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

It's a beguiling snapshot of a country on the brink of both cultural and environmental apocalypse
Sundance 2022: Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes Is A Stone-Cold Masterpiece

Category: World Documentary Competition

Good documentaries find the right stories to tell. But great documentaries let the true stories emerge. All That Breathes is, at least on paper, centered on two brothers who run a bird clinic in the basement office of their soap-dispenser business. The self-taught men spend their nights tending to injured black kites that fall out of Delhi's toxic skies. Their young helper is almost comically curious, asking them the sort of questions that allows the film to flaunt information wrapped in their wry, seasoned personalities. The unlikely founders of Wildlife Rescue have been widely documented over the years, so one might have forgiven director Shaunak Sen for choosing their experience to put a feel-good spin on the Delhi-pollution narrative. If anything, hopeful debris emerging from the rubble of a slow-burning tragedy might have felt subversive. But to say that Sen's documentary delves beyond the obvious would be a gross understatement. 

All That Breathes dissolves the line between foreground and backdrop, atmosphere and climate, nature and human nature, and most of all, compassion and survival. The result is a beguiling snapshot of a country on the brink of both cultural and environmental apocalypse. The bleakness, of course, lies in the eyes of the beholder. Somewhere between being a specific human portrait of ecological unrest and a poetic ecological portrait of human unrest, All That Breathes allows the ellipsis of identity to emerge. Slowly but surely, it starts to ask: What drives two brothers named Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud in North-east Delhi to care for migratory meat-eating birds that are struggling to adapt in India's urban jungle? The answer exists in broad daylight, except it's been concealed by the venomous Delhi smog for too long. 

The film-making does an exquisite job of teasing out these metaphors through the merging of thoughtful voice-over, dramatic cinematography and profound profiling. At one point, the Muslim brothers don't have the time to attend the anti-CAA protests because they're too busy trying to save the birds that symbolize them. They can't change a broken system, but they can perhaps repair the pieces. At another point, the young helper, Salik, passively watches a video of police violence on his cellphone, before switching it off and turning his attention to a playful squirrel in his shirt pocket. As is evident, context and subtext share the same air in All That Breathes. Morbidly beautiful images of busy animals (rats, cows, pigs, snails, lizards and even tortoises) reveal the city's dissonant social fabric. The creatures are filmed in the language of fiction – long tracking shots, endless stays, lens flares, evocative score – as if to suggest that the real story is rooted in their unnatural setting. Walls separate their garbage dumps and landfills from townships. Like the kites, they consume the filth that pervades the cities – until the filth consumes them. They are then reduced to cheap slurs of hygiene, routinely employed by Hindutva mobs to incite Islamophobic rage. 

Similarly, morbidly striking vignettes of the brothers' struggles – funding problems, a malfunctioning meat grinder, a swim to rescue a stranded kite, a hectic schedule – reveal the city's ruptured environmental fabric. Sen shoots their spaces like little pockets relegated to the corners of civilization. The thin and peeling walls, the cramped rooms and the dense basement play significant roles in the visual rhythm of the film. It's clear that the makers have spent a while understanding the house and its general spatial anatomy, which in turn transforms its fly-in-the-wall vibe to a treasure trove of cultural information. Each slow pan – from one room to another, from one conversation to the next – tells a different story of invisibilization and silent dignity. 

What's remarkable is that the presence of the camera isn't just incidental to an intimate moment – like when a kite swoops in to snatch away Salik's spectacles, or when the brothers spot a rare bird while paying their respects at their mother's grave. The camera's presence is at once aesthetic, moving with precision, indulging the moment rather than just capturing it. Ditto for the lyrical voiceover and sound design, all of which create the illusion of scenes being staged – of the craft shaping a story – when in fact it's the craft that has tirelessly prepared to be ready for a story. From this fluidity arises a Delhi that we last saw in Eeb Allay Ooo!, a fictional satire shot like an unrehearsed documentary. 

If I have one gripe with All That Breathes, it's a fleeting point-to-camera interview of Saud spelling out the kite allegory. This occurs towards the end of the documentary, when the viewer is just starting to confront its narrative depth. His words instantly extract us from the film's hard-earned textural duality. But I suppose it's a necessary crutch for international audiences – especially given the long-standing relationship between religious conflict and democratic freedom. In an age of growing dissent and underground bird clinics, subtlety can no longer be the refuge of the sophisticated. Saud says it not for us so much as himself. His brother's dreams of achieving more – like going to America to do a professional course – are linked to this self-awareness. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that All That Breathes is the only Indian title competing at Sundance this year. After all, the West is only a few thousand ideological miles from Delhi – as the kite flies.

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