Sundance 2022: All That Breathes exceptional documentary testament to human-nonhuman interaction in the midst of Delhi

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Of numerous remarkable moments in the exceptional documentary film All That Breathes (Kiterabbit Films and Rise Films production), India’s sole entry in this year’s Sundance, among the most unforgettable are those portraying the psychological and philosophical attitudes of brothers Nadeem and Saud, who have put their heads down in total focus for nearly the last 20 years mending and rehabilitating thousands of black kite raptors that have fallen out of Delhi’s smog-choked skies.

“They have been getting on with their work while being thoroughly unsentimental to a fault,” director Shaunak Sen says in an interview with The Utah Review. “They are soldiering on even as they are in front of many things going desperately bad.”

Black kites fly in the smog-filled skies of New Delhi, India, as seen in All That Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen. Image courtesy of Kiterabbit Films.

Since 2003, the brothers have watched black kites fall out of the skies over the densely populated, heavily industrialized city of Delhi. The birds were injured or suffering from the effects of illnesses including metabolic bone disease. Self-trained veterinarians, the brothers transferred knowledge about muscles and tendons they had informally gathered as a result of their interests in bodybuilding during their younger days. After years of makeshift operations, the global attention they have received because of these wildlife rescue efforts has allowed them to receive support for open air cages and other equipment to properly equip a bird hospital. 

But, even as they sustain a most profound emotional sense and conceptual grasp of the edifying gifts of nonhuman-human interaction that become just as apparent in the most congested manifestation of the Anthropocene world, the brothers also are acutely aware of mushrooming tensions. In Delhi, these include a sociopolitical infrastructure on the edge of being overwhelmed, urban violence and the hate-contaminated rhetoric that propelled Indian’s enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act targeting the country’s nearly 200 million Muslims, which would include the brothers.

All That Breathes excels as a cosmological testament of extraordinary human-nonhuman interaction with elucidating, exquisitely synthesized breadth and depth of sociological perspective. Simultaneously surreal and empirical in character, the film commands viewers to make their own examination of the skies and to train their own gaze on the most contemporary formidable crises that are undeniably the existential concerns of our time. It is one of the most impressive entries of recent years in the festival’s World Cinema Documentary competition.

Shaunak Sen, director of All That Breathes. Photo credit: Salim Khan.

In the same family as hawks and eagles, the black kite has consistently been a victim of prejudice. Unlike other raptors that are prized in falconry, folklore, and even songs (as in Japanese imperial culture), the black kite often has been portrayed as inferior. While hawks and other raptors soar through the sky as proud solitary birds, black kites as scavengers often form in large flocks and float lazily along thermal currents of air to search for dead carcasses from the sky. In one scene, the brothers are grinding meat for the birds. Muslims believe that such gestures absolve the sins of those who grind and make the meat available. Nearly 20 years ago when the brothers first took an injured kite to a bird hospital, the hospital refused it because it was a “non-vegetarian” bird. Every bit, large and small, is stitched together meticulously in this incredible cinematic fabric of documentary storytelling.

Sen deftly commands his viewers to comprehend the ineffably hazy grayness that laminates the skies of Delhi, a sort of dystopian postcard that compels one to constantly recognize just how noxious the air is. This sets up the tale of the central relationship between the human and nonhuman and how Delhi emerges as an overarching character in the documentary narrative Sen and his brilliant production team have set forth. The opening sequence is stunning in portraying this relationship, with glimpses of a turtle contemplating how to navigate nearby traffic, crawling insects, rats scurrying about in high-pitched shrieks, and a jaw-dropping image of a beetle moving across a puddle in which one can see the reflection of a jumbo jetliner traversing the sky.

Salik Rehman smiling at a black kite, as seen in All That Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen. Image courtesy of Kiterabbit Films.

Sen worked patiently to gain the trust of Nadeem and Saud as well as Salik, who joined their Wildlife Rescue efforts five years ago. Sen says he wanted his team to become like wallpaper in their surroundings. “I knew they had become comfortable when they started yawning in front of the cameras. That is when we could get usable footage. They were not self conscious.” As Sen explains, this is the brothers’ “absolutely singular philanthropic act to save the birds, while they also have front seats to the apocalypse unfolding before their eyes.”

Their workload is incredible, with the brothers finding 10 to 20 birds each day to mend and rehabilitate. As the viewer hears in the background news reports of mob violence and protests that are occurring in the city’s northern sections, the portrait sharpens in depicting the brothers working in a world that is unsympathetic, even hostile, to them on multiple levels. While the brothers are aware of the political events surrounding them and the violence occurring in riots, Sen says they also “have some blinkers on while doing their work.” In one scene, Salik is riding through the city while scanning his phone for the latest news on the unrest. Afterward, he pulls a chipmunk from his shirt pocket for a few moments of play before the animal nestles back inside the comfort of his shirt. The nonhuman interaction is ubiquitous in the lives of all three men.

With the crew effectively operating as wallpaper, there are scenes that are happy accidents, as Sen refers to them. One is Salik’s astonishing reaction when his glasses are suddenly removed by a kite who flies off with them. When the three men are discussing what would happen in a nuclear weapon attack, Salik wonders if the birds will feed off his body, even if they recognize him as their caregiver. One of the brothers mentions a dream where he imagines dying of a heart attack and kites burst forth from his ribcage.

Salik Rehman staring at a black kite, as seen in All That Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen. Image courtesy of Kiterabbit Films.

There are several moments where the strains of their immense project are evident. Monsoonal rains bring flooding and leaks into their working spaces. They worry about the financial requirements for continuing the work. Nadeem, who is in his forties, is frustrated, hoping for research and other opportunities to augment the work they have been doing. Sensitive to the ideal moment for verisimilitude, Sen captures Nadeem’s sentiments about the frustrations about being trapped in the movement. “These ongoing conversations we had with Nadeem finally had been crystallized into eight lines, and once he had whittled down his thoughts, we knew he had arrived at the right moment to express them,” Sen adds. Perhaps the film’s most hopeful and triumphant moment is when the three men finally have the proper means for their bird hospital. It is a brief moment to bask in the return of the astounding investment of sweat equity they have made over many years.

The musical score and sound design enhance the film with spectacular results. This comes from Roger Goula, a London-based composer who, among his numerous honors and credits, was featured in the ASCAP Composers Spotlight at Sundance in 2018. Sen wanted a score that hinted at the fairy tale aura, charisma and enchantment of being fascinated obsessively with a hypnotic otherworldly bird but then also evoked a dream that has gone bad and sinks deeper into dystopia. The film’s palette comprises soaring strings, electronic distortions, sounds of the black kite and diegetic sounds representing the scene being portrayed.

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