All That Breathes is the only Indian film to be a part of the official selection at Cannes. Director Shaunak Sen discusses the film’s visual language and what the future might hold for him.
First of all, congratulations on All That Breathes – it’s a stunning film and really moved me. It has already won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it’s the only Indian film to have a special screening at Cannes. This film has made ripples around the globe. What is going through your mind? How are you processing the success of this?
I’m not processing it because you only soak it in over time. I was just telling a friend that for me success is an email from a person you admire. Or a message from a director you admire. So, I think I’m getting glimpses of it through these kinds of snatches. Ultimately, the process is the reward, the making of the film is when it is truly joyous and this is the confetti on top. Not to, in any way, diminish what it means – this is fantastic and we’re all beside ourselves with joy and hopefully, it will get us a kind of visibility and constituency that is obviously not common for an Indian documentary. So, in that way, it gives us a stage that I don’t think most non-fiction from that part of the world gets. But, you know, one has to have a kind of guarded optimism about how much one allows these things to make a home in your head.
You use that word all the time: ‘guarded optimism’. What are you so guarded about?
But, funnily enough, I wasn’t using that term in the usual context. Usually, I say it when people say. “Do you think the documentary scene is going to change?” Of course, one doesn’t want to reduce or undermine the moment but at the same time, it’s not like from tomorrow we’re going to have people in swathes watching documentaries. But having said, clearly something is changing. In the last year alone, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, with Sushmit and Rintu’s Writing With Fire, clearly, objectively, and empirically more is happening in the non-fiction end of things than there is in fiction. I personally believe that there is also formal innovation in non-fiction than there is in fiction so I’m more excited about the non-fiction work that’s coming out. In that way, of course, there is stuff to be happy about – not euphoric about, but happy about. Therefore, instead of just saying I’m on top of the moon in terms of what documentary practice is going to be, I’d rather say ‘guarded optimism’.
You’ve always been clear that this film did not start out because you wanted to do something about air pollution. It started with more of a sense of textures and visuals, something not very clear. Can you speak about that a little?
I was sure about what this film ought not to be: we were sure we didn’t want to make a film on pollution per se. A lot of those films are kind of didactic or have a maudlin sentimentality or are bleak in a way that it’s not really having a conversation with the audience. They are just not the kind of films that excite me. Also, you don’t really begin with a concrete theme, it’s usually a texture – I’ll give you a sense of it. So, for anyone who has lived in Delhi, greyness is a very concrete, tangible thing. There is an air purifier that is running in most rooms, you feel like your lives are constantly coated and laminated by this thick greyness. The sun is this diffused blot every time you look up and the air conditioner of spaceship Earth is sputtering and coughing. And you get the sense that something is going fatally wrong. This is not something that I feel esoterically. Most people in Delhi have this sense of something foundationally apocalyptic in the three months between November and January. So, you get a kind of visual texture of how you feel.
Initially, whenever you’re stuck in traffic and you look up and you have these tiny lazy dots guiding and every now and then you see one of those dots falling. You have the sense of the air itself becoming so opaque and noxious that the birds are falling out of the sky. Then, of course, one starts researching this. I was in this fellowship kind of thing at Cambridge and I was surrounded by people who were working on ‘human-animal’, a conceptual thing. I got very interested in it: this sort of hypnotic love, a sort of trans-species human-bird love that some people have had and I found that very interesting. The best kind of literature when it comes to the non-human life is actually around birds: H is for Hawk, The Peregrine. These are monumental pieces of literature and I was very moved by them.
That’s when I started looking for people who have a profound relationship with the skies or the air. And the first people we met were the brothers themselves. Once you’ve gone into ‘planet basement’ of the brothers and you go to this damp, derelict thing with industrial decay on one side and on the other side there are these magisterial but vulnerable birds being healed. The sheer polarity of that space is inherently cinematic – it’s riveting. So we, me and the crew, started thinking that the structure would be about extreme compression and extreme decompression; to vacillate between that claustrophobic, tiny, stifled place and the vista of the city itself. There is a kind of surreal element in the brothers’ house. Over time they become a symptom of a larger ecological and social malaise. They’re clearly metaphors and much more. I’m saying all of this now only with the advantage of hindsight – when you’re making a film, it’s freefall; you get swallowed whole by the film and then it’s just about chasing the spine of what’s happening every day. So, that’s how it took a life of its own.
One of the most heartbreaking and memorable moments is when the brother says that the basement is so crap that he’s going to have a heart attack and all these kites will come flying out of his heart. It’s such a wonderful emotion. Tell me how you arrived at the visual language of the film. How did you arrive at that aesthetic of the very still camera, the long continuous sequence – especially your opening – how did that evolve?
I’d like to respond to the sombreness of the line you mentioned. Your own life becomes fodder for the film that you’re making and usually one would think that that holds true for fiction and not for documentaries but I think it is the same with even non-fiction. Last year, I lost my dad so I had a big personal loss and what that does is that it opens up a space for conversations even with documentary subjects where there is a different kind of register of tenderness and honesty and authenticity. We’re not just speaking through the power differentials of director/filmmaker and subject. The film didn’t start out as this sombre or wasn’t tinged by what people now describe as a slight melancholy, it was more front brain. But what happens is that when you’re going through something intense, those kinds of conversations open up. So the line that you mentioned actually happened because they were speaking in that kind of syntax with me.
In terms of visual language, it kept changing over time because our cinematographers kept changing. The visual language is the thing I’m most excited by in this film and also what I’m the proudest of. If I had to extrapolate one thing as a contribution to films is the visual language. We’ve all been a huge fan of this Russian director called Victor Kosokovsky, who made Antipodas and Aquarela, and he has these monumental shots that are composed through pans and slow languid tilts. And I thought about bringing that to bear on this kind of a space where the inner lives of the story are the lives of the brothers but beyond that, you need to have a space wherein you have the sense of human and non-human life jostling together.
So, we got this German DOP, whose work I’ve been a fan of for a while, called Ben Berhard. We had the great privilege of getting him and then this other DOP called Riju Das came in and evolved that language. It’s like the film structure is as follows: the lives of the brothers are the inner sanctum and the outer sense is the shots of the animals themselves. So you have shots which show the simultaneity of non-human and human life in the city. He came up with this idea of having one unit of a shot which is uncut and that would be composed by a formula, which would be that you have two elements, say an element of the city and the animal itself which would juxtapose within that shot and it would be about the passage of time. So you’re immersed in this world of rats for about 3-4 minutes, you’re seeing a turtle clamber through trash and look at the traffic whizzing past. That’s something he figured out. We came up with this language of slow languid pans, essentially using tools of fiction cinema to tell a non-fiction story. We’ve used tracks, cranes, etc which are not usually used. That’s how the language came to be. That’s how we began in overtime – we shot for two and a half years so you have time to orchestrate movements and so on.
When you commit that sort of time, passion and energy to a project when we know that prior to this year, which has been a breakthrough year for Indian documentaries, it’s so hard to find an audience. How do you keep faith in the importance of the project?
It’s still hard to find an audience, despite this being a big year. But one, three years would definitely seem long from the lens of fiction but as far as non-fiction goes, it’s not that long. So, in a way, you’re settled in for a fairly long and necessarily arduous ride. Your question is also geared towards one’s own emotional processes in terms of hunkering down and soldering on and obviously, that doesn’t have any simple answer. I think many people begin with non-fiction because it’s more hospitable than fiction is – I’ve never worked in Bombay, never assisted anybody and the behemoth that is Bombay honestly scares me. Non-fiction just seemed more hospitable as a way to accommodate your ideas and to have a more personal language to filmmaking as well. So, that’s how it began. The truth is that non-fiction filmmaking, especially if you’re in the creative non-fiction bit of it, becomes seductive. It takes over your life in a way that I don’t think fiction can because in a way, fiction has an instrumental quality to it: you hire people for a certain number of days, it’s a one month shoot and then you’re done.
Here, life isn’t plotting, you’re just sitting and reading. And that has incredibly moving moments of magic and poetry. The rare sense of goosebump-inducing privilege that you are seeing a moment that nobody else in the world has and you have caught it accidentally, only you because you were there with the camera and had decided that I’m the epistemic wallpaper of these people’s lives is why you got it. The remarkable satisfaction of it is what drives you.
And, of course, if you do well then it does break out and things become easy. But, it’s a question about ‘MBA kyu nahi kiya?’ because of course you earn more and do well but the process is the reward. You do it because it’s genuinely more fun in terms of the creative pains than anything else. Having said that, I do want to move into fiction as well. The demon eyes of non-fiction, after a while, make it hard to persist with it because you’re dealing with stuff from people’s lives. You have to work hard on robust relationships with people. The film will do well and people realise that their image is going out into the world and it has value. And then you work with the dynamics of ‘are people’s lives changing?’ It’s a lot of responsibility and you have to constantly figure out the ethical compunctions. So, the question of ethics in non-fiction is a really long and genuinely thorny, winding path. While there are philosophical pleasures that one derives from the process, it does wear you out as well. So, I’m excited about doing fiction because I actually want to be a part of that instrumental sort of a relationship with people also.