In a quiet settlement in Mirpur Khas, a young man by the name of Ghulam walks around with his feet in shackles.

“He runs away,” his elder brother, who works the fields, tells the people visiting from the city. His mother, who is far too old for manual labour, yet still has to work, sits crouched in another field as she tells the filmmakers that Ghulam burned down someone’s crops once. He’s been especially unruly since his father passed away, she says.

Ghulam’s father didn’t yell or beat the young man; all he had to do was give him a look and say “No.”

Ghulam is special, though not in the usual sense of the word; he’s intellectually disabled, and is mostly considered useless by his community — but that doesn’t mean that he cannot be special, in the way that matters.

During the 38 minutes of As Far As They Can Run, an intimate look at one young adult and two children who have varying degrees of disabilities, social workers Tehmina and Noor, and the volunteer coaches of the Special Olympics — which a preamble text at the beginning states has been striving since 1989 to provide training for young adults and children with intellectual disabilities — coax and coerce parents to bring them to the local sports complex to train in a running programme.

Director Tanaz Eshaghian’s As Far As They Can Run has been shortlisted for the Best Short Documentary at the Oscars. It is the only documentary in the running with Pakistani content

The mix of mental and physical exercises that come with playing sports would develop their sense of cognition and awareness, and help integrate them in their families and communities, they explain.

Tehmina and Noor are often seen arguing with the simple-minded parents — though never disrespectfully. One sees that this is not their first rodeo. Often, the parents’ lack of education, and misinformed, antiquated beliefs make them think that the children are a manifestation of their sins. Some take less convincing than others.

Like Ghulam, Sana is kept in shackles. Despite the usual running away excuse — which, of course, may happen — her mother and grandmother have a far greater reason to keep the young girl in chains: another local girl in a nearby village, whom the women profess was intellectually disabled like Sana, was gang-raped in the fields when she ran away.

Sajawal, who is perhaps younger than the two (the documentary doesn’t list their ages, so one can only guesstimate), has it worse than Ghulam and Sana. His condition is visually far worse, as is his prison.

His father is debt-ridden and Sajawal is kept under lock and key in a decrepit section of their rundown house.

One look at their residence, with its scattered bricks, broken down walls and rusting doors, and you wonder if the electricity pole standing in their yard actually has the juice to power the houses’ bulbs…if, that is, there are any.

Sajawal’s father is in financial distress, who needs to be away from home to work. The only solution he can think of is to lock his son up, and feed him through the opening of the corroding frames of a big window — but that doesn’t mean that he loves him any less, as scenes show us later in the documentary.

Director Tanaz Eshaghian’s film is a verité portrait of Ghulam, Sana and Sajawal, that doesn’t really intrude in their lives; the most it asks the people in front of the camera, is to repeat interviews or re-do actions when the camera shifts angles (one shot with Sajawal and his dad is painfully obvious).

Still, the 38 minutes go by in a flash, jumping the timeline first by six weeks, then three months, as we see the children’s progress. Some scenes are quite emotional; most of them are not.

As Far As They Can Run, offers a detached look at what could have been a far more intimate, and longer piece of Ghulam, Sana and Sajawal’s story. It lacks grandness and a souring soundtrack that evokes faux emotions (sometimes massaging the material helps elevate the story one wants to tell). In its place is a meek naturalness that evokes the feeling of a film student’s final year thesis.

The climax, where Ghulam and Sana are brought to Karachi to partake in a marathon, is not a moment of climatic high (they have a run near the Moin Khan Academy); like the film, it comes off as just another moment, when it could have been shot and edited better.

One wonders what Sana and Sajawal will end up becoming. A longer, deeper documentation of their eventual triumphs would have been wonderful to experience. What one sees is just a small peek into the lives of three very special people (the short hardly covers a year), who mostly need understanding and love to make a difference.

As Far As They Can Run is distributed by MTV Documentary Films. The short documentary is shortlisted in this year’s Academy Awards and is co-produced in Pakistan by Ziad Zafar

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 8th, 2023

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