On paper, All That Breathes reads like a documentary on avian conservation, but the film reveals astonishing dimensions, even in its introductory frames. Shaunak Sen’s disquieting urban portrait opens in New Delhi in the dead of night, with unflinching close-ups that hover slowly across open fields of rat-infested refuse, scored only by the sounds of motor vehicles in the distance. This is the new terrain. The new India. The new nature. A status quo in which animals, humans, and the human-made have become intrinsically bound. As its synopsis suggests, the nature documentary does in fact follow two middle-aged brothers, Saud and Nadeem, and their young volunteer assistant, Salik, as they rescue owls, black kites (or “cheel”), and other birds from the Delhi smog. But it is also a poetic film about the interconnectedness of living things, and a harsh, affecting depiction of life in modern India.
All That Breathes was lauded and awarded at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and will premiere on HBO in 2023. However, its theatrical release on October 21 is an opportunity to be immersed in one of the most moving and visually striking works of cinema this year. The documentary form is so often associated with “realism” that directors like Sen—or the film’s consulting producer Joshua Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing, involving expressionistic re-enactments of real crimes—find themselves at the helm of works that defy categorization. Sen’s film, while certainly non-fictional, is intricately staged and hyper-stylized, with carefully crafted scenes of the bird-rescuing trio going about their day, engaging in conversations about nothing in particular at their dim, makeshift bird hospital. And yet, it’s completely spontaneous, as evidenced by an early scene in which a kite swoops down and snatches Salik’s glasses right off his nose. It's the sort of shocking (and shockingly funny) incident one couldn’t possibly plan for, leading to a rare moment of jovial acceptance. So much is outside the trio’s control—like their national and international funding, which seem to constantly fall through—that Salik admitting that he won’t see his glasses again borders on a rare kind of harmony. Delhi’s birds may live in a concrete jungle, but the city is (or rather, ought to be) equally their domain.
There’s a sense of reverence to the way Sen captures the black kite: through long-lens, high-contrast portraits that interrupt the naturalism of the brothers’ conversations, as if these were dream sequences, rife with piercing stares right down the lens from numerous birds. They seem to be trying to tell us something about ourselves, and Sen’s frame is intent on deciphering their mysterious message. When they’re not in immediate danger from pollution, or injury from manja—the dangerous cotton strings used to fly decorative paper kites (or “patang” in Hindi; the name of the bird is coincidentally the same in English)—the black kites coast high above the city, barely flapping their wings. One of the brothers, in voiceover that frequently recurs, compares their movement to swimming. Sen, in turn, photographs the sky and its crescent moon through puddles and other bodies of water in slow motion, as gentle winds cause ripples across the surface. All the while, composer Roger Goula’s magnetic musical score, filled with chimes and other wind instruments, makes magic out of the mundane. From a distance, there’s something almost holy about these creatures and the way the brothers see them.
Up close, however, the reality is starkly different. The brothers share their veterinary space with an auto garage that frequently floods—even nature doesn’t reward their efforts—and they have no choice but to settle into a routine, as Salik brings them dozens of injured birds in cardboard boxes, like he’s delivering produce. It’s a thankless endeavor, and in the process of exploring its mundaneness, Sen sketches the outside world using little more than the trio’s conversations, and snippets of radio broadcasts that may as well be white noise to their workday. While there’s a rehearsed feeling to the way Sen has them sit, or stand, or walk into a room (albeit for the purpose of putting as much information into the frame as possible), their idle chatter is anything but predetermined. Sen’s frames may be artfully and theatrically staged, but he finally allows a sense of documentarian realism to take hold when Saud, Nadeem, Salik and their families discuss everything from rumors about nuclear war, to India’s Citizenship Amendment Act—a 2019 law seeking to delegitimize Muslim citizens, like the trio themselves—with the same nonchalant cadence as their chats about ’90s professional wrestling.
It’s hard not to feel the sting of this casual acceptance, of violence and state bigotry unfolding in the trio’s vicinity, along with the parallel thread of climate nihilism pervading the film.
It’s hard not to feel the sting of this casual acceptance, of violence and state bigotry unfolding in the trio’s vicinity, along with the parallel thread of climate nihilism pervading the film. India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was re-elected in a landslide in 2019, and his right-wing Hindu government has been callous both towards Muslims (and other minorities) as well as towards environmental issues, two forms of toxicity that can’t help but go hand-in-hand in the Indian consciousness. New Delhi, India’s seat of federal power, is among the most polluted cities in the world, and though recent religious riots and pogroms have set Muslim neighborhoods ablaze—footage which Sen drops into his film with a sense of shocking punctuation—the rising smoke is, beyond a point, indistinguishable from the city’s air on a normal day.
In this way, All That Breathes makes for a fitting companion piece to another 2022 documentary, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, which similarly explores India’s political turmoil through an intimate lens of romance and student protest unfolding at the Film and Television Institute of India, where Kapadia was an alumna. When fiction isn’t enough to speak truth to power—in Bollywood, India’s mainstream Hindi-language film industry, those who don’t cozy up to Modi and his regime often become targets of persecution—reflections of reality become all the more vital, especially when filtered through personal experience. Sen is from Delhi, and he dedicates the film to his father, who died last year; as for why he might weave a tapestry of protest into a doc on conservation, one needn’t look further than his educational résumé. He’s an alumnus of Jamia Milia Islamia and a current PhD candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), two colleges whose politically outspoken student bodies have been frequent targets of Modi’s right-wing government. So, even when fascist rhetoric isn’t a conversational centerpiece, it feels like a background hum to daily existence, a dynamic Sen works into the fabric of All That Breathes.
Sen’s images may not directly evoke authoritarian violence (except for his scant use of archival footage), but he prominently portrays the brothers’ frank discussions, including mundane, semi-joking chats about what they would do if deported to a neighboring country. In the process, he paints a discomforting picture of what it means to live in modern India, under the thumb of a callous government that both fans the flames of communal violence, and lets literal smoke linger in the air until it begins to suffocate wildlife.
This dual focus, on animals and human beings, feels deeply entwined. It’s one and the same story, whether Sen’s camera (courtesy of cinematographers Ben Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi) captures the majesty of soaring black kites from a human vantage on the ground, backed by sunlight peeking out from behind thick, unavoidable smog, or a bird’s eye view of a city in political turmoil from high above. To Saud, Nadeem and Salik, these are the same poison, belonging to one and the same place. And so, All That Breathes crafts a stunning visual and narrative continuum, with fascinating voiceover about the strange ways in which kites have been adapting to urban life, just as the brothers and their diligent assistant have been acclimating to their despondent new normal. Most touching of all, however, is the film’s investigation into where Saud and Nadeem’s altruism seems to stem from, including a brief anecdote about their late mother, which also brings the film’s title into sharp, unyielding focus.
All That Breathes crafts a stunning visual and narrative continuum, with fascinating voiceover about the strange ways in which kites have been adapting to urban life, just as the brothers and their diligent assistant have been acclimating to their despondent new normal.
All That Breathes is a piercing, sentimental work about finding (and creating) fleeting beauty in a world full of cruelty. It binds the narrative and ethical focus of the documentary form, using the meticulous artistry of India’s independent wave of “parallel cinema”—a continuing arthouse movement that values aesthetics above bombast, and textural richness above panache. Even at a mere 90 minutes in length, it feels enormous in emotional scope, as a picturesque treatise on life and death, love and hatred, chaos and serenity, in all their hues—all presented in close quarters, in a thoughtful tale of the natural and human-made colliding in the modern world.
“Hum sabh hava ke biradri hai,” says one of the brothers. “We’re all a community of air.”
Published on October 21, 2022