- All That Breathes, a 2022 documentary film turns the lens on the non-human life forms that inhabit Delhi and the city’s ecological decay through the experience and perspective of wildlife rescuers.
- The documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, 2022. It was also the only Indian film to premiere at Cannes Special Screening, 2022.
- Mongabay-India spoke to the director, Shaunak Sen, to understand his process and observations while working on the project.
Black kites have a vantage view of Indian cities. The ubiquitous bird has adjusted to urban areas and lives close to humans. The sight of these birds of prey occupying Delhi’s dull and hazy skies became the backdrop for Shaunak Sen’s documentary All That Breathes. The film turns the lens on the non-human life forms that inhabit Delhi and the city’s ecological decay through the experience and perspective of three wildlife rescuers.
Dedicated to the welfare of birds, siblings Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud founded Wildlife Rescue. Shot over two-and-a-half years, the documentary spans multiple black kite migratory seasons and numerous rescue operations by the two brothers and their young assistant Salik Rehman. The film takes us inside their humble basement in Delhi’s Wazirabad area, where a soap dispenser assembling unit doubles up as a place to treat and house injured birds.
The film glides over multiple ecological and social issues – severe air pollution, flooded streets, power cuts, chemical frothing on rivers, the overflowing Ghazipur landfill, political unrest, etc. Amidst all that seems bleak, the documentary chronicles the everyday resolve of its characters, determined to do their bit despite all odds.
In addition to black kites injured by kite-flying threads and other urban obstacles, the clinic also gets Egyptian vultures, painted storks, shikras, spotted owlets and other bird species. Under one roof, this diversity of creatures, wounded or dead or recovering, illustrates Delhi’s co-inhabitants.
Subtle and elaborate sequences poetically convey the idea of human-animal coexistence in the city. A spotted owlet call briefly distracts the brothers while offering prayers at their mother’s grave. “Spotted,” one says and resumes prayers. Several long-duration and one-take sequences shift focus from the human to the non-human. A night shot with people dancing around a bonfire shifts focuses and brings forth a snail crawling in the foreground.
Sen, a birdwatcher himself, says that he and the cinematographers were aware of the presence of birds and other beings in urban areas. Still, the sheer density and proximity all came as a surprise to them as their gaze sharpened during filming.
The 94-minute documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival (2022). It was also the only Indian film to premiere at Cannes Special Screening on May 23, 2022. Mongabay-India spoke to the director to understand his process and observations while working on the project.
The interview has been edited for brevity.
How did you start work on the film and incorporate the several layers and themes running through it?
For me, how any film articulates itself is that you get this kind of weak feeling or a texture or a hazy glow at the back of your head. It was just kind of gray, monotone skies of Delhi, with the visual lamina of pollution that you see around you. And this vast, inky grayness that you associate the Delhi skies with, peppered with tiny, lazy, gliding dots that are the black kites, became the archetypal image of living in Delhi.
After that, I was doing a brief fellowship in the U.K. at Cambridge, and I was in the Human Geography department. Everybody around me was working on something to do with human-animal relations. I was in conversations with one of the early interlocutors of the project called Dr. Maan Barua, who teaches at Cambridge. We would have long talks about what’s in academics known as the more-than-human turn, where you analyze or frame the world not through the human as the absolute reference point, but include different living forms that are jostled cheek by jowl, especially in the urban context. I was also reading iconic pieces of literature like H is for Hawk or J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine and so on. I got very deeply invested in thinking about the skies and avian life and thinking of this through two primary lenses – one being the human-animal lens, and second being that of climate change or the anthropocene.
While living in Delhi you feel like a part of such an obviously extreme ecosystem, that it’s all very conspicuous. So we started looking for people who had a deep, meaningful and profound relationship with the skies and with the birds. And that’s when we chanced upon the work of the brothers who were literally dealing with birds falling on the skies every day. It doesn’t get more ‘cliched’ apocalyptic, right?
I found it remarkable that they saved over 20,000 black kites in the last 15 odd years. And once you’ve been to that tiny, damp, derelict basement, and you understand how inherently cinematic it is, you get gripped by it. There were big heavy metal cutting machines in this decayed industrial space, alongside which were these magisterial birds that were so vulnerable and being treated. It had a salient bipolarity to it, which to my mind, felt intrinsically cinematic. Then the film gets into the momentum and it becomes something akin to a freefall. That’s how it goes.
We were absolutely sure in the beginning of what we were not going to do. For instance, I was sure that I didn’t want to make a regular wildlife or nature documentary. At no point did it enter my head that I want to make a film on air pollution per se. I knew we wanted to do something on the human-animal relationship or how an extreme urban space like Delhi drives behavioral and eventually evolutionary changes in non-human life. And of course, like, there are other layers, like the social unrest, and so on, that we’re leaking in.
Human-animal co-existence is one of the core ideas of the film. In one of the sequences, a neighbour calls the brothers to find a way to adjust to a nesting black kite that’s protective and hence aggressive. Saud, one of the brothers, asks the man to don a head gear and hold a large pole while on the terrace to keep the kite at bay as opposed to shifting the nest or scaring the bird away. What were your observations on this attempt at peaceful coexistence vs conflict while filming?
