All That Breathes
(India/UK, 91 min.)
Dir. Shaunak Sen
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
People know Mohammed Saud and Nadeem Shahzadas “the kite brothers.” Saud and Nadeem rescue birds in their New Delhi neighbourhood, but have a special affinity for black kites. These birds of prey nip at small animals and scavenge Delhi’s mounting garbage piles. They also feed on raw meat handed to them by Muslims in the area. “Tossing meat,” the Muslim brothers explain, cleanses one’s sins as the bird accepts the offering. The brothers grind meat by the bucket in their ramshackle bird clinic. The act of feeding these birds en masse cleanses not their individual sins. Rather, the meat is a peace offering for a society that has collectively failed the beautiful birds.
Director Shaunak Sen offers an intimate window into the brothers’ modest and tireless bird clinic. All That Breathes observes as Saud and Nadeem trap birds and nurse them to health. Some neighbours find the kites a nuisance, while others merely want to aid Wildlife Rescue’s operation. The brothers and their young assistant, Salik, have little to work with besides a wing and a prayer, however, as Sen captures their indefatigable drive to fulfil every aspect of their endeavour. They debate grant applications while operating on birds. The electricity goes out haphazardly and the brothers operate on birds to the glow from their cellphone lights. They trap birds, build cages, and bury the dead. It’s a lively affair, though, and their passion fuels them as the world takes notice.
Micro and Macro Observations
All That Breathes situates the brothers’ care for the black kites within India’s larger social unrest. The brothers explain how they came to care for the kites when, as teenagers, they brought an injured bird to an animal clinic. The veterinarian refused care because the kite was a carnivore. However, the young boys drew upon their aspirations as bodybuilders and transferred their knowledge to rehabilitate the muscles and tendons of birds.
The brothers explain how incidents with kites are rising along with air pollution in New Delhi. As more pollutants clog the air, the toxicity permeates the birds that fly in the sky. Birds with neural disorders and weakened bodies land in the brothers’ care. However, unlike the vet of their youth, they don’t discriminate. Their practice echoes in the larger conflicts Muslims in India face, particularly as an amended law grants citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring countries, but not to Muslims. Like the meat-eating birds, the Muslims in India are treated as second class, or non-citizens. Just as the environment faces mounting toxicity, nearby neighbourhoods erupt in violence. Protests wage, houses, burn, and riots spark. All the while, kites fall from the sky.
A Sight to Behold
By focusing on the birds and Wildlife Rescue’s effort to save them, All That Breathes deftly examines the many socio-political dynamics the world must confront while also combatting climate change. As Saud and Nadeem grind barrel after barrel of meat, wash bird after bird, and mend kite after kite, the film examines dynamics of class and race that are intimately linked with environmental concerns. The film considers the urban jungle, using birds to probe factors of environmental racism. Moreover, the kites illustrate how each living thing contributes to the Earth’s natural cycles. Neighbours might consider the birds to be pests, but the kites actually save the humans from their own destructiveness. As the brothers note, the heaping garbage dump would be excessively larger if the kites didn’t scavenge it daily.
These birds might nibble trash, but All That Breathes affords them stature. Gorgeous cinematography by Benjamin Bernhard, Riju Das, and Saumyananda Sahi captures various birds with arresting profiles. Up close portraits of birds of prey allow viewers to look the kites in the eyes. Ditto owls, hawks, and other marvellous feathered beings. This quietly understated approach invites one to see the vulnerability of all living creatures, and the responsibility that humans have as shared stewards of the Earth. However, when the cameras of All That Breathes gaze longingly upwards, the film harnesses the impulse that drives the brothers to work. The sight of flying birds is a wonder to behold—provided the smog doesn’t shield them from view.