“I Wanted to Enchant the Birds and the Increasingly Poisonous Skies They Fall Out Of”: Shaunak Sen on His Sundance-Debuting Doc All That Breathes
“You don’t care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship. We’re all a community of air.” Those are the poetic words heard in the closing voiceover of Shaunak Sen’s mesmerizing All That Breathes. World-premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition (January 21) at this year’s Sundance, the film’s an ambitiously intricate study of the intersection of environmental collapse, religious tension, and the love of two Muslim brothers for a feathered scavenger unnervingly falling from a smoggy Delhi sky.
With stunning cinematography and utmost attention to the tiniest detail (down to mosquitos buzzing over a puddle), Sen (Cities of Sleep) follows Wildlife Rescue cofounders Nadeem and Saud (and their equally dedicated volunteer Salik), self-taught bird doctors on an increasingly Sisyphean quest to save the black kite, a meat-eating raptor that can’t be treated at the local animal hospital because it’s “non-vegetarian.” And do so amidst funding woes and power outages, choking pollution and political clashes in the streets. It’s a tale of high drama in which the avian stars serve as canaries in a toxic global coal mine soon to engulf us all.
Filmmaker spoke to the New Delhi-based director and film scholar, who focused on “urban ecologies” during a 2018 Cambridge fellowship, to learn all about All That Breathes and the lessons he took away from an unheralded bird of prey.
Filmmaker: So how did this doc come about? How did you meet Nadeem and Saud?
Sen: Before ever meeting the brothers Nadeem and Saud I had a vague sense of the visual texture and “feeling” of the film-to-be. Living in New Delhi in recent years means feeling part of a very singular sensorium. A dystopic picture-postcard of gray, monotone skies laminating the city, and the perpetual awareness of breathing in noxious air.
Whenever you look up, peppered in this sky are tiny lazy dots — the magnificent raptors called the black kites. I wanted to make something that captured this broader feeling — of the sky, the birds, and this broader sense of all kinds of lifeforms adjusting and improvising as the air conditioner of spaceship Earth goes awry. I also wanted — again, in the ineffably vague way that a film initially emerges at the back of one’s mind — to make a fairytale that has gone horribly bad. For audiences to step out of the theaters and immediately look up at the sky. I wanted to enchant the birds, and the increasingly poisonous skies they fall out of.
I began looking for people who had a profound relationship with the birds and skies of Delhi. We chanced upon the remarkable work of Nadeem and Saud in the media. The inherent cinematic quality of their world was obvious from the very first instant. In a tiny derelict basement garage, filled with heavy metal-welding machines and industrial decay, were these magisterial yet vulnerable creatures being treated. I learned about their childhood love affair with the black kites, and the jaw-dropping humble origins from which they started saving the birds. From this commenced a three-year-long process of shooting and focused friendship.
Filmmaker: I was really taken with the film’s majestic cinematography and inventive camerawork generally, especially the use of pans. Can you talk a bit about collaborating with your DP Ben Bernhard (who I believe also works with Victor Kossakovsky)?
Sen: I’ve been an enormous admirer of Ben Bernhard’s work in Victor Kossakovsky’s films like Aquarela and ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, and was thrilled to work with him. Together we developed some of the foundational aspects of the film’s visual grammar.
One of those aspects was what we in the crew shorthanded as “life writ large,” i.e., shooting nonhuman lives in the city. This meant shooting snails, rats, horses, monkeys, centipedes and so on, interacting with the city environment. The idea was to show the simultaneity of various stakes of life, jostling cheek by jowl, adjusting to the extreme conditions of Delhi. One of the ways of showing this co-presence visually was the cinematic “reveal” by way of slow languid pans or languorous tilts or shift focuses.
Over time this congealed into a grammar for the film itself. After Ben’s schedule clashed with the second Covid wave in India, he unfortunately had to leave and Riju Das joined us as the DP. This style of slow pans, and use of slow slider-based shots even to shoot human behavior, was a form that evolved with Riju, who ended up shooting the majority of the film.
Apart from this, we were also certain that we wanted to reproduce the ravenous love that the brothers had for the kite as children in how we visually represented them. I wanted them to come across as majestic, otherworldly magical creatures. We devised different contraptions, lighting strategies, and shot with old Leica lenses, to give that cinematic look to the kites. In contrast, I also wanted the grey skies, and the garbage mountain to look evocative, fleshy and in a strange way “beautiful.” All in all the idea was to find a controlled, tripoded, set-pieced, aesthetically bold style to film both the characters, their exceptional homes, the city and the birds.
Filmmaker: All three of your main characters, including the brothers’ indispensable volunteer Salik, strike me as quite private individuals. Were they comfortable opening up to the camera? Did they set rules for what could (and couldn’t) be filmed?
Sen: Of course the primary labor in most documentaries in the first month is not so much about the eventual visual object or its thematic underpinnings, but the labor of building human relationships and trust. A film means embarking on a three year long relationship – replete with affection, annoyance, exasperation. The whole gamut of an intense relationship.
This means actively being aware of what is okay to shoot, what is not, and keeping the space of dialogue perpetually actively open with the characters. The first few days of the shoot are often not very usable in terms of material because people are too conscious of the camera. It’s only afterwards, when people get bored of your presence and the camera recedes into the background, that the genuinely usable material comes to the fore. We have a joke in the crew that it’s only when you get the first yawn from a character that you know you’re getting genuinely authentic material. But in this case I was also interested in orchestrated, lyrical set pieces that involved characters opening up about deep, vulnerable and otherwise inaccessible parts of their lives. For instance, Nadeem speaks about his deep dissatisfaction with life here, his insecurities, and his desire for newer fresher things, all shot in heavily stylized, designed sequences. This meant of course years of intense active listening and friendship, and his being familiar with shooting styles and techniques, for us to be able to get the perfect take.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene in which one of the brothers mentions a (February 2020) New York Times profile, which seems to have turned on the funding spigot for their