I think how the brothers came to the very fact of saving the kites and how the story began, inherently, was almost like a love story. Two brothers falling in love with a bird species in their childhood. And I was very interested in communicating this kind of hypnotic, ravenous love that they had towards the kite. But if you look at the basis of that, it’s actually cultural practices that have been, I suppose, enshrined in Delhi for centuries. For instance, the practice of throwing meat skywards for kites to eat – the cultural and religious belief is fairly common in a lot of Muslim areas in the city. So, it is more about cohabitation and not conflict.
A lot of these places in Old Delhi where the brothers grew up, the streets are dingy and narrow. There’s a robust and vibrant terrace culture. Kite flying is a big community thing too.
Culturally speaking, as far as avian creatures go, I’d say that kites are probably only second most prominent to pigeons and parrots here. Based on the cultural histories that these areas are steeped in, it is only too natural to me that in that particular scene, it’s not that the character talks about breaking the nest or taking it away, but is figuring out a way to just improvise and cohabit.
As shown through subtle and elaborate sequences in the film, we share our urban built-up area with other living beings. Does the film try to make this connection that might be lost to many? Is that a feeling that you hope to stir in the viewers?
We were very interested in urban ecologies. Often, the sense is that nature is something that occurs somewhere far in the forests and the beaches and the mountains as if it doesn’t occur in cities. But now there’s a burgeoning amount of scientific research that talks about how the urban is a major driver in behavioural and evolutionary changes in the animal world, in non-human life. I was very interested in how animals, especially in an extreme ecosystem like Delhi, are adjusting, improvising and reacting to the changing ecological states. I was also especially interested in a perspective that doesn’t look at animals as passive victims to whom things are done.
Another strand is that the brothers have a totally different kind of genealogy in terms of their sense of care, and attention and affection for the non-human life from a particular figurehead, their mother. As they said, she talks about how you shouldn’t distinguish between all that breaths. This is their philosophical underpinning in life, of extending this grace and care and a non-hierarchised imagination, in thinking about life. There was a dazzling poetic beauty to this kind of perspective. It de-centres the human from the center of everything. Hopefully, it makes the viewer contemplate non-human life in the city.
The film clearly is geared towards staging these kinds of durational sequences in the city, spending minutes and minutes and minutes, watching a turtle clamber through traffic and clamber through garbage and look at the traffic passing by or three-and-a-half full minutes of rats or, you know, spending a lot of time looking at some human beings dancing raucously around a bonfire and then shift focus to a snail that is squelching in the foreground. It makes you contemplate simultaneity and coexistence. I want audiences to walk out with the film and look up at the skies. I want them to be enchanted by the skies, even when it’s the noxious gray skies of Delhi.
In one of the scenes, the brothers have a quarrel. One of them speaks about these tensions arising from everything that’s happening around them and not stemming from issues of ego or money. Is your film documenting the eco-anxiety and related emotions that prevail today?
Of course, the situation is absolutely horrid. But a lot of the discourse I find bleak to the point of it being cripplingly paralytic. And why the brothers were interesting to me is that their perspective and attitude is wry, unsentimental, sort of put-your-head-down and soldier-on kind of thing, even though they literally have the front row seats to the apocalypse. Birds literally falling off the skies. Of course, it upsets them but the work has to be done even though they’re working in this really tiny basement.
It’s not like their life is bereft of joy, or playfulness, or hope. As they say, they are only a tiny bandaid on the whole city that is a wound. So they know the magnitude of the problem and how they’re but just a blip in it.
In the film’s end credits, there’s a mention of scientific advisors and scientific editors. What form of help do you seek from such contributors in a project?
One of our executive producers is Tangled Bank Studio which primarily makes science-based programming. They have a rigorous process of calling in consultants who would check and verify the validity of what was said. We had a science advisor, we had a science consultant, who was also looking at the claims being made to make sure that nothing inaccurate or imprecise is being said, in terms of the science that’s mentioned in the film.
Is there a renewed focus on exploring the state of ecology in the documentary film industry?
The anthropocene and climate change, as terms with great currency and constituency, have taken a grip over the art world, the film world and so on. So, there is a greater awareness of the staggering urgency of this, which has led to two things – there is a branch of filmmaking that is often didactic, slightly alarmist and cautionary. I personally am not very drawn to it because it doesn’t move people emotionally. Alarmism never moves people emotionally. If it’s didactic and cautionary, then it never ever truly moves people. I’m drawn to the other type where the background and the foreground are merged in emotional, organic, intuitive and conceptual ways with more sophisticated methods.
I think there’s a risk of fatigue too. So the challenge is to find new grammar, new vocabularies, and new lexicons to make important sociological or political, or environmental films. But unless you do the job of being a good storyteller, there’s barely any point. Having a good issue at the core doesn’t exempt you from your burden of being a good storyteller.
Banner image: A rescued spotted owlet in Delhi. Photo from the film All That Breathes.