These Birds Walk is a documentary about the life of poverty-ravaged boys in Karachi, Pakistan; and it is unmistakably made for a Western audience.This bothers me more than it has any reason to, for the film is absolutely not a sad-eyed ethnography or exotic exploration of culture - no Slumdog Millionaire or the like here. In fact, it's pretty transparently the case that directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq actively intended for These Birds Walk to be a direct counterpoint to that kind of story, exploring life in Karachi as it is genuinely lived and not as it is filtered through ideology and media. Still, there's something about it I find a tiny bit brittle and predetermined; it might be nothing so simple as the unnecessarily pretty cinematography by Mullick, a professional photographer whose work errs on the side of beauty where it might not belong.

Anyway, whatever lingering feeling that the film might be more of a lecture than it admits to doesn't stand up much at all to even the briefest exposure to what the film emphatically and unmistakably is: an exceptionally clear-cut, unadorned example of cinéma vérité in its most pristine and pure form. One forgets, in the face of so many narrative films cynically co-opting the aesthetic style of cinéma vérité, and so many documentaries acting like they're dabbling in that tradition when they're actually doing something far cruder and less truthful, how rich and rewarding it can actually be to watch as filmmakers using limited equipment nestle in right next to their subjects and watch them intensely over a period of time, saying nothing and inferring nothing, but never pretending like the camera somehow isn't there.

These Birds Walk begins with a scene that, arguably, errs on the side of being too charming and cute: a young boy running through the water on a beach, near dawn or dusk. It's the one moment in the film that works on a predominately impressionistic, emotional level: the idea of childhood freedom and innocence, expressed through unmediated imagery of joy and energy. It's a moment that ties back into the rest of the movie in a literal sense (the boy, who we'll later learn is named Omar, is one of the main focuses of the documentary), but its position in the movie has less to do with literalism or narrative than with feeling: by opening the film with an expression of exuberant freedom, the filmmakers cast a shadow over the rest of their fleet 71 minutes that rather conspicuously aren't about freedom at all. The opening is a counterpoint to everything that follows, keeping it from ever descending into just a wallow in misery, and reinforcing the idea that the boys we'll see throughout the film are resilient survivors.

From here, it shifts to an introduction: we meet the octogenarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, and his great national humanitarian organisation, the Edhi Foundation, which provides health and safety services to people throughout Pakistan. The aspect the movie is most focused on is its shelters for wayward children: runaways, orphans, or those abandoned by their families. To explore Edhi's work, the film trains its eye on a handful of boys in one home in Karachi, and a few administrators: its main characters, if you will, are Omar, and Asad, once a resident of this facility, now in his 20s and working as a driver for the Edhi Foundation in gratitude for what it did to save him.

The film is far more complicated than it sounds from that little description, though. Nothing about this can be summed up in beatific, "look at the children being saved!" bromides, since it's not entirely clear that These Birds Walk is depicting children being saved in the customary wide-eyed, noble and saintly, Bing-Crosby-in-a-priest-costume manner. Rather, the film's idea is that the Edhi Foundation, though the work it's doing is clearly and objectively good, is simply part of a much bigger society that deep down inside doesn't know what to do with these kids, and every proposed solution is just fumbling to find something that works better, even if it's still ultimately compromised. Though These Birds Walk has more than its fair share of scenes of children being cute and lovable (it's still an uplifiting, populist documentary, at the end of the day), the moments that stick in the mind the most are of a much more ambivalent cast: Omar struggling with the other boys, clearly not feeling like he belongs here or anywhere else. The film's primary sense is not that of security, but of dislocation - the boys' home might be a safe place, but it is also an institution that is by no means a pleasant place to live.

Having a pervasive undercurrent like this helps to keep the film from being as cloying as some of its earliest and latest scenes suggest might have been the case; so does its fixed sense of embedded journalism, with the camera occupying a very watchful position, letting life happen in front of it. There is no flashy technique, which is not to say that the film isn't aware of cinematic language, only that it doesn't want to draw attention to itself (that being said, the most striking sequence, in which Omar runs from the camera through a blasted-out, Taliban-controlled village, certainly calls attention to the breathless way in which it's been filmed; as it might be, given that it's one of the most tense action scenes of the year). Careful use of focus and framing to dictate what we're looking at does give the film a certain editorial perspective, though this is more about limiting spurious information than interpreting things for us: the movie is about the very specific place and the very specific people living there, but all the sociology it raises is in the background and comes in the form of an unanswered question.

This is, all told, a tremendously satisfying film, though perhaps a bit slight and burdened by too many early scenes with talking heads explaining things that would fit more in an advocacy doc than something this studiously objective. Whatever. It shows us a slice of life that I imagine the great majority of people who will see the movie have never given a moment of thought to, and the small amount of rockiness in amongst so much sophisticated and smart filmmaking frankly doesn't matter very much in the face of that.