Written by: Robin C. Farrell | October 31st, 2022
All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
All That Breathes focuses on “the kite brothers,” Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, along with friend and volunteer Salik Rehman, who rescue injured and sick birds—black kites—in their home of New Delhi, India. Rather than a clinical dive into the birds’ anatomy, however, or chronicle of the trio’s detailed history, the film is rooted in the present, keeping a watchful and focused eye on the brothers and their friend as they work quietly, out of their garage.
In many ways, All That Breathes is an exploration of how varied activism is and can be. In a landscape crowded with people and wildlife alike, there’s also a backdrop of political and social unrest, introduced early on in the film, which evolves, slow-burn-style, while the brothers’ humble (but devoted) endeavor plays out in the forefront. Inevitably, the two will collide, despite being intertwined all along. As such, the film’s most powerful asset is its use of scale.
Director Shaunak Sen (Cities of Sleep) weaves a paradoxically light and bleak tale that encompasses the daily grind, gritty reality, and huge odds, overcoming some, but not all. The hawks devour massive amounts of waste in the landfills, which is bleak but also intrinsic in the way they (and many of the other animals and insects) contribute to the environment. Yet the hawks fall out of the sky due to pollution, thus making the brothers’ not just admirable but a vital part of the ecosystem.
The cinematography is top-notch, thanks to cinematographers Ben Bernhard (Aquarela), Riju Das (Comedy Couple), and Saumyananda Sahi (Bread and Belonging). Together, they’ve forged captivating visuals, especially of the black kites. There are little to no interviews, or even separately recorded narration, and when those elements are included, they make a noticeable and intentional impact. Though unquestionably earnest, almost vérité in style, there’s such deftness in presentation that it takes on a more fine-tuned quality that is almost soothing. Yet there’s uncomfortable imagery on display here, too: mountains of trash crawling with rats, flies and mosquitoes swarming piles of meat and pools of water, and an array of birds that don’t survive, the aftermath of some of the aforementioned unrest. However, the camerawork is always steady, smooth, and never intrusive or garish beyond palatability.
Granted, this might not be a film for arachnophobes or those with similar afflictions. Otherwise, viewers might empathize with creatures and critters in unexpected ways. Ultimately, every thread weaves together, albeit distantly sometimes, effectively conveying the idea that what affects one group will likely affect many others, if not all, in both big and small ways.