Director Shaunak Sen on Birds, Dystopia and the Dualities in ‘All That Breathes'

Sen says the documentary, nominated for the 'Best Documentary Feature Film' category at this year's Oscars, was the result of his interest in exploring something that was political, social, emotional as well as biological.

Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes – a narrative documentary exploring the lives of two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, in Delhi, who rescue and rehabilitate kites – premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2022, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Competition. It was screened at Cannes Film Festival in May 2022, winning the best documentary prize, L’Œil d’or (or Golden Eye). It continued to win a slew of awards at other film festivals, got a theatrical release in the US, and bagged a nomination for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. (Two more Indian films have gotten an Oscar nod this year, RRR for Best Original Song ‘Naatu Naatu’, and The Elephant Whisperers for Best Documentary Short Film.)

A week before the Oscars, Sen is in Los Angeles, giving a series of interviews. He had an interview before our call; another after our call. This familiarity informs his answers, too. He talks slowly and calmly – in carefully crafted sentences that resemble the fifth polished draft of a writer. He appears on my screen at around three in the morning. “How many interviews have you given till now?” I ask. “Is this, what, your 500th interview?” He says, “Much more.” “Alright, I hope to ask you at least one original question,” I say. Almost on the verge of smiling, he replies, “Impossible.”

Edited excerpts from the chat.

You went to the University of Cambridge as a visiting fellow in 2018 researching human-bird relationships. That interest deepened with such books as The Peregrine and H for Hawk before meeting the documentary’s protagonists. What fascinated you about the human-bird relationship? And what was it about the brothers – or their lives – that intrigued you the most?

The Peregrine constructed the figure of a bird as an emotional affective ecological state, which I found very interesting. I remember once being stuck in a traffic jam at Chirag Dilli, and every time you looked up, you had the monochromatic sky, and these lazy dots [the kites] gliding. In a way that’s the dystopian picture postcard of the city. Birds are also, in the most trite sense, a metaphor for hope and redemption, resurrection and victory, joy and grief. Their ethereal quality captures our imagination. I was also interested in exploring the entanglement of the human-non-human in equal measure – something that was political, social, emotional as well as biological. But I’m speaking with such clarity only now. At that time, all I knew was I wanted to do something on birds – that’s it.

And then I visited the brothers. Their basement reminded me of [Andrei] Tarkovsky and Stalker (1979) and Béla Tarr, because you can’t tell day from night. It had a quality where slow plans and slow tracking would work. In a way, I was more interested in the cinematic tone. After that, I spent three years making it. So it became a process of slow accrual and the film retained some of that quality of layered iterations.

An observational documentary also demands a lot of time – either ‘hanging out’ with your protagonists or becoming a background to their lives. What was your shooting schedule like? Did you, for instance, show up at their basement each weekday, spend the whole day with them for a few years – or was it a lot unstructured?

When the film begins, any experienced documentary filmmaker will tell you that you’ve to work towards a point where your characters are bored of you – like you’re waiting for the first yawn. The first month’s footage is trash; your presence is too obtrusive, the characters are too self-conscious, and you don’t get the banal mundane behaviour. We wanted to do a lot of observational verité. So we kept turning up. We’d reach by, say, 12, and shoot till seven or eight. And we’d essentially say, “Aj hum deewaar hain, aap karein jo karna hai [Today we’re wall, please carry on].”

We kept shooting and intuitively understanding the rhythm and cadences of the space. But then the pandemic hit. So for a year, we shot irregularly. With my German DP [the Director of Photography], Ben [Bernhard], we figured out an aesthetic to shoot the animals. Once he left the country after the lockdown, another DP Riju [Das] came in and shot for six months. A film can have a rich layered elliptical quality only when it feels lived in. That’s purely a function of time.

Most narrative documentaries can be broadly distilled into the characters, the story, and the world. Once you met the brothers, I presume you’d have had a good sense of the characters and the world. But were you initially worried about a lack of propulsive story or the documentary being ‘static’? Because a lot of their work – even though admirable and poignant – is also laborious and unglamorous, eschewing an ‘exciting’ story.

I had a truckload of concerns. But most importantly, I’d like to congratulate you. It’s the first question I haven’t been asked in the last five months.

I think I’ll update my résumé.

So will I.

I was sure I didn’t want to make a nature-wildlife doc. Or a sweet film about ‘nice people doing good things’. I was mortified of making an NGOish saccharine hagiography. Because life is much more dense and difficult and layered, right? So I kept thinking of another character. I don’t know if I’ve spoken about this before. I actually had a second character – a major thread about a termite killer. And I had good material. I wanted to do a counter-foil because one is the animal of the sky and the other is a subterranean thing. One human loves his animal; the other kills. I thought once the kite story is in order, I’ll hit the pavement with the other one; and, you know, over time, I started worrying that it’d be overkill.

Because I don’t think I fully understood the old maxim in documentaries: that the only way through the universal is through the particular. And the more I got in, the more layers started peeling out – the emotional fractures of the brothers, the complexity of their lives. But most importantly, the social stuff outside, the unrest in the city. We also had multiple edits with the termite guy. But after a point, I thought there’s enough heft with the brothers and we don’t need extra muscle.

