'All That Breathes', an Immersive Film That Soars But Doesn’t Look Away from Grim Ground Realities

Shaunak Sen’s award-winning documentary is personal and political, but always keeps the protagonists at the centre of it all.

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Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, the winner of the Grand Jury prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival, opens to a Delhi landfill in the night. Mimicking an earthworm’s point of view, the camera crawls and observes vermin, trash, rats. This style persists throughout the film, seeing the unseen, whether on the ground – a body of water, ants, bees – or in the sky, where numerous migratory kites “swim”. They also drop frequently to the ground, succumbing to the city’s air pollution or getting tangled in manjha (a cotton thread laced with crushed glass). Sen’s documentary notices the unnoticed because it complements its three main characters – the two brothers, Mohammed Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, and their younger employee, Salik Rehman – who have devoted their lives to something few of us know about: rescuing and rehabilitating kites.

Sen adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach, quietly documenting their sincerity and rigour: bandaging the kites, bathing them, swimming across a cold lake to rescue more kites. Work that doesn’t carry financial incentives or grand recognition. They struggle to get their Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act licences applications approved – there’s no fanfare, no pomp, just one tireless night after the other. But it doesn’t matter, because this is who they are, and this is what they have done – for the last two decades. It is their passion and persistence, love and calling. The film doesn’t take long to invite a fundamental yet stirring question: Who is doing the real rescuing – are they saving the kites, or are the kites saving them?

The intermittent voiceover (presumably by Nadeem) provides some hint. In lyrical and pious contemplations, he likens feeding the kites to receiving “sawaab” (a religious reward), remembers the origins of his unique affection (via childhood fables), and recognises that he may have inherited this love from his mother. Sen also paints a superb portrait of their respective bonds with the wildlife: Nadeem and Mohammed come across as father figures, evident in the way they hold, caress, and tend the kites; Salik, an elder brother. In one scene, he makes playful eye contact with a kite on his work desk; later, in an autorickshaw, he takes out a squirrel from his shirt pocket, holds it for a few seconds, and then slips it back inside. These moments of tender compassion – between humans and animals in a documentary – surpasses the warm bonds among people in many fictional features.

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Which leads to a relevant motif: the cost of love. Even though their main source of livelihood is manufacturing liquid-soap dispensers, the brothers are fixated on rescuing kites – sometimes spending close to a dozen hours on them each day – it is what they live for. Even at the cost of ignoring their own families. In an early scene, Nadeem and his wife, Tabassum, are discussing the impact of Delhi’s air pollution on young lives. But there’s one big difference: She’s referring to their child, he is thinking about the kites. In another scene, she asks him to accompany her to a gathering; he refuses, citing his usual – his eternal – commitment. Their conversation lurks on the edge of an explosive disagreement, but just then one of them shuts the door of their room, leaving the filmmaker and the audiences out. If the kites are hapless (and helpless), then so are Nadeem, Mohammed and Salik – so is Tabassum.

Even though the makers spend a lot of time in the trio’s workspace and home, capturing moments of stunning candour,  where they are discussing, brainstorming, even arguing, the camera doesn’t feel like an interfering presence that a) substantially influences the protagonists’ behaviour and b) prioritises its own narrative and thematic ends over the nuance of these lives. This seems both like expansive filmmaking (shooting a lot of footage just to make them relaxed in the camera’s presence) and precise editing – removing anything superfluous or jumpy in lieu of a smooth narrative – yet done in a manner that the story has a life-like rhythm, informed by jaggedness and contradictions, as opposed to being clinical and cold. All That Breathes, as a result, doesn’t seem ‘manufactured’ but lived.

A still from ‘All That Breathes’.

The documentary is also elevated by considered cinematography (by Benjamin Bernahrd, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi), comprising not just gorgeous impressionistic shots – making it a visual delight in isolation – but also motivated frames, propelling the story and sharpening its themes. There’s no dearth of atmospheric scenes here – kites sweeping the sky as the blazing sun looks on, small organisms scanning their niche, foam-ridden lake water flowing past a small temple and a bird – complemented by a voiceover that yearns to make sense of it all, including himself (“man is the loneliest animal”, “evolution favours innovation”, “one shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes”).

Sometimes even a transition shot conveys reams, blending the visual and thematic in a moment of memorable cinematographic brilliance. Take an early scene, for instance, which looks arresting on its own: kites circling around a five-storey building half-painted in shades of vibrant yellow and blue. The shot stays for a few seconds longer, compelling us to observe. Slow ripples emerge on an earlier still visual, making us realise it’s a reflected image. Sky and water, two elements whose make-up and inhabitants often escape our attention, whose essence means everything to the protagonists, captured in one fleeting moment, without a line of dialogue. Sometimes grave contemplation produces great filmmaking; here, it’s the opposite.

All That Breathes would have been an impressive achievement, just considering the above factors. But around the third-way mark, the film gets a disturbing ‘twist’: the Muslim protagonists live in East Delhi, and the Narendra Modi government has just passed a legislation that recasts everything in the film – including the meanings of survivors, rescuers, home; kinship, solidarity, love; humans and animals – the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.

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Many documentary filmmakers, working on long immersive projects, find such unexpected stories. These surprises also promise a familiar and disconcerting turn: as the lives of the ‘characters’ get worse, the film benefits from their misfortune. But everything hinges on what the filmmaker chooses to do with that information. Sen neither magnifies the shock (despite substantial archival clips) nor advertises his protagonists’ despair. He gives us just enough material, first encapsulating the vicious act – through straightforward news reels – then summarises its aftermath: the protests, the riots, the characters’ disorientations (some captured on camera, some playing in the background through speeches).

But the film is so sure-footed, so cohesive, that Sen doesn’t need to do more. He trusts us to get it: that these wildlife rescuers could soon be rendered homeless by fellow humans, by the people who live in the same country, who share the same home. Worse, the violent calls of Hindu nationalism label them “rats” and “vermin” – remember the first scene? – dehumanising the people who don’t differentiate between humans and animals.

Once the CAA-NRC angle enters the film, it is impossible to not connect the dots. At one point, the voiceover says, “Delhi’s air changed, so did its metabolism.” It is an overt reference to animals evolving amid human callousness, but it also compels you to consider, how will the country’s Muslims “innovate” and “evolve” in order to survive? Nadeem says in a different scene that he wants to “go abroad” and “see a new life”, that he feels “trapped” – it’s not said in the context of the CAA-NRC, but the nation’s political climate emerges in sharp focus again. In fact, like the ‘migratory’ kites, Nadeem does find a new temporary home (as a student in a North Carolina college).

The two brothers learnt the art of caring for animals from their deceased and religious mother, but now the same believers, even before the imperilled kites, face the threat of extinction. The personal and political crisis, however, has not nudged them towards resentment, but refined their clarity and made them more humane. “You don’t care for things just because they share the same country, religion or politics,” says Nadeem, followed by a line that will ring in my ears for a very long time. “Life itself is kinship.”