SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Shaunak Sen’s awe-inspiring documentary, All That Breathes, follows two brothers in Delhi who nurse sick birds back to health in their basement. Delhi’s pollution is so bad that birds drop from the sky, so Mohammad Saud and Nad Shehzad, “the Kite Brothers,” rescue Black Kite birds and have been since they were teenagers. Black Kites are carrion birds, described by the brothers as looking like flying reptiles while eating dead things. They may not be pretty, but the brothers love them and all the other debilitated birds they care for.
While fighting off lung issues themselves, the brothers work in their makeshift avian infirmary, getting these birds to fly again. Saud and Shehzad are trying to get funding to build a real animal hospital, as their basement is constantly flooded with sewage water from monsoon rains. They apply for grants and try for scholarships to study animal care further in America.
Meanwhile, there is unrest in the streets as India marginalizes Muslims like the siblings with discriminatory laws. Fighting poverty, pollution, and social violence, Saud and Shehzad keep healing birds, as they see themselves and the birds as part of the same community. A community bonded by being living things that breathe, a brotherhood of the air.
“Fighting poverty, pollution, and social violence, Saud and Shehzad keep healing birds…”
All That Breathes mesmerizes right away with Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, and Saumyananda Sahi’s incredible cinematography of the animal kingdom woven into the city. The opening shot shows a dog drinking water in a vacant lot at night. As the camera pans down, it becomes apparent that thousands of rats are rolling in a tide across the pavement. It is mentioned that many animals had been living in the area for hundreds of years. So when Delhi came along, instead of being displaced, the animals adapted to living in the city. We see pigs and cows roaming free in the street with monkeys swinging from the wires.
Most beautiful of all is the multiple shots of the birds in the infirmary, sitting in the darkness, staring at the camera. The details are brought out by the laser focus of the lens, impressive in such low light. That settings of industrial poisoned dilapidation contrast such gorgeous nature shots punctuate the direness of the situation the film is ultimately about.
Sen works wonders with editors Charlotte Munch Bengtsen and Vedant Joshi to give the footage the feel of a dramatic narrative. This allows you to be immersed emotionally within the world of All That Breathes instead of a detached observer. The filmmaker doesn’t flinch at showing the harm the environmental calamity inflicts on everyone in the city, human or animal.
What makes all this so amazing is how these brothers connect with the neglected birds as fellow living beings. When society around them enforces divisions against their Muslim faith, Saud and Shehzad stick by their acceptance of kinship with all that breathes. It is a pinprick of light on a black planet that shines very hard. All That Breathes is a powerful documentary with a message that needs to be felt down deep in the lungs.
All That Breathes screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
"…Sen works wonders...powerful..."