Salik Rehman staring at a black kite, as seen in All That Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen. Image courtesy of Kiterabbit Films.
Above the crowded and combustible streets of New Delhi, India, black birds soar, or rather, attempt to.
You might assume that the skies would be a refuge from the cacophonous bustle of one of the most populous cities on Earth, an uneasy alliance of the natural and industrial worlds. But human progress ravages every molecule. New Delhi’s robust birds of prey population are forced to fly amidst heavy fumes that wreck their bodies.
Their only sanctuary comes from Nadeem Shehzad and Saud Rehman, two brothers committed to protecting, healing, and honoring them. All That Breathes, the documentary by Shaunak Sen premiering at Sundance this week, follows their thoughtful and thankless crusade to preserve the city’s “black kite” population. There is nothing they won’t do. They will swim across frigid waters, grind spare meat, and treat terrible wounds in the dark. Their work is all in the name of granting dignity to these captivatingly beautiful animals.
At its best, All That Breathes is a double-tracked love story. The documentary centers both the tender passion behind Shehzad and Saud’s mission and the beautiful volatility between New Delhi’s natural and unnatural inhabitants. Sen weaves the two threads by capturing them with a narrative eye. He forgoes traditionally remote objectivity for shots and sequences that are strikingly stylized and intimate. His technical choices – toying with lighting, color and perspective – make it easy to forget that you’re even watching a documentary. His use of more traditional documentary cues can be jarring, but he still sweeps you into this unique pocket of the world.
Sen skillfully elevates the mundane to disarmingly emotional heights, and his camera lingers to find the beauty. He treats a worm crawling from the depths of a puddle with the same aching tenderness in which he observes the bathing of a black kite. He reverently captures this engrossing environment and the brothers’ work within it. Through his camera, you will see and care as much as he does.
Of course, capturing the complicated beauty of New Delhi’s ecosystem is in service of exposing the ugliness beneath. Apart from highlighting Shehzad and Saud’s commendable work, All That Breathes also seeks to challenge the societal, technological, and bureaucratic factors that make them necessary in the first place.
It is most impactful tackling the ecological roadblocks, since they align with the brothers’ challenges helping the black kites. The film lays bare New Delhi’s environmental crisis: the industrial pollution, the urban displacement, and the overflowing waste. It also conveys the helplessness and disinterest within the community in addressing it. Citizens treat the toxicity as either an inevitability or the natural order. It’s maddening, but understandable, considering the underlying economic mechanics. Sen doesn’t posit any solutions, but the emotional connection he forges with the audience will likely germinate a seed of urgency.
All That Breathes struggles to make its depiction of civil unrest equally compelling. At the backdrop of India’s environmental calamity are increasing protests and violence associated with a bill that would discriminate against the Muslim community. Shehzad and Saud’s family is Muslim, immediately raising the stakes of the escalating pressure. However, the political tension is largely kept to the periphery. The film does highlight how New Delhi women are driving the demonstrations advocating for religious freedom. It’s intriguing, but its tangential connection to the brothers’ work makes it the weakest part of the film.
Amidst the myriad crises facing the world today, urban decay and pollution might feel less urgent. All That Breathes, through a reverent gaze focused on two humble heroes, absolves that notion. While Shaunak Sen’s technical and thematic ambition sometimes escapes him, he has crafted an empathetic work that shows that, even against insurmountable odds, individuals can take substantive steps to righting society’s mistakes.
All That Breathes had its World Premiere in the World Documentary Competition section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Director: Shaunak Sen
Rating: 4 out of 5
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