Shaunak Sen On His Oscar-Nominated Documentary All That Breathes 

Sen speaks about his new Oscar-nominated film, the documentary filmmakers who've shaped his style, and the pursuit of cinematic truth.
Shaunak Sen On His Oscar-Nominated Documentary All That Breathes 

In Shaunak Sen's first film, Cities of Sleep (2015), a documentary about the informal sleep shelters for the homeless in the winters of Delhi, his crutch is a shadowy unreliable narrator looking for a place to sleep himself. One of the spaces he shows is a makeshift movie parlour run by a man whose insights into sleep, and life, are as poetic as clear-eyed. As someone who has suffered insomnia since his childhood, Sen's entry point into the project was personal, he says in an interview, but the exploration became increasingly political.

The concerns of his new film All That Breathes, also set in Delhi, are even larger. On the surface it's about two Muslim brothers in Delhi who run a clinic at their dingy basement where they tend to injured black kites, and other raptors, that have been falling out of the city's toxic skies at an increasing rate. But through the story of the brothers – and their assistant Salik, a constant uncynical presence – Sen is able to find connections between man, animal, and environment that goes into the wide blue yonder and sometimes touches the sublime. As it happened, the filming coincided with the passing of the NRC-CAA bill, and the protests and riots that followed, adding dimensions to All That Breathes that makes it even more well-rounded. Sen uses the miracles of narrative non fiction and crafts it into a deeply moving, dazzling cinematic experience, aided by a top-notch crew, and backed by foreign grants. 

It has also become the first Indian film to win the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival, one of the highest honours for a documentary. Sen has been in US – even though the festival was conducted online – holding a screening for potential distributors, talking to journalists (both from India and America) while juggling timelines, and finding it difficult to get a good sleep. "I have to wake up super early in order to not make everybody wait till late in the night," he said over the phone. According to him, at first, the buzz about All That Breathes was less than expected, but within twenty four hours of it winning the big prize, the requests started coming in. Variety, Screen, The Hollywood Reporter. The New York Times got in touch. "It's actually easier because during the festival, all the press happens in US time. Also, you know, it's good to meet some journalists face to face whom you otherwise wouldn't get to meet," he said. Apart from that, Sen wanted to catch up with some friends from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was a visiting scholar before he started All That Breathes, in 2018. 

Sen spoke about the making of his film, his approach to the documentary form, and the state of affairs of the medium in India. When I later texted him asking how it feels to win the top prize at Sundance, he said, "Heady".

Edited excerpts:

You've said in an interview that even before you found the story of the brothers you had a larger and more vague feeling about the film, which is the kind of apocalyptic and gloomy state of Delhi, and the world at large. It's usually the reverse. That you find a story and see in it something larger. I wanted to know how that part of the process was like. 

I've realised what inevitably happens is that a film, in its earliest prenatal iteration, comes as this glow at the back of your head. It's like this ineffable thing where you only get a sense of texture and feeling. And none of the other more concrete particulars are there. The challenge often is that you have to hold on to the those early salient feelings. Because in every film there is always this point where you feel like, where is this going? I have no sense of what I started with. So that glow I think is a productive kind of foundation to hold on to. 

All of us who lived in Delhi, in recent years, have been fully aware of this vague sense of the environment and things around you that one otherwise imagines to be nourishing and sustenance-giving, slowly becoming hostile and a sort of grey, monotone, hazy… It's been, like, looking at the picture postcard for a kind of dystopian dream, especially in the winters. And you look up and you see these kites lazily gliding about as dots. That has become the classic archetypal image of Delhi recently, and this general sense that something in the engines of the earth is sputtering and coughing, you know, and standing at the brink of something. 

I was absolutely certain that I have never had any interest in making a straight nosed pollution film. In fact, now when people ask me, 'So this film is about pollution', I get a sense that 'Ah, of course, pollution is part of it'. But I had this feeling of breathing something every now and then that is deleterious to your general wellbeing and how the kites are reacting. One of the things I was very interested in is human-non human life, and the sense of interconnectivity in the wake of this impending sense of ecological dread. 

