All That Breathes review: This stunningly magnificent Oscar nominated Indian documentary is all about the need for coexistence
The focus of the Oscar-nominated documentary by Shaunak Sen is on the efforts of two brothers in Delhi to save injured black kites.
Meet the two Delhi-based brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, and their assistant Salik Rehman, who are stranded near a lake, alerted that there’s an injured kite on the other side. There’s no boat available for help, and by the time that is arranged, it might be too late. So the two of them strip down and swim in the cold waters, and rescue the poor bird on a temporary box. These brothers will then take the bird in their makeshift basement clinic, and try to nurse it back to strength. The journey of these amateur bird medics become the focus of ‘All That Breathes’, director Shaunak Sen’s remarkable, poetic new feature-length documentary that came so close to winning that Oscar earlier this month.
Truly, what a journey this film has had, first winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January last year, and then bagging the L’Oeil d’Or, the top prize for documentaries at the Cannes Film Festival a few months later. Since then, this film has spread its wings around the world, to finally secure the coveted spot at the Best Documentary Feature category at the 95th Academy Awards. This is an astounding feat in its own regard, a nonfiction feature film paving its way through a sea of campaigning to hold its own place in the world.
All That Breathes focuses on the ways in which two brothers have dedicated half of their lives into the care for these birds of prey who are otherwise deemed as harbingers of bad luck across the Indian cultures. The toxic skies of Delhi are becoming increasingly inhospitable to the birds, and as All That Breathes reveals in steady detail over its 93-minute screen time, for a certain section of the populace too. Amidst the cacophony and chaos, the brothers are also worried about funding prospects as day after day, the injured kites arrive in wooden boxes, and Sen follows the men trying to build a animal rescue hospital, convince the butcher to sell them meat at a cheaper rate while straddling their own personal lives. There’s a sense of despair apparent in their scattershot conversations, yet All That Breathes marches along, patiently tending to the wounds of these birds with utmost care and resilience. Yet as Saud reflects, “Delhi is a gaping wound, and we’re just a Band-Aid on it.”
All That Breathes creates a rich tapestry of characters and motives, but Sen, working with editor Charlotte Munch Bengsten, never spells out the socio-political subtext for the audience to follow. The film plays along with a poetic vigour, hiding under its shadow a wounded segregation at work. It lets us make these connections for ourselves. Even the connections between the three men are not spelled out directly at first for that matter. Yet, there’s no denying how it is the hilariously interrogative assistant Salik who provides the film with its much-needed, mischievous punk. The creatures themselves seem to play along with the happy-go-lucky soul- a kite stealing his spectacles at the terrace, and a baby squirrel popping out of his shirt pocket like a quaint little magic trick. These details make enough room for its audience to realize that these men are not just saving the birds, but are saving themselves in the process too.
The structure of All That Breathes carefully connects these dots to map the larger perspectives in the country’s capital which is on the edge of an environmental as well as cultural doom. Delhi is still breathing, still alive in its claustrophobic alleys, water-logged streets and polluted waterbodies. Here, in an increasingly hostile ecosystem, the will to survive lies in the hope for adaptability and codependency. The violence against the Muslims occurs just a few kilometers away from the basement, we are informed in one direct confrontational scene. The crises add on, in the virtues of buried hope and wonder. Desires freeze.
Breathtakingly shot by the team of cinematographers including Benjamin Bernhard, Riju Das and Soumyananda Sahi, All That Breathes finds arresting visual poetry in the darkest, dirtiest of places. One particularly unforgettable sequence takes place to register the innumerable black kites that circle around the Delhi sky when the meat tossing occasion takes place. It is a breathtaking moment- at once intimate and expansive, bursting with so much ecstasy that my heart could explode. All That Breathes is urgent, sublime and deeply moving. Sen has created a masterwork.
Disclaimer: Except the headline and synopsis, this story has been taken from the HT News Service