The geopolitical nature of humanitarian aid work often obscures the humanity itself. Sure, people are shown in news stories, but usually as a mass representing a refugee crisis triggered by man-made or natural disasters, or the persistent poverty plaguing too many societies. But behind the throngs are individuals. Not just those receiving aid, but aid workers and philanthropists, too.
These three distinct experiences are captured in a stunning documentary, “These Birds Walk,” which is being screened through Sunday at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis and will be available on digital platforms on Feb. 18.
Shot over a three-year period in Karachi, Pakistan, “These Birds Walk” tells an aid story through the intersecting lives of three compelling characters.
Omar is a street-smart boy at a house for runaway or abandoned children. Asad, another former street kid, is an ambulance driver for a dispatch center adjacent to the home. Alternately delivering corpses and reuniting boys with their often reluctant families, he risks driving through Karachi’s mean streets or even into Taliban territory. Abdul Sattar Edhi, an honored Pakistani philanthropist with a simple bearing despite the complexities of Pakistan’s societal challenges, leads the foundation that bears his name.
Shot with cinematography that reflects the simultaneous beauty and brutality of the location and lives the film follows, “This Bird Walks” challenges assumptions about Pakistan as well as the nature of humanitarian aid work.
“The best of film has a healthy dissonance with how we see parts of the world, and parts of ourselves,” co-director Bassam Tariq said in an interview.
“The dissonance, if it does happen, probably comes from preconceived notions — just open a newspaper,” added co-director Omar Mullick.
One doesn’t even always have to open one — sometimes it’s on the front page. Thursday’s Wall Street Journal led with the headline “Pakistan Drone Program Curbed.” The intended drone targets, terrorists with Taliban or other extremist ties, usually frame stories about Pakistan, along with foreign-policy concerns about Pakistan’s relationship with neighboring nations like Afghanistan or India or Iran.
These dynamics — and the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear nation fighting a violent insurgency — has led some observers to call it a “failed state.” The film’s directors reject that narrative.
“ ‘Failed state’ gets tossed around. I’ve been to spots of revolutions. I just don’t know what they mean when they talk about Pakistan like that,” Mullick said.
“You see an inventiveness and ground-level resilience and tenacity and courage that surface in Omar’s life, Asad’s involvement and Idhi that still move me when I watch the film. But you also see a very heightened and somewhat brutal reality that they contend with.”
People like Asad are “great at what they do,” Tariq said. “But what’s so amazing is how reluctant they are to be a hero, which almost makes it more heroic.”
It’s especially admirable considering that many aid workers face some of the same challenges they are trying to alleviate. That’s because most are locals. For example, about 94 percent of the 1,400 who work for the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee live in the areas they serve.
“They’re living this every day,” said Gina Paulette, regional manager at ARC who supervises ARC’s efforts in Pakistan. Paulette, who also has worked in Guinea, Uganda, Rwanda, Jordan and elsewhere, added that at times there are initial trust factors with Western aid workers. While these hurdles are usually quickly overcome, “It’s not the same as being born and bred and living the life every day. … I could go home tomorrow, but the majority of people are going to be there the rest of their lives,” Paulette said.
And just like the refugees or runaways, the lives of the aid workers are complex. So beyond communities that hold local aid workers in high regard, the workers themselves try to form a safety net for each other. “They are dealing with their own pressures,” Paulette said. “And yet day to day, they truck on.”
In fact, Asad’s concern often extended beyond the boys to the co-directors of “These Birds Walk,” as they faced their own challenges filming a nuanced narrative. This type of resiliency makes Tariq hopeful for Pakistan.
Paulette sees it too, and not just in Pakistan.
“Anywhere ARC works, we find that over and over again people are extremely resilient, extremely innovative, trying to come out of their own circumstances,” she said. “It’s encouraging to see, and you at times wish you would see it more here in the West … that we had that kind of gumption and resilience.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.