Review of “All That Breathes” – Sundance 2022

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Reading time: 4 minutes

“Delhi is a gaping wound. And we’re a little band-aid on it,” says Nadeem Shehzad, who along with his brother Mohammad Saud treated more than 20,000 birds, mostly black kites, in their basement in one of the most polluted in the world, New Delhi. But the air isn’t the only toxic element floating around as a wave of hatred slowly covers the city, and in its astonishing documentary anything that breathes, Shaunak Sen portrays this complex dynamic.

Black kites frequent the skies of Indiathe capital. They are on rooftops, markets and landfills looking for meat scraps. But increased pollution has put them in greater peril than usual, and as a result, Nadeem and Saud’s noble work has multiplied. Black kites pound in the streets; in addition to physical injuries, some of them arrive at their makeshift clinic blind or with neural problems.

Besides a few moments of Nadeem speaking to the camera about their story and their Wildlife Rescue organization, anything that breathes follows an observational approach. Director Sen allows us to patiently observe the daily and loving tasks of the “kite brothers” and their faithful volunteer, Salik: they treat the wounds of the kites, chop their meat, bathe them or, if necessary necessary, bury them. They also go out to the streets to collect these feathered beauties for further processing; if you have to cross a big lake alone to save one, they do it. We also contemplate the brothers arguing over their work, making fun of each other (Salik is a frequent target of Nadeem’s enormous use of sarcasm), or sharing worries about lack of funding. We also learn that Nadeem and Saud are Muslims.

And then there is the city itself. Shaunak Sen contextualizes rescue efforts by revealing the surreal borderline ecosystem that shapes New Delhi. There are lines of kites sitting on mountains of garbage, monkeys walking through a jungle of wires, and pigs roaming the streets. Sometimes we hear Nadeem reflect on how animals have adapted to the urban landscape, and even evolved while doing so. Sen allows us to understand and even feel the connection between all living things that share this city, creating a meditation on the power of nature and the beauty of animals. It also sets the stage for the study of the social unrest that begins to unravel as the documentary progresses.

Between the bird rescue and the treatments, we see a TV presenter talking about public outrage at a new citizenship law that bars Muslim refugees from entering the country. Later we hear of peaceful protests and some chanting in the background. And finally, a wave of anti-muslim violence bursts.

Without abandoning the perspective of Nadeem and Saud, Shaunak Sen skillfully weaves this portrayal of social tension into the story of the kite-loving brothers, creating an awe-inspiring contrast between hope and despair. We have these wonderful human beings doing everything possible to save the lives of these magnificent creatures while miles away there is a wave of hate-motivated killings. If humanity cannot do something as basic as respecting each other’s religions, how are we going to come together to save the planet and all living things that breathe on it?

But the reflections and learnings of anything that breathes do not come to us through ordinary observation and filmmaking. Using divine cinematography, Sen captures a host of miraculous moments that add depth to his subjects and the threads of his narrative. We see a kite hovering in a beautiful blue sky with only the moon in the background, a turtle making its way through a pile of trash, a kite flying Salik’s glasses in the air, a plane reflect on the tiny puddle of a fold in a pile of scrap metal. There’s a Gianfranco Rosi-esque quality to the way Sen manages to find all of these silent masterpieces.

More than once, cinematographer Ben Bernhard has used rack focus with exquisite precision to completely reverse the meaning of the one-shot, portraying the city’s connection to its underappreciated invertebrate inhabitants. In one of the film’s most dramatic moments, it feels like a street fire when, in the same shot, a change in depth of field reveals a beautiful slug crawling in the foreground. I was constantly breathless at the outstanding cinematography on display.

Even when talking to Nadeem, Sen makes sure to use some awesome directing techniques to get the most out of it. at one point, the camera slowly pans around Nadeem’s house, as we hear him talk about his current state of mind regarding his job. You think it’s just a voice-over inserted into the editing room, but suddenly the camera, still panning, enters the room where he is, still talking. It’s incredible.

anything that breathes is a masterful tale of how pollution has invaded the air and the human soul. Through exceptional direction, Shaunak Sen pits some of the best traits humanity has to offer against the worst. And in the end, we get a show of hope overcoming hate. Even though intolerance is rampant, Wildlife Rescue gets stranger because there are people out there who want to protect lives and inspire others to do the same: a part of humanity still cares, proving that the Evolution may be slow, but it’s definitely here.

All That Breathes had its world premiere at Sundance 2022 where he competes in the Documentary on world cinema program. you can follow Wildlife Rescue on Facebook or learn more about them, including how to donate from anywhere in the world, about their Official page.

Cover image courtesy of Kiterabbit Films.

anything that breathes

10/10

TL;DR

anything that breathes is a masterful tale of how pollution has invaded the air and the human soul. Through exceptional direction, Shaunak Sen pits some of the best traits humanity has to offer against the worst. And in the end, we get a show of hope overcoming hate. Even though intolerance is rampant, Wildlife Rescue gets stranger because there are people out there who want to protect lives and inspire others to do the same: a part of humanity still cares, proving that the Evolution may be slow, but it’s definitely here.

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