we had no money and we were doing something good for a widely revered saint. We made it a point to only speak in Urdu in public after an incident at a park when we were about to get mugged. Knowing the language of where you are shooting is huge, huge plus. In fact, I believe the access and trust we were able to get from our subjects came from the fact that we spoke and looked like them.
NFS: There was a nice True/False quote from when the film played there as a work-in-progress that said it was “spurred on by technological advances, namely DSLR cameras that let the filmmakers guide our eyes to the micro-details of existence." Can you talk a little about the style of the film and how DSLRs allowed you to experiment with that?
O: I read something once in school that may have been Stan Brakhage, something about the eye seeing at 50mm. I knew we wanted to push verite as far as it could go, given the access we were sure we could get. Accordingly, I tried to shoot at around 50mm in the intimate spaces between people and at shoulder height. Nothing was locked down on a tripod. You can always zoom in to a shot, or simply move in with a wider lens. I moved in with a wider lens. I took a Master Class with war photographer Antonin Kratochvil where he affectionately berated a photographer for zoom lens photos of people, saying, ‘get in there with your 35mm, then I’ll feel it.” That stuck with me. At 50mm, I felt we could best intimate another child in the room. The other visual choice I was really attached to was the idea of capturing movement.
At the time that we took the Canon 5D Mark II to Pakistan, shooters were quite taken with the degree to which it could be made to mimic film. I was more interested in pulling off something that we would not have been able to do with heavier, more precious film cameras; in this case, it was the fact that they were small, and I could run and move with it, and shoot now at 9 minute clips. The movement in the film is a key way in to understanding the central character Omar. Also, the violence and then sudden affection between kids are details that might ordinarily be considered inserts on Master shots. In our case, they became larger flags to indicate character.
B: Another important thing to note is the unassuming size of the 5D. To the many subjects of our film, the camera was unobtrusive and less intimidating than the larger news cameras they were used to. Many people for a long time thought we were just shooting stills.
NFS: Was your 5D was outfitted with all the bells and whistles?
O: We bought a ton of gear and used very little of it. In the end, I alternated between two lenses. The stock 24 – 105 was our go to lens. It is incredibly versatile for a stock lens and almost perfect for video. Between the children, I used almost consistently the Canon 50mm f1.2 prime lens. It is beautiful glass with great bokeh and the natural color refraction going straight in to the camera from that lens always amazes me. I shot prime wides at night, particularly the 35mm f1.4 – a lens I also love for photography. Beyond that, every thing else was shot on a pistol grip monopod that allowed for quick set up and also some stability if I ran with it as a counterweight. We had a steadicam, but we never used it. That sensibility struck me as out of place with the tactile and kinetic aesthetic of the film. I used a Zacuto viewfinder that was one of the best investments we made and allowed me to frame up and focus instantly. I know a lot of shooters who like shoulder mounts and follow focus. I’ve started playing with those on commercial gigs, but it would have been both visually obtrusive in the field for our film and also unwieldy.
I knew the Canon L series glass really well from shooting as a still photographer. I knew what it could pull off in low light, which was critical for some of the ideas I had for shooting in natural light. I love what happens with exposure at breaking point, when a lens is wide open and you are not sure if you are even getting any thing on the card. The possibility of some thing impressionistic takes over and those end up being some of my favorite scenes in the film: running at dusk with the lens wide open, candlelight scenes, or ambulance and street light illuminating an entire scene. A lot of people, in fact most, told us not to use the DSLR for video documentary work, talking rightly of focus issues absent in the larger HD cameras. But that didn’t stop me. I actually had a friend of mine David Packer, a colorist in New York, download the signal to noise ratio charts from Canon and we studied them, so we could figure out exactly what ISO I could shoot at to be completely stopped down and get the most depth of field, without a noticeable jump in noise. That was critical. Once we found the sweet spot, I used basic run and gun attempts to keep a hyper focal length while moving to stay in focus.
