SUNDANCE 2022: ‘All That Breathes’ Is a High Soaring Masterpiece

Reading Time: 4 minutes

All That Breathes - but why tho

“Delhi is a gaping wound. And we’re a tiny Band-Aid on it,” says Nadeem Shehzad, who along with his brother Mohammad Saud has treated over 20,000 birds, most of them black kites, in their basement in one of the most polluted places in the world, New Delhi. But the air isn’t the only toxic element floating around because a wave of hate is slowly covering the city, and in his astonishing documentary All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen creates a portrait of this complex dynamic.

Black kites frequent the skies of India’s capital. They are in rooftops, markets, and landfills looking for scraps of meat. But the increase in pollution has put them in greater peril than usual, and as a result, the noble work of Nadeem and Saud has multiplied. Black kites are pummeling to the streets; besides physical injuries, some of them arrive at their makeshift clinic blind or with neural problems. 

Besides a couple of moments when Nadeem speaks to the camera about the backstory of them and their Wildlife Rescue organization, All That Breathes follows an observational approach. Director Sen allows us to patiently observe the daily loving chores of the “kite brothers” and their loyal volunteer, Salik: they treat the kites’ injuries, grind meat for them, bath them, or if it comes to that, bury them. They also go out to the street to collect these feathered beauties for later treatment; if crossing a big lake all by themselves to save one is required, they do it. We also contemplate as the brothers argue about their work, make fun of each other (Salik is a frequent target of Nadeem’s tremendous use of sarcasm), or share the worries about the lack of funding. We also learn that Nadeem and Saud are Muslim.

And then, there’s the city itself. Shaunak Sen contextualizes the rescue efforts by revealing the borderline surreal ecosystem that shapes New Delhi. There are lines of kites sitting on mountains of garbage, monkeys walking through a jungle of cables, and hogs roaming the streets. Sometimes we hear Nadeem reflecting on how animals have adapted to the urban landscape, and even evolved by doing it. Sen allows us to understand and even feel the connection between all the living beings who share this city, creating a meditation on the power of nature and the beauty of animals. It also sets the stage for the study of social unrest that starts to unravel as the documentary progresses.

In between bird rescue and treatments, we see an anchorman on TV talking about public outrage toward a new citizenship law that prohibits Muslim refugees from entering the country. Later, we hear about peaceful protests and some chanting going on in the background. And finally, a wave of anti-Muslim violence erupts.

Without abandoning Nadeem and Saud’s perspective, Shaunak Sen skillfully integrates this portrait of social tension into the story of the kite-loving brothers, creating an impressive contrast between hope and despair. We have these wonderful human beings doing their utmost effort to save the lives of these gorgeous creatures while kilometers away, there’s a wave of hate-induced murder. If humanity can’t do something as basic as respect each other’s religions, how are we going to come together to save the planet and all the living beings that breathe in it?

But the reflections and learnings of All That Breathes don’t come at us through ordinary observation and filmmaking. With the aid of godlike cinematography, Sen captures a multitude of miraculous moments that add depth to his subjects and the threads of his narrative. We see a kite soaring in a beautiful blue sky with only the moon in the background, a turtle making its way through a pile of garbage, a kite stealing Salik’s glasses midair, a plane reflected on the tiny puddle of water of a crease in a bunch of junk. There’s a Gianfranco Rosi-Esque quality in the way Sen manages to find all these quiet masterpieces.

More than once, director of photography Ben Bernhard uses rack focus with exquisite precision to turn the meaning of one-shot completely on its head, portraying the connection between the city and its underseen invertebrate inhabitants. In one of the most spectacular moments of the film, you think you are witnessing a street bonfire when, in the same shot, a change in depth of field reveals a beautiful slug crawling in the foreground. I was constantly gasping at the outstanding cinematography on display.

Even when talking to Nadeem, Sen makes sure to use impressive filmmaking techniques to get the most out of it; at one point, the camera slowly pans through Nadeem’s house, while we hear him talking about his current state of mind regarding his work. You think it’s just a voiceover inserted in the editing room, but suddenly, the camera, still panning, enters the room where he is in, still talking. It’s amazing.

All That Breathes is a masterful tale of how pollution has invaded the air and the human soul. Through outstanding directing, Shaunak Sen pits some of the best traits humanity has to offer against the worst. And at the end, we get a display of hope overcoming hate. Even while intolerance runs rampant, Wildlife Rescue grows stranger because there are people interested in protecting lives and inspiring others to do the same: a portion of humanity still cares, proving that evolution might be slow, but it’s definitely there.

All That Breathes had its World Premiere at Sundance 2022 where it’s competing in the World Cinema Documentary program. You can follow Wildlife Rescue on Facebook or find out more about them, including how to donate from anywhere in the world, on their official page.

Cover image courtesy of Kiterabbit Films.


All That Breathes
  • 10/10
    Rating - 10/10
10/10

TL;DR

All That Breathes is a masterful tale of how pollution has invaded the air and the human soul. Through outstanding directing, Shaunak Sen pits some of the best traits humanity has to offer against the worst. And at the end, we get a display of hope overcoming hate. Even while intolerance runs rampant, Wildlife Rescue grows stranger because there are people interested in protecting lives and inspiring others to do the same: a portion of humanity still cares, proving that evolution might be slow, but it’s definitely there.