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  • Articles by Sonali

    Film review: All that Breathes directed by Shaunak Sen

    A new documentary, ‘All that Breathes’ (2022) by Shaunak Sen focuses on two brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammed Saud in their efforts of to promote wildlife conservation in densely populated North East Delhi. Shehzad and Saud, assisted by volunteer Salik Rehman, care for kites (birds of prey), which have fallen from the sky due to pollution, in a makeshift avian hospital built in their leaky basement.

    Their story began when they took an injured kite to the avian hospital in Delhi where treatment was refused because kites as birds of prey are not vegetarian. The brothers, both former body builders, decided to treat the kites from their basement where they also run a liquid soap dispenser business, using their knowledge of physiology. Over twenty years, the brothers have rehabilitated around 20,000 injured kites.

    The film starts at ground level with scenes of urban wildlife: rats scampering over piles of refuse at night; box turtles climbing over detritus in a landfill illuminated by headlights from nearby traffic; monkeys running across rooftops; and frogs and bugs in murky puddles reflecting the shadows of airplanes flying overhead. The wildlife photography is both beautiful and brutal.

    We move to the headquarters of Wildlife Rescue in the brothers’ basement where they and Salik tend to injured kites arriving in cardboard boxes. The ensuing banter ranges from media attention ‘the kite brothers' have received recently (which might explain why the conversations seem rehearsed) and they discuss the political unrest in their Muslim neighbourhood due the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act.

    The film also provides a family portrait, capturing the bickering between the brothers. Mohammed is content in his work but Nadeem is disheartened when his application for funding for the animal hospital is rejected. Nadeem is also concerned about the family’s cramped living conditions, the frequent power cuts and flooding in monsoon season. He wants to move to the US to continue his education.

    Sen uses the leaky basement as a metaphor for the political unrest which pervades the lives of the family while they focus on the kites. There is a sense of compression in the claustrophic space of the dingy basement while, in a gesture that seems like exhalation or decompression, the scene moves to the wide open skies with the kites gliding through Delhi’s heavy grey smog.

    These narrated, panoramic sky sequences have a floaty, dreamy atmosphere enhanced by an ambient musical score by Roger Goula and, here, Sen incorporates a philosophical angle to the story. We discover the brothers follow the example of their mother who believed, ‘Life itself is kinship, we are a community of the air. One should not differentiate between all that breathes’.

    We also see some remarkable footage of the kites perched side by side in an enclosure on the family’s rooftop and they seem majestic. And they play an integral role in ecosystem by feeding off landfill sites keeping the levels of refuse down.

    There is a selflessness in the brothers devotion to the kites and Sen is also intrigued by the kinship and coexistence between humans and animals. Apparently he was inspired by the book, H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald, which tells the story of her efforts to train a goshawk.

    Overall the film has a lightness of touch and feels like a quiet meditation especially in the sky sequences but the effect is counteracted when it switches back to the brothers and their struggles on the ground. In fact the film could be more emphatic about the effects of pollution and over population on animals and the environment and it lags near the end.

    Sen has made a film of contrasts that defies categorisation: we get a sense of urgency with the brothers tending to more and more injured kites but the film then moves to the serenity of the skies. The film is artful in its structure and use of metaphor but there are scenes which seem entirely spontaneous, like one filmed on the rooftop when a kite flies off with Salik’s glasses.

    More importantly Sen leaves it to the viewer to make their own interpretation of the film whether by reading it as a snapshot of our chaotic world or taking inspiration from the brothers and their valuable work in saving the kites.