All that Breathes: Poetry in Motion

The movie’s subjects, both feathered and flightless, are one of a kind in their will to survive and thrive
All that Breathes: Poetry in Motion

Shaunak Sen’s lyrical and mesmerizing new documentary All That Breathes opens with a stunning shot. It is a long continuous take that starts out as a pitch-black frame and slowly pans down to capture the rats, cats, bugs, humans, cars and scooters – all living, breathing and hollering in oneness like cells of one singular organism. After which the frame goes to bright white. This motif of being delivered from darkness to light runs throughout the film. Whether it is about people working in claustrophobic run-down offices or smog-inhaling birds of prey, they are all part of the same urban jungle. All holding on to the hope of fighting one more day.

We are introduced to what can only be described as a post-apocalyptic hell-scape where the land is congested with garbage and where the air is permanently covered in a grey filter of dust and smog, only to realize it's just another day in Delhi. The sight of warm open landfills in enough to make one feel grimy themselves. 

Here we meet brothers Nadeem and Shehzad who run a soap dispenser business by day and are lifesaving bird paramedics by night. Together, with their trusted side-kick Salik, they collect injured black kites who fall out of polluted skies and nurse them back to health, one bird at a time. We follow their journey as they deal with economic constraints, familial disagreements, and political tensions while they steadily and, on many occasions, courageously work to get the black kites back up in the air.

All that Breathes: Poetry in Motion
Sundance 2022: Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes Is A Stone-Cold Masterpiece

The spectre of the 2019 CAA protests looms heavily over the proceedings but Sen never directly points to it. Instead through news clips and family discussions, we get the sense of a prevailing dread that the brothers and their family are carrying with them. As the world around them descends into communal disharmony, the brothers find themselves in need of as much rescuing as their winged patients. The birds are affected by the smoke polluting the air and the people are affected by hate polluting the soul. No one is immune to the symptoms of a society afflicted with indifference.

All That Breathes wouldn’t be the film it is without its evocative and lilting frames shot by no less than three cinematographers. The images of rescued kites huddled together presented like refugees escaping a desperate situation are some of the most powerful images put on a screen this year. A word here for Roger Goula’s brilliant score as well which has an air of calmness and serenity.

To director Sen’s credit, he beautifully weaves the images and sounds together giving us a film that is poetic and chaotic all at once. The movie’s subjects, both feathered and flightless, are one of a kind in their will to survive and thrive. The constant juxtaposing shots of crammed office spaces followed by sailing black kites in the open sky made me feel like the movie is inhaling, exhaling – dare I say, breathing with me. My only complaint here would be the pacing, which seemed to go a little haywire during the second half where major story arcs quickly either left unfinished or were not fully concluded. But this is a minor quibble in a movie where there is so much to savour.

At one point in the movie we see the words “Azadi” scribbled on a wall next to an area littered with garbage with a CAA protest rally being held in the background. I couldn’t help but think at the end of the day, that is all the brothers and birds want. Azadi from the polluted air, polluted governance and the polluted mind. To be delivered from darkness to light.

At the end of the day, All That Breathes is nothing short of poetry in motion that celebrates the best of humanity even in the bleakest of times.

Related Stories

No stories found.