Film Review: All That Breathes

The Oscar-nominated documentary from India is a visual masterpiece that will make you see differently.

Madhvi Ramani


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.

A man with glasses looking at a bird that is standing on a desk in front of his face.
All That Breathes, HBO Documentary Films / Sideshow/ Submarine Deluxe.

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?