All that Breathes (2022) Grierson Award BFI London Film Festival

October 16th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Shaunak Sen | India, Doc, 91′

In New Delhi nature is adapting far more intuitively to pollution than humans according to this visionary documentary that embodies the stealth of the animal kingdom.

All That Breathes works on three levels: as a melancholic, dreamlike meditation on the vital synergy that exists between all living creatures; as an eco-doc exploring the worsening effects of pollution and climate change in India; or simply, as a human story about two brothers working together to make the world kinder and more humane.

Living in an increasingly violent and overpopulated capital city, Mohammed, Nadeem and their friend/co-worker Salik dedicate their spare time to a home-based mostly self-funded organisation called Wildlife Rescue. For the past two decades they have rehabilitated kites and other birds of prey in the cramped conditions of a makeshift clinic. Key to the relevance of kites is that Muslims believe feeding them will bring some kind of religious reward or sawab. ┬áSince the brothers started the clinic in 2003 the situation has got worse and their patient list is constantly growing, consuming more of the brothers’ time and impacting on their own family wellbeing.

Director Sen creates an evocative portrait from the opening scenes that see ants, mice and rats scurrying around under the neon-lit night skies of Delhi oblivious to the looming violence and public unrest that rages, on a daily level, in the background. Meanwhile, landfill sites are invading the landscape, rivers are drying up and monsoons are worsening causing flooding that brings sewerage out into the open. “Delhi is an open wound, and we are tiny a band-aid” says Nadeem.

The air is becoming so heavy with chemical pollution and smog that birds are tumbling from the skies and often literally crash into one another as they hover over landfill sites, scavenging for food. Crucially, many chemicals are not fully tested for their environmental impact and these birds act as a monitor for toxicity – rather like the famous ‘canary in the coal mine’ back in the Industrial Age. But the brothers have no time for chemical testing and analysis as they face a growing list of avian patients. Cinematographer Ben Bernhard creates a woozy poetic bird’s eye view of a city intoxicated by its own chemical brew. His camera also allows us intimate close-ups of the kites, vulnerable but beady-eyed on the operating table.

Swooping between the real and the surreal Shaunak Sen invites us to gaze at the beauty of the animal kingdom and the ugliness caused by humans, in this decadent apocalyptic world, and draw our own conclusions. MT

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