All That Breathes review: Shaunak Sen's Sundance winner defines the art of commentary and the craft of documentary
What All That Breathes is really about the hunt for dignity of life in modern India — an urgent examination of what it means to be a citizen of a country reeling from its own xenophobic toxicity.
Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes — awarded the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance Film Festival this week — is the kind of film that doesn’t join the dots as much as it just underlines them. That is to say, it revolves around two middle-aged brothers who run Wildlife Rescue, a Delhi bird clinic from the basement office of their family soap-dispenser manufacturing business. Except, their tireless rescuing efforts don't form the film’s central inquiry; they only embellish it. What All That Breathes is really about is the hunt for dignity of life in modern India — an urgent examination of what it means to be a citizen of a country reeling from its own xenophobic toxicity.
The film’s title encapsulates the guiding principle in siblings Nadeem and Saud’s lives. Their late mother taught the duo to respect living creatures — “all that breathes” — instilling in them a deep sense of duty toward their ecosystem. So two decades ago, when the teenage brothers chanced upon an injured kite, they took it to the government bird hospital. What they didn’t expect was the hospital refusing to treat the bird simply because it was “non-vegetarian.”
Born in a Muslim family, Nadeem and Saud ate meat too and the bird hospital was owned by Jains, a devout vegetarian Hindu community — they didn’t know it at the time but the rejection stabbed deep. The brothers responded by operating on the raptor themselves. They had no training then and were armed only with the knowledge of wounds, tears, and fractures they had amassed from poring over copies of Flex, an American magazine dedicated to bodybuilders.
Also read: Emma Thompson on nudity and ageing in Sundance sex worker comedy: 'Found it fantastically hard to do'
For the next two decades, Nadeem and Saud kept bringing injured birds back to their modest basement setup in their Wazirabad home. They remain self-trained till date. Accompanied by Salik, an eager young assistant who ferries the injured birds in cardboard boxes, they diagnose the injured raptors — sometimes they bind wings and tend to the ones who have gone blind and at other times, they bathe the birds, grind meat for them, and house them in a cage until they’re well enough to fly.
🏆 World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary goes to ALL THAT BREATHES, directed by Shaunak Sen. #sundance pic.twitter.com/Fy1j2s3e2x
— SundanceFilmFestival (@sundancefest) January 28, 2022
The selfless service comes at the cost of their domestic stability. For instance, midway through the film we realize the extent of Nadeem and Saud’s financial depletion: their application for foreign funding is rejected at one point, the grinder that they use to mince meat for the birds is in need of fixing, the walls of the cramped home the brothers share with their wives and children are peeling, and the generator malfunctions on a regular basis.
Early on in All That Breathes, Sen suggests that Nadeem and Saud devoting their entire life to rescuing injured birds that fall from the noxious skies of Delhi is rooted in staunch religious belief. In Islam, feeding meat to kites is considered virtous — one of the brothers explains in the voiecover — an act that washes away one’s problems. But as the documentary progresses and the backdrop widens, it becomes clear that the brothers aren’t necessarily saviours as much as they’re driven by sheer desperation. Healing the neglected birds is their way of convincing themselves that there is more to humanity than just the survival of the fittest.
Also read: Sundance 2022: Karen Gillan goes to war with herself in Riley Stearns’ sci-fi satire, Dual
Midway through the film, the protests against the draconian Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) flare up in the sidelines. The controversial law, meant to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh openly discriminates against Muslims. The strain of being othered frequently shows up on the faces of Nadeem, Saud, and their family members. In one scene, the family eats dinner while pondering over whether a spelling mistake might be enough of a reason for them to be driven out. In another, the camera captures a tender conversation between Nadeem and his wife. When she urges him to attend the Shaheen Bagh protest with her, he tells her that his work is as necessary as the demonstrations.
By the time the 2020 Delhi riots begin, merely two kilometers from Nadeem and Saud’s house, the family have worn their vulnerability on their sleeve. We learn how the brothers have sent most of their family to a safer place, fearing the worst. Sen doesn’t need to explicitly join the dots for us to recognize the patterns. The effects of pollution and the menace of kite-flying enthusiasts have threatened the lives of migratory birds just like the country’s rising intolerance have rendered Muslims invisible.
The one scene that I can’t seem to get out of my head from All That Breathes is when Sen captures Salik watching a video of a Muslim man being attacked during the 2020 Delhi riots. Salik’s usually chirpy face instantly falls, his face awash with shock. He stops playing the video, puts the phone inside his pocket, and takes a squirrel out of another pocket. The trademark smile returns. In this one scene, All That Breathes manages to condense the burden of Muslim identity in India today and the very ways it has been forced to adapt in the face of hate.
Despite its heavy thematic resonance, Sen, who has a terrific eye for detail, ensures that he never loses sight of Nadeem and Saud’s individualities. Which means that All That Breathes is also a terrific sibling movie — one that posits brotherly quarrels and sacrifices as a reluctant form of intimacy. Everytime the duo share the screen, they light it up in rewarding ways, whether it is during a cricket match betrayal or when Nadeem admits his dissatisfaction with being stuck in his own life before reminding himself how much Wildlife Rescue means to Saud.
These varied threads turn All That Breathes into a striking portrait of interconnected co-existence — of man with animal, of garbage with nature, and of hate with society. The visual imagery is a thing of wonder even when scene after scene is stacked with staggering evidence of Delhi’s corrupted land and skies. But it’s the film’s opening sequence — an unbroken three minute tracking shot of squeaking rats scurrying around for food across a garbage dump in the heart of the city — that is the price of admission alone.
Working with cinematographers Ben Berhard, Riju Das, and Saumyananda Sahi, Sen masterfully reveals the underbelly of the capital, seamlessly merging foreground and background, nature and atmosphere, and the seen and the underseen. Some of the exquisite shots turn the idea of human gaze completely on its head, drawing a link between the city and its invertebrate residents. In one shot, the roving camera zooms in to show us a turtle making its way through a garbage pile, in another a change in depth of field turns a street bonfire scenery into a masterful record of slug crawling in the foreground. Rats, pigs, owls, insects, kites, and a scene-stealing squirrel litter the edges of the city as if mimicking the chaos of rising social tensions.
Simply as a record of slow-burning ecological tragedy, Sen crafts All That Breathes like a meditative poem, one that is cut to mindful perfection by editors Charlotte Munch Bengtsen and Vedant Joshi. The structure itself is striking in its unadorned approach. There’s poetry in simplicity to be found here.
It’s not everyday that you get to see a narrative so attuned to the craft of filmmaking and the beauty of emotion that it results in a hypnotic viewing experience. Sen could have easily just captured a story of compassion and heroism made for the big screen. But the fact that he doesn;’t blindly chase it and meticulously looks at the bigger picture and the smaller battles, make All That Breathes a staggering achievement.
Poulomi Das is a film and culture writer, critic, and programmer. Follow more of her writing on Twitter.
Halle Bailey and Melissa McCarthy debut the trailer of Disney's The Little Mermaid at Oscars 2023
“The Little Mermaid,” helmed by visionary filmmaker Rob Marshall, opens exclusively in theaters nationwide May 26, 2023.
SS Rajamouli and Naatu Naatu composer MM Keeravaani are all smiles at Oscars after party
RRR's Naatu Naatu, which became a global sensation soon after its release, won the Oscar for Best Original Song on 12 March.
Vikrant Massey and Sara Ali Khan look appropriately intense and mysterious in Gaslight trailer
Also starring Chitrangda Singh, the film is all set to premiere on Disney Hotstar on March 31. It's a thriller about a girl who's searching for her father who has gone missing under mysterious circumstances.