‘All That Breathes’ review: Shaunak Sen beautifully examines ecological conservation through our most vulnerable of creatures
Under the gray skies of Delhi, a rat scurries around amidst the debris. It finds another rat doing the same. Another joins them, and another, as the camera slowly pans to capture their movement. The opening shot of Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes tells you all you need to know about its setting. This is a dirty place, one where the animal population is just as, if not more, prominent than the human population. It is also a place where the air is oppressive, hanging over the city’s life like a shroud. In the middle of all this stands a small wildlife rescue run by two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud. In a makeshift veterinary hospital in a dingy basement, they work tirelessly to save the black kite birds that fall from the sky on a regular basis, patching them up and mending their broken wings as best they can. The gorgeously-shot documentary follows the brothers as they struggle to keep the wildlife rescue running – from keeping up with the large quantities of injured birds to trying to secure more funding through international grants – all while civil unrest in Delhi builds around them.
While the story of the brothers’ plight is a strong core for the film to be built around, the magic of All That Breathes comes in large part from the filmmaking itself. The film has the aura of a meditative prayer; the long, slow camera pans offer space to reflect on the story and images, which combine some incredible location photography with awe-inspiring close-up views of the birds and other wildlife of Delhi. The cramped spaces in which they had to film led to some striking angles, all of which emphasize the far-from-ideal conditions in which the brothers do their work, making their success feel all the more miraculous. The gray pallor that envelops the city is felt throughout, with only the lights in the wildlife rescue occasionally brightening things up properly, an oasis in the dreary desert of the city. But even within that, beauty is constantly found, usually in the combination of the gray-tinted images with the counterintuitive ethereality of Roger Goula’s score.
Like the action of its title, All That Breathes expands and contracts with each new scene, letting the outside world seep in and augment the film’s themes of ecological conservation before zooming back in on the more mundane problems at the wildlife rescue. As we watch the brothers discussing the news of the day with friends and family at home, and hear protests and fighting in the streets, Sen allows space for the audience to reflect on many issues, including how their own lifestyles are contributing to the problems of animals half a world away. But the film never plays like a polemic, chastising the audience for not living more ethically. Instead, it invites us in to a small corner of the world and gently pushes us to reflect on how we might be able to help.
It’s been said that the problems of a small group of people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and All That Breathes wants the audience to think about the world outside of their immediate experience, whether that is in America, Europe, or even Delhi itself. The world is so much bigger and more complex than most people can comprehend, and Sen does everything he can to open the audience’s hearts and minds, and to ensure that they remain open long after the film is finished. While they may be initially drawn in by the story of the wildlife rescue, they will leave the theater with so much more to think about, from the pollution caused by our increasing reliance on technology designed to be thrown away in a year to how basic human rights are under attack around the world. But the focus on the black kite birds, rehabilitated by two brothers working under adverse conditions, keeps the film feeling light and even joyous. This lightness is what allows the film to work so well, and on so many levels. It allows space for the audience to approach it however they choose, to bring their own perspective and allow it to color the film and its ultimate message. All That Breathes is certainly beautiful aesthetically, but its gentleness towards the audience makes it even more beautiful.
All That Breathes is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and will expand to regional markets in the winter. It will next screen at DOC NYC and be available on HBO Max in 2023.