All That Breathes is a majestic, multi-dimensional documentary about the interconnectivity of man and nature, as two brothers try to help a threatened species.
In New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, a bird of prey known as the black kite is under threat. But for the last twenty years, two Muslim brothers have sought to help the species and other raptors. Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad run ‘Wildlife Rescue,’ a makeshift avian clinic located in their dark, industrial basement. Together with their assistant, the simple and nature-loving Salik, Saud and Nadeem gather injured kites and mend them. In the brothers’ faith, the bird carries a hefty significance, with Muslims believing that feeding them raw meat will bring a ‘sawab’ or religious reward. And with bird hospitals unwilling to treat the non-vegetarian black kites, it is up to the brothers to protect a vital part of their city’s ecosystem.
However, problems start to materialise for the brothers as they try to gain approval to build a new hospital. The clinic must share space with Saud and Nadeem’s main business (which isn’t disclosed but has something to do with soap dispensers). Tensions between the brothers are starting to boil over, testing their bond. With money hard to come by, they have to use outdated equipment. There is a growing anti-Muslim sentiment in India, which will later lead to riots. And if that was not enough, the pollution problem in New Delhi is worsening, with black kites starting to fall from the sky – an apocalyptic warning if there ever was one.
This is the basis of All That Breathes, the new environmental documentary from Indian filmmaker Shaunak Sen. It is a sensational film, mostly because Sen takes an interesting subject matter and runs with it, adding multiple biological, personal and spiritual themes to make it an all-encompassing work. An observational, meditative style is used, with philosophical voiceovers from the brothers used sparingly. Instead, Sen focuses on brief conversations that fuel the enjoyable, slightly quirky dynamic between the veterinarian trio. There are discussions about snowy owls, professional wrestling, WWIII and what life would be like after a nuclear game. Through CCTV footage, we also see Saud and Nadeem playfully bicker over a game of cricket – although that will lead to escalated tensions later on.
The film’s central theme is environmental collapse. As All That Breathes makes abundantly clear, New Delhi faces an avalanche of problems threatening its ecosystem. The toxic smog is so bad that air filters prove to be completely ineffective. We see tons and tons of different landfill sites, each with rubbish piled up high. And there are also monsoons and floods and power cuts that, for Wildlife Rescue, interrupt their important surgeries. “Delhi is a gaping wound, and we’re a Band-Aid on it,” Nadeem says, all too aware that protecting black kites is proving to be increasingly inconsequential to the environment.
The city of New Delhi quickly becomes an important character, partly due to this ecological destruction. Another reason is sectarian violence and the riots caused by the Indian government’s anti-Muslim immigration act (the devastating consequences of which are shown in photographs of burned-out houses). These events strain Saud and Nadeem’s relationship, worsened by a sharp increase in the kites they need to help. And that leads to the central human conflict. Saud is content with his current work, but Nadeem wants to do something more with his life. So, he seeks opportunities to study in the US. But what will happen to Wildlife Rescue if he goes?
All That Breathes has three credited cinematographers: Ben Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi. All three contribute to the film’s absolutely fantastic camerawork, which adds an amazing amount of detail and visual flair. The ground-level camera allows for close, almost microscopic shots (which is how we know ants and mosquitoes are part of this varied urban jungle). Shots of puddles reflect the crossover between the natural and man-made worlds. In one shot through a puddle, we see a herd of goats quickly followed by a herd of motorcyclists. That link between man and nature is reinforced with the film’s focus racks and long camera pans, techniques that also show more of its vast setting.
What would normally be an ordinary story is presented extraordinarily in All That Breathes, a majestic and multi-dimensional documentary. It is incredibly shot by its three cinematographers, with director Shaunak Sen managing to show the intimate side of this massive environmental struggle and how trying to help adversely affects Saud and Nadeem personally. But All That Breathes’ lingering thought concerns the link between man and nature. We are in the age of the Anthropocene, where the actions of humans have a significant impact on the planet. Animals have adapted to their changed surroundings (lizards have grown extra toes, monkeys now climb across wires), and humans must change and adapt too. Because we are all together, interconnected. As Saud says, “one shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes.”
All That Breathes premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 7, 2022, and was released in UK cinemas on October 14. The film will stream on HBO Max starting February 7, 2023.