A dingy basement that is filled with metal machinery doubles up as a ward for injured kites; their injuries, caused by glass threads used to fly kites, is a distressing irony. But it was this claustrophobic space that turned filmmaker Shaunak Sen’s into a fly on a wall as he documented the lives of two brothers and their helper, who work towards saving these injured birds of prey. Set in Delhi’s grey lanes, against a cacophonous descent into ecological madness, Sen's documentary All That Breathes has been honoured with the 2022 L'OEil d'Or award at Cannes.
Shot in Delhi, hometown for Sen and most of the team involved in the project, is not just the background of the film; it is a character in itself, unfolding in varied ways in front of our eyes. The smoke-filled streets lend an air of grimness to the environment is what inspired the director into capturing this ecosystem. “As someone who has lived in Delhi, there was always a grey sensorium around me; this city has a certain mood where the sun is diffused and the sky is unclear and the whole experience seems hostile to your being. It feels like the cosmological lungs of the world are failing. This was the starting point of the story,” Sen says about All That Breathes.
Looking at the kites circling in the air against the grey sky piqued Sen, who moved on to research more about human-animal relationships, the theme that is central to this documentary. His research lasted one day. Muhammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad are siblings who rescue birds, especially black kites and treat them at their rehabilitation and rescue centre, Wildlife Rescue, founded nearly 20 years ago in Wazirabad. They are supported by Salik Rehman, who had been a volunteer since 2010, and formally joined the team in 2017. Sen’s first interaction with them gave him his subjects; the documentary traces their love for their winged creatures against the backdrop of a capital that is disintegrating in its socio-economic fabric.
But Sen says he did not want to make a political film, nor did he envision All That Breathes as a wildlife documentary. At the crux of the film are human-animal relationships. “We knew what we did not want to make, so while avoiding those aspects, we landed on a film that is unique in its theme and it is hard for me to describe it beyond the fact that it explores the relationship between all living things,” Sen, who is currently in Tel Aviv, tells us.
Delhi, Sen’s hometown which featured previously in his 2015 feature, Cities of Sleep, is not just an apocalyptic background; it is an intrinsic character in the story itself. It was an urban-nature dissonance that Shaunak has dissected in his second directorial venture. “Cities of Sleep was about looking at the city through the prism of sleep, horizontally and All That Breathes uses a vertical axis, through the birds, to look at Delhi. I was always interested in urban ecologies; we often think of nature as something that happens away from city life. I wanted to understand how animals in metropolises like Delhi adjust to the ecological changes that are often driven by the urban areas,” he adds. There are many striking scenes - rats scurrying in the middle of the city, injured birds being tended to in a small room - that put the lens on the non-human life.
“Delhi is a gaping wound and we’re a tiny Band-Aid on it,” says Nadeem at one point in the documentary. Black Kites, among many other birds, arrive daily at the rescue centre. Rescue calls keep flooding in and lack of funds dictate Nadeem and Muhammad to often turn down requests to travel to the site for treatment. Scenes of compassion are juxtaposed with scenes of religious strife; problems continue to pile on, both for men and animals alike. While it was extremely rigorous, three years were well-spent in making All That Breathes, which had also won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year.