Also Read: ‘All That Breathes’, an Immersive Film That Soars But Doesn’t Look Away from Grim Ground Realities

I see duality everywhere in All That Breathes: human-bird, earth-sky, real-sublime, destruction-rehabilitation, mundane-philosophical. You’ve called it compression-decompression (or “inhaling-exhaling”). How conscious were you of this interplay during the principal photography and how much of it developed during editing?

The duality underlining everything – the foundational predicate – is the human-non-human. The alterity of the self and the other, and what does one do with the non-human other? I’m of course making it sound sexier than what we thought of it then. Because you only have a vague inkling while shooting. For me, it’s the movement the sound makes. When you’re focusing on building atmosphere, after editing, the film suddenly gets animated by a new layer of thought. And then you vivisect it differently.

At the same time, though, I don’t want to draw a binary between an ignorant unthinking time of making versus an analytic time of watching. Because thought itself has different facets. So while making, you’re not thinking analytically but impulsively. So the aesthetic form itself becomes the thought. In a way, you’re thinking through the camera and later the camera allows you to open other thoughts.

In narrative nonfiction, the element of ‘unknown’ is always present – whether via the real people or the world. Moments that surprise you, even shape your story. It’s almost like the uncredited screenwriter is life itself. I’m sure you had a broad idea about the movie, but even then what were some of the most prominent surprises for you while shooting or cutting the documentary?

So much of shooting was about toeing the fine line between observational verité and a fictional toolkit style. It needed to have an intentionality in its aesthetic form, as our material was meditative and contemplative. Life generally rewards you with accidents if you wait long enough. Except in this case I wanted a controlled aesthetic. So the real challenge was figuring out how to hold on to the effervescent interruptions of life and a measured approach. Because both tug at each other from different ends. And then I realised some of the accidents happening during the shoot – for example, the bird stealing [a character’s] glasses was the luckiest thing in the world. We’d have never ever gotten it even if we shot for the next 50 years.

With the characters, you get to a point where you keep shooting every day and accidents and random chatters happen because they’re so used to it. And animals are so wonderfully agnostic to our affairs that if you keep shooting an animal for long enough you’ll find a moment of pure joy. That became a bit of a cheat code for us because animals, as subjects, obviously don’t care. The film would have been more replete with surprises had I not chosen this form. But it was a tradeoff and you had to hit a sweet spot.

A screengrab from All That Breathes. Photo: Screengrab via YouTube/HBO Max

You developed the first cut in India with editor Vedant Joshi (who also worked on The Disciple), then travelled to Denmark to work with another editor, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen. How did the two drafts differ? What were some of the decisions in the second stage that informed the movie in a significant way?

We first tamed the mountain of material we collected. It also becomes a periscope for the shoot to have some semblance of what it’s feeling like. Otherwise, you can keep shooting in a blinkered way. Every day, Vedant would be like, “Dikhao kya shoot kiya hai [Show me what you’ve shot]?” And it’s important for an editor to say, “Yeh kya laaye ho [What have you got]?” Because then everybody gets the sense of where the film is going. We whittled it down from [400 hours of raw footage] to a three-hour cut. It gave me a baseline version of what I was interested in. Especially when you’re going to a masterful editor like Charlotte. She cut The Act of Killing (2012) and The Truffle Hunters (2020). These are towering works. So it was important for me to have a sense of my voice which Vedant helped me carve out.

But Charlotte doesn’t bear heavy; she’s very open. She was a dancer till the age of 32, then went to NFTS [National Film of Television and School] to become an editor. So she retains the light-footed quality of dancing. Now I tend to be top-heavy, too cerebral. For me, everything is like, ‘What’s the meaning of this shot after the other?’ Because you become a bit self-aggrandising and you watch clips of your favourite filmmakers on YouTube and analyse it so much that you think people bring that kind of lens in the first viewing, which never happens, right?

Editors are great because they understand the difference between a first watch and a second watch. So she was more about rhythm and structure. She’d take out printouts of images and we’d just look at them. She’d be like, “Forget what the brain is saying, tell me what your gut is saying.” It’s like a ‘stomach edit’, an emotional edit. Initially, I’d just be gobsmacked: “What do you mean I can’t talk about interpretations?” And she’d say, “No, tell me the feeling.” She was like a film school. It’s a playfulness I had never experienced.

The CAA-NRC plot point is, of course, a pivotal moment in the documentary, contextualising the work of the brothers in a new light. For me, that was the movie: two Muslim brothers trying to save animals, while their own identities might be imperilled. Yet, you’ve said that you didn’t want the CAA-NRC to overwhelm the movie as a) the brothers aren’t too political themselves, and b) that wasn’t your primary line of exploration. How did you resolve that tension?

The point at which it comes in the film is very close to how it happened in real life. We had been shooting for a year-and-a-half and then something big and epochal happened. So we wanted to respect it in the way it was leaking into real life. I also grappled with not wanting to crowbar something topical – or important – if it wasn’t sacrosanct or germane to their lives.

But at the same time, it’s politically richer to have this kind of presence. Especially when you aren’t being didactic or pedantic or hammering away at the audiences. You feel an ominous palpitating presence growing in the background. Because that’s how life is often. So the ways in which I saw in their lives and the ways in which they were comfortable articulating, I put them in. Of course, we shot more during that time. I wanted it to be an essential but not the dominating part because you need to make choices and nobody walking out of the film is oblivious to that. Nobody.