"There is just one Karachi in the world, but it is as if the entire world exists within Karachi," says Year 10 pupil Owais Ali in the documentary Concrete Dreams. He goes on to poetically describe the Pakistani city as one of lights and dreams.
Ali knows Karachi better than most. Eleven years ago he started living on its streets, driven from his home because he faced violence within its walls. “A couple of my friends told me that on the streets, we get free food, we roam around and no one is there to stop us. So I decided to go and check it out for myself.”
The truth, Ali would find, was far less quixotic. The nights were cold and he had to rip banners from lamp posts to use as blankets. During the day, he would beg and clean cars to earn money for food. Police officers harassed him, people disparaged him.
The United Nations estimates that there are about 1.5 million children living on the streets in Pakistan, and for a long time Ali was among them, in the throes of a whirlwind life that made it hard to escape poverty, substance abuse and sexual harassment.
But Concrete Dreams is not about the hardships that Ali and his friend, Salman, encountered on Karachi's streets. Instead, it is a story of how football inspired the two to take control of their lives, going on to represent Pakistan at the first Street Child World Cup in Rio in 2014 and winning bronze for their country.
The film – which won the Best Documentary award at the Indian World Film Festival – is narrated by the boys themselves. A fact that "seems to strike a chord with audiences," says its director, Saba Khan says.
An instructor in the Social Science division at NYU Abu Dhabi, Khan, first met the Ali in 2015, while she was working on a story about the lost childhoods of millions of underage Pakistani workers. She almost immediately knew she wanted to capture his story on film.
"During the phase research I stumbled upon an astonishing, eye-opening story about Pakistan's street child footballers," Khan says. "It took me by surprise, not least because it was antithetical to the cynical narrative we have come to associate with Pakistan and street children."
The story, Khan says, was emblematic of the pair's courage, hope and resilience. "They were reclaiming ownership of their lives through football and I was fascinated to witness such unassailable spirit."
Khan is eager for the documentary to be released digitally once its festival circuit is over. The film's UAE premiere was originally set to take place in March, as part of NYUAD's Film and New Media Series as well the Cinema Space initiative at Manarat Al Saadiyat. However, those plans were derailed by the pandemic.
“We’ve got a few more film festivals lined up, as soon as it’s safe to hold them,” Khan says. “Once that circuit is over, it will release digitally, which will offer a wider audience access to the film. That’s sort of the whole point of making such a documentary, I suppose.
"The more people who watch the film, the wider Ali’s and Salman’s voices get heard.”
It took Khan four years to film all of the documentary’s scenes. Filming was conducted in phases, primarily because she wanted to track the boys’ stories over time.
"We were also conscious not to focus on a one-time World Cup victory or photo-opp. Filming over time helped us tackle this by tracking how the role of football in their lives sustained them in the longer run."
Part of Khan’s motivation to make the documentary was to show a side of street children’s lives that is often overlooked. She wanted to paint a picture that was different to the “failed, victim poster-child narrative" and instead "use a rose-coloured lens to tell an equally authentic story.”
However, the street children's suffering is real and the film doesn't shy away from highlighting their trauma. "But it doesn't stop there," Khan says of their lives. Concrete Dreams, she says, tries to encapsulate "how these aren't completely rootless, adrift street kids whose lives might as well be written off."
Khan says she hopes the documentary will help people see Pakistan’s street children in a different light. “People need to stand up and take ownership of these children, instead of seeing them as scum; introduce symbols of belonging, devise ways of converting them into actors in society.”
Children often turn to the street because it can be seen as the only way to 'get by'. “Education, too, is often an unaffordable luxury. The problem becomes knotted within a much larger systemic collapse. Educational alternatives, legal reform, child protection policies will help.”
Khan spoke to several children besides Ali and Salman while researching the story. Their situations are complex and layered, which makes change that much harder.
"Here is where interventions such as sports or art can be dramatic in transforming lives," Khan says. "For example, we filmed in Lyari, long known as Karachi's clandestine hotbed for Kalashnikovs and crime. One of the respondents used to be a tea boy in a street gang. Getting recruited by a football club became his escape route from that eroding life of extortion and racketeering. I'd say such stories offer a legible starting point for change."
Ali and Salman are now using football to help guide other children off the streets, alternating their time between their studies and running football training camps for young boys in the city.
"When they returned after winning bronze in Rio, they initiated a nationwide campaign: I Am Somebody," Khan says. "It was about bolstering the identities of street children across Pakistan. They wanted to drive home the point that these kids aren't any different; just like others, they, too, are 'somebody'."
The pair's dreams extend beyond their personal trajectories, Khan says. “For them, it’s about using their journeys to spark a football-based movement, which other street children can look at and say, ‘If he can do it, what’s stopping me?’ I see that as real change.”
Khan says the protagonists in her documentary are "go-getters who went from having no birth certificates to meeting international football stalwarts in Rio. "With Concrete Dreams I wanted to hammer in the fact that dreaming big, working hard to get those dreams, becoming 'somebody', isn't simply the territory of the privileged.
"The punchline of the story symbolises how, despite their upended lives, these boys didn't downsize their dreams to fit their reality. Instead, they outstripped their reality so it would fit their dreams."