For brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, kites are their greatest obsession. But the kites they have fallen in love with are not the playthings made by man. In the New Delhi neighborhoods they call home, the most prominent kites in the sky are birds of prey. With his documentary All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen deftly explores these brothers’ unique bird-loving fascination. In the process, he opens our eyes to a wider environmental dilemma that threatens their existence.
Indeed, although these black birds may seem omnipresent above Delhi’s skyline, air pollution has caused them to fall from the sky in worrying numbers. Deeply concerned about this phenomenon, Nadeem and Mohammad established a makeshift nursery and rehabilitation center, operating out of their humble basement while they seek funding for a full-fledged hospital. While the environmental crisis worsens, violence also begins to erupt as a discriminatory citizenship bill targets Muslims like Nadeem and Mohammad. Feeling overwhelmed by the challenges they face, the brothers are therefore forced to make crucial decisions about their future.
Shot in a largely observational vérité style, All That Breathes artfully ties together the social and ecological concerns which plague Delhi. Vividly capturing the sights and sounds of the city, we get a keen sense of its fragile ecosystem. From the jarring opening scene of squeaky rats rummaging through an open space at nearly eye level, to the vistas of land, sea and sky, the comprehensive filmmaking style truly lives up to its title.
Aside from the nature-focused sequences, the “day in the life” approach does lead to some dull moments. But in his perceptive observations of the brothers and their world, Sen stumbles across several moments of precious insight. In one particularly striking juxtaposition, a majestic flock of birds hovers over a massive landfill. Soon, a conversation between the brothers reveals that the kites are integral to mitigating the excessive human waste as they scavenge for food.
Throughout the film, the Nadeem and Mohammad further enlighten audiences with their understanding of the ecological dynamics at play in their environment. They express a keen awareness and fear of the impending civil unrest. But they are a source of amusement too, as is evident through their slacker-like pondering about Mercedes-Benz ambulances for their hospital and the darkly humorous possibility of being eaten by their beloved kites.
Indeed, while much of All That Breathes spells doom and gloom, the humanity and devotion of its compassionate brothers – and composer Roger Goula’s comfortingly melodious score – suggest that positive change is still possible. The tender care and concern they show toward their vulnerable kites and the environment at large is truly awe-inspiring to watch. With its potential to stimulate similar environmental awareness and action, All That Breathes is therefore one of 2022’s most important documentaries so far.