NFS: These Birds Walk is not a social issue film, it's a powerful story that combines moments into a narrative arc. Can you talk about storytelling trends you see in the documentary field?
O: Interestingly, the things that frustrated me about the kind of fanaticism associated with realism a few years ago, is now giving way to a trend in hybrid films. I think this is incredibly fertile ground to be explored. All this sits on an idea that there is some thing to marrying a lyrical truth to a realism unfolding before you. It is not a new idea, but the current incarnation is resulting in some great work. Also, new cameras and gear are making it possible for people to explore video on its own merits, and this is having its own conversation with narrative rules we took for granted. That is a good thing. Increasingly, I find the lines we accepted between genres in the mainstream obsolete or at least more malleable than they were a few years ago. Docs like Leviathan and The Gatekeepers are taking more risks with form and content than almost anything in narrative cinema these days. Then again, I saw a fiction film by one of my favorite filmmakers the other day, Post Tenebras Lux by Carlos Reygadas, and there are scenes in that film particular the opening that are a sublime take on reality as anything you’ve seen in a documentary.
B: It’s a very competitive time as well. I think docs are more popular than ever. Festivals and critics will become more and more important I think because of their editorial power. It’s going to be very frustrating for the young, unestablished filmmakers to do bold things.
NFS: These Birds Walk will probably be playing in theaters later this year. In your opinion, is that something that indie films should still be striving for?
O: There is much talk that frustrates me about new modes of distribution for films. It is all true and cause to be excited; it is just usually weighted so unfairly next to the reality of distribution. For all the people who self distribute successfully, there are thousands who do not get seen or join an endless online archive. Like everyone else enamored with online and the beautiful democracy of it all, we scramble for the credibility afforded by more mainstream outlets. The ground is shifting as we speak. There are no easy or fixed answers to this one.
B: Have a good core team of advisers or speak with a filmmaker who is a good gauge of it. Every first time filmmaker has wild dreams and expectations. Especially when they have been sweating and bleeding for two, three, four, five, six years over one film. Just because you spent all those years on your film, doesn’t mean it will be received any better. I really do believe these shorter docs are so much more interesting than the features coming out now a days. Many a times, I feel like issue-based films that want to raise awareness on an issue are being a little indulgent by making a feature-length film on one said issue. If you want to reach large audiences with an issue-based film, think of how to sell it quick and creatively. If you want to make full-length films, really think about what you’re hoping to get out of it. It’s a lot of work.
O: Also, know your film and audience, recognize its limits and – the obvious thing – know what you want. In our case, we used to go to get gear at Abel Cinetech where I remember walking by an Oscilloscope poster signed by Adam Yauch, and thinking how great it would be to sit at the table with them down the line. That they got on board for the film is the stuff of dreams.
NFS : Any valuable life lessons that you can share with readers that you learned on this, your first, feature?
B: No film is an island. Work with people. Find champions early. Apply for grants. Get people involved. Be open about your process. Watch a lot of films. Know what you respond to and learn to communicate that. Not just the technical side of it, but the emotional side of it. This was the biggest learning curve for me. In the beginning of this adventure, I could tell you what I liked, but I couldn’t tell you why I liked it.
O: It’s a collaborative effort. Shoot every idea in the field and edit later. Tenacity and a good support network. Bassam’s family in Karachi, even now when I think about how much they supported us on repeated trips, strains credibility. I cannot think of finer people. Others also sacrificed so much back home, so I could shoot this and never doubted its worth. The only proper response to that is humility and gratitude. Lastly, professionally, I’ve been amazed at how much people gave of their time and talent, be it editing, producing, money, the colorist, good counsel from mentor programs etc… on the basis of rough cuts and clips.
Thank you Omar and Bassam!
The filmmakers mentioned a lot about new things in the documentary field -- from shooting at eye level through 50mm lenses to lyrical realism to skepticism about new modes of indie distribution. What do you think, and what are your takes on the new trends in documentary?