All That Breathes
2023, NR, 97 min. Directed by Shaunak Sen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 31, 2023
When a bird falls from the sky onscreen, it’s a sure sign we’re watching a horror movie. When a bird falls from the sky in All That Breathes, it’s a signal that something is wrong with the universe, that there exists a rot in the atmosphere at odds with life.
In the Indian city of Wazirabad, Delhi, birds are falling to the ground in ever-increasing numbers due to the exponential increase in pollution. Three men there have made it their mission to rescue grounded and sick birds. Specifically, they rehabilitate kites, the indigenous birds of prey that are particular victims of the city’s food-chain contamination. Brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad and their associate Salik Rehman collect the fallen birds from all over the city and bring them to their makeshift hospital in the basement of their residence, where they treat the birds’ wings and diseases until they are well enough to be released from coops perched on the building’s roof.
In no way, however, is All That Breathes an ecological polemic, using the kites as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. And despite the film’s lovely shots of the soaring birds and an extended opening sequence of rats rummaging for food in the night, All That Breathes is no spiritual nature documentary either. This 2022 Academy Award Best Documentary nominee is a small-scale study of the men whose calling it is to run their Wildlife Rescue, the only animal hospital in Delhi that will accept the raptors for treatment since the kites have the misfortune to be carnivores in a country governed by religious mandates to shun meat consumption.
What drives the men to their calling remains mysterious. The brothers cite their mother’s storytelling influence for their love of animals and their teenage bodybuilding training for their knowledge of basic kinesiology. As noble and selfless as the three men’s mission is, their activities can also be seen as foolhardy and futile. They risk their own lives to swim out to a wounded kite on an opposite shore, and reject spending time with family in favor of the birds’ welfare. Meanwhile, the political/religious unrest that increasingly swells in the streets around them is an unstated reflection of how the men, like the birds, are also pawns in the system.
All That Breathes is presented more impressionistically than reportorially. This sometimes creates a sense of the documentary underplaying its hand, while at other times it might overplay a point. I suspect this may be due more to director Sen having to work with the raw footage he had rather than footage he wished he had. The film is nevertheless an immersive experience, revealing the details of their rescue missions and the cramped, dingy workings of their basement clinic. The Wildlife Clinic’s catch-as-catch-can approach is ultimately unsustainable in the long-term, and so All That Breathes instills admiration and wonder while also subtly implicating human beings in a responsibility for the upkeep and furtherance of life.
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All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen