Film Review: All That Breathes
The Oscar-nominated documentary from India is a visual masterpiece that will make you see differently.
Early on in All That Breathes, a kite swoops down from the polluted Delhi air, snatches a pair of glasses from a man’s face, and flies off with them. It’s an apt metaphor for this documentary about birds itself; the film disorientates, forces you to refocus, and ultimately changes your vision.
Shaunak Sen’s film follows two brothers who rescue injured birds in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. It’s also a city teeming with animals that increasingly live in, and adapt to human environments.
Extreme close-ups bring various creatures into focus; a turtle clambers up a heap of rubbish by the side of the road, a centipede emerges from a puddle, an owl pops its head through a gap in a wall, monkeys scramble across crisscrossing telephone wires and electricity cables. And of course, there are birds, swooping, soaring, squawking — and occasionally falling out of the sky.
That’s where the two brothers Nadeem and Saud come in — they’ve been rescuing the city’s birds for over 20 years from their small, crowded basement, where they also run a soap dispensing business. In a way, these two activities are similar — both are attempts to clean up the mess humanity makes. It’s a task that seems futile against the backdrop of smog-laden skies, mountains of rubbish, flotsam-filled rivers, honking traffic, and crowded, crooked streets.
Delhi looks post-apocalyptic, dystopian. The men discuss nuclear war and being eaten by birds while they tend to slashed wings and twisted tendons. Loudspeakers from demonstrations blare, and Hindu-Muslim tensions flare up in the city. Things are constantly breaking, in need of fixing, cleaning, organising — and the brothers struggle against the tide of destruction and chaos spilling into their lives. They argue. But as Nadeem observes, their arguments are not down to money, or ego; they are a symptom of their situation. A situation where birds frequently fall from the sky. How can they possible live under such pressure, and arduous circumstances?