This 'glow in the back of your head' that you talk about, is that always true for documentary filmmaking? 

It's possible that it often isn't, because conventionally documentaries, especially which deploy observational verite grammar is inherently ethnographic, right? Where you basically recede into the background, and then life itself unfolds and then it essentially becomes about finding a story on the edit. My first film was gritty, raw, handheld, and was far more conventionally verite, although with some touches of a more lyrical style as well. In this film, at least, in terms of the film vocabulary, I was certain that we wanted to have a more tripoded, controlled aestheticised, curated kind of style. 

I'm very excited by the creative documentary form. And in world cinema it has been growing in leaps and bounds. You push the grammar of nonfiction and assimilate into it other registers of either poetry or other ways of recording truth in life.

Generally a lot of documentaries don't have a huge degree of premeditation. In this film, because I was dealing with layers of different kinds of themes – the sky, birds, non human-human relationship, and a kind of affective texture of people who have the front-row seats to the apocalypse and dealing with the birds literally falling out the sky – I had that those kinds of foundations in the beginning, at least a trifecta of themes. This did involve a lot of reading before. Not just conceptual, philosophical stuff, but also a lot of literature.

Like I was reading "H is for Hawk", I was reading "The Peregrin". And basically books that spoke about this kind of hypnotic relationship with avian life or with one bird, and so on, or with one bird species. And then I was also reading a lot more theoretical stuff on what's today known as the more-than-human, which looks at human-animal relations and so on. And in terms of physically meeting people, I think the brothers were the first people I met.

Documentary is not what people generally perceive it to be. In the same interview, you use a phrase: 'pushing the Indian documentary form into into more lyrical directions'. I think you almost kind of answered that just now.

I can answer it more, please. Yeah, so basically I'm very excited by the creative documentary form. And in world cinema it has been growing in leaps and bounds. You push the grammar of nonfiction and assimilate into it other registers of either poetry or other ways of recording truth in life. Truth can be of various kinds, right? Truth can be forensic truth, truth can be about specificity and important political truths where you can't have creative flights of fancy and be all postmodern about it. My favourite conversation in this is Errol Morris, for instance.

I was just going to bring him up. 

Yeah. So if you're making a film about somebody who's been wrongly accused of a heinous crime you're going to have to adhere a little to the truth, and how you work within that horizon of truth is up to you. But at the same time, you have other perspectives like Herzog's who talks about a kind of 'ecstatic truth' by which he disparages what he calls the 'accountants' truth' of a lot of documentary practice, which is only functional and utilitarian. And looking at something makes you arrive at deeper, more profound and what he calls 'ecstatic truths'. There's an artist/theorist called Eyal Weizman, for instance, whose work is about forensic truth. And when you train your gaze very firmly on something, it sort of excavates, clinically, newer meanings. 

I'm interested in all these different takes on documentary, especially certain kind of conventional documentary that has paid a lot of attention to the sociological and is ethnographic in nature, which is great, I have great respect for it. And my previous film also deployed that. But in this film, I wanted to leave the door open for having more poetic overtures and having a kind of lyrical style. At the same time, not letting go of the observational because a lot of the lives of the brothers themselves are observational. It's just that how we are shooting is with a languid panning camera or these long, slow pan, tilts, that kind of thing. 

So in a way you you don't go too far from the observational and shooting humans. But the way you shoot it, the camera techniques you use, are different; with the characters themselves you start using different grammars to invoke the past, to excavate their mental life. I'm deeply interested in the styles of Viktor Kossakovsky, and also Gianfranco Rosi a lot in terms of how he shoots human, and Roboto Minervini in terms of how he comes out as a kind of hybrid between nonfiction and controlled spaces. And so these are some of the people I was taken by and I think a lot of that comes into the film in a very vague way. 

How much do you control the room, the lighting and things like that to get closer to the truth? How do you manoeuvre? 

So before the day of the shoot, we would say that 'Okay, today's verite'. For two and a half years, we shot their life as it is. And the place is such, and the rhythms and cadences of their life are such that it's cyclical in nature. Like every day Salik will come with boxes full of birds, place them in that tiny basement, they'll get treated and be taken to the enclosures and the terrace. That's the broader strokes of what will happen every day, right? So you can therefore predict and figure out different aesthetic treatments of doing it. So you can prepare, in a way. We were able to synthesize it because there's a lot of space for curating real life, because things are happening over and over again. So we had the liberty to say, 'Okay, how about we try to put a slider here? And we'll just keep moving the camera here.' That's the verite sections. 

Now there are also sections which were very obviously choreographed, and stylized and meant to be lyrical. Slowly we were developing a kind of form where it was clear that we weren't going to hide the fact that this was not just verite, and that was hopefully going to become the strength of the film. We eventually kept on becoming more and more playful, and kept on thinking that 'Okay, how about instead of doing a talking head, we do this long, fluid track movement, which finally comes to the character as he's talking?' We've spoken to them for two-three years, so I have a vague sense of if I asked them one specific question what they're gonna say. And now they're comfortable with the camera enough for me to ask them a question, them to start answering, with the camera taking a meandering sort of looking around and and then arriving there. So that's how the grammar slowly developed. 

You also said, in the same interview, that among documentary filmmakers there's a joke, that once the subjects start yawning is when the camera actually starts rolling. How long did it take to reach there? 

Initially, the camera is very obtrusive, and a big presence. You hardly get anything useful in the initial days because they're constantly curating what sense of self will get projected in front of the camera. But it's human nature. If I turn up in your house every day and start shooting, the first five days you will be very measured. From the seventh day…life takes on and soon people become the wallpaper, and that's when good material comes out. At first, everybody thinks that it's like a news format, and you're going to be interviewed. We developed this kind of lingo when I would go to them and say 'Aaj hum deewar hai'. 

'Deewar' as in 'fly on the wall'.

It's like, yeah, I mean, I really hate that term because you're never a fly on the wall. Like Herzog says that you're more like a hornet that stings. That's quite extreme. I would probably say an insect more benign, midway between the fly and the hornet, but once you've told them 'Aaj hum deewar hai', that's like codeword for them that they just have to continue with their lives and forget that we are there.

Shaunak Sen
Shaunak Sen

You get these incredible moments, for example Salik taking out a squirrel from his pocket in an autorickshaw right after he has seen a video of violence, probably to distract himself. 

There's been so much social churning and unrest in the recent years in Delhi. So if you're shooting somebody constantly, with all of this unfolding in the distant background, or in the not so distant background, over time, you'll have a whole panoply of responses that people have. Salik is incredibly innocent and really special in terms of his ability to foster affection with non human life. And if you keep shooting someone him for three years, you will find moments like this. So it's a function of showing up everyday. 

The score first appears in the film when we learn that the brothers' story with the kites had a fairytale beginning. It evokes a sense of wonder. What was the briefing for the score? 

We worked with the phenomenal Spanish British music composer Roger Goula, whom I had given three main cues to begin with. One was to work with this idea that it's also a love story of two brothers falling in love with a bird species. So let's start with this idea of this nostalgic childhood love, which over time goes bad. So it's like a fairy tale that goes dark. There is a kind of melody, which we start unsettling with electronic distortion. And it's the distortion that keeps growing through the course of the film. 

The idea is to try and use music boldly. Usually, it's something that's frowned upon in documentaries, but to not use it in a manipulative way where it's just congruous with the emotion of the scene, and therefore is making that stronger and is manipulating the viewer, but adds another layer of meaning. So you see foam in the Yamuna and a bird standing there and electronic distortion. Hopefully it takes on a third meeting. 

The film has three cinematographers, but the visual language is seamless. You mentioned the 'camera reveal' in the same interview, for instance, where you have these remarkable shots of different kinds of species. The implication is as if the camera itself discovers these myriad life forms that are all around us. 

This is a form that we discovered and developed at first with Benjamin Bernhardt and then evolved and developed further with Riju Das, who came in later and evolved that form and shot a major volume of the film. We're talking about these themes of coexistence of life. We thought that the best way to show it is in the same frame, uninterrupted, no cuts at all. We're going to show the coexistence of things in the same geography. And the best way to do it is by a cinematic reveal, so either by a tilt down, or a slow pan, or by change in focus, or rack focus tricks, that kind of thing. 

It's a Herculean effort to get a non-fiction film across the finishing line, especially with how scant the resources are. There's really a genuine infrastructural lacuna. I tried to show Cities of Sleep as widely as possible… But after a point, what does one do?

Thankfully, we were shooting a lot of slow moving animals, like snails and all, so we had the time for these languid, languorous kind of reveals. But this reveal became a kind of conceptual tool, and a visual tool, and therefore became a kind of aid in the edit as well in terms of how we structure the film. So the film starts with a long sequence about rats, where we're also telling the audience member that 'Look, this is how the film is. And these are the kinds of editing rhythms that you have to get used to'. So during the shoot I was absolutely convinced that we were not going to cut and they're all going to be long single takes. It also developed with Charlotte Munch Bengtsen (who worked in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing) and Vedant Joshi, the editing team, but it was bolstered by decisions were taken early on.

Do you see a link between Cities of Sleep and All that Breathes? 

Only insofar as an interest in entering the city as a space through the lens of these oblique, roundabout things. So for instance, if Cities was about disassembling the city through the prism of sleep, or the night, this was about looking at the city through the bird, or through the more-than-human. And in the end, I suppose, there's some very slight aesthetic overlaps about being interested in a kind of poetic voice or mining the characters that you meet, to take out bits that are poetic, and then sharpening that with them and that kind of style. But no, this film was far less raw and gritty, and more controlled, tripoded, curated and stylized. 

A big part of the problem with the Indian documentary scene is that there seems to be no platform to show them. Your first film is still not available anywhere. Documentary filmmakers rely hugely on physical screenings. And in this post pandemic times, where everything is streaming, where do you see yourself?

It's a Herculean effort to get a non-fiction film across the finishing line, especially with how scant the resources are. There's really a genuine infrastructural lacuna. I tried to show Cities of Sleep as widely as possible. I showed it in every single Indian festival, in MAMI (Mumbai film festival) and Kerala, and Bangalore. Basically anybody who would say anything about showing it I would trigger happily show it. I had over 100 screenings across educational institutions, any college and university space, any informal screening space, anything, but after point what does one do? There were contracts with the National Fund which doesn't permit me to put it up on YouTube straight up. And after that I just didn't know, I mean there are no distributors. We are talking about 2015-16. So it's not like we could have readily put it on Mubi or something. 

With this film, especially with it getting the top prize, we are far more hopeful. But it means hopeful with a kind of guarded optimism about a finding a good distributor and us being able to show it. We're working really hard on talking to people and figuring out deals. So hopefully this will find an easy home. But it isn't easy, and I'm sure I can speak for a lot of independent documentary filmmakers. It really isn't easy. 

What do you think the streaming situation is like for documentaries? 

Documentaries like An Insignificant Man (2016) had a theatrical release and had a very robust internet life as well. Katiyaabaaz was released theatrically. These were big moves that were made. Other films like Placebo were put online. These films have taken stringent and very inventive decisions. And I think there is more interest now in some OTT platforms, but I'd be loathed to say that people are knocking on the door to want to show it. Now with us getting the Grand Jury, I think and I hope that things will be different.

People are watching more documentaries than ever on platforms like Netflix etc. But they're mostly the truecrime sort. And it's almost like there's a gap between popular taste and where the art form is being pushed by serious practitioners like yourself. 

I mean, lots of different kinds of styles are jostling cheek by jowl. One good thing is that, like you said, many more people are watching nonfiction than ever before. But it's also a certain kind of… There's true-crime… A lot of the OTT platforms are also pushing particular formats, which sometimes can be to the detriment of the creative, more artistic documentary, but there's also platforms like Mubi and so on, which I think are more geared towards… Actually that's not correct, in the sense that even on various other big platforms now, there are films that are fairly artistically driven. So that's changing. And look, any independent filmmaker, especially in India, will say that getting any kind of sanctuary is enough. So one can't wait for things to change faster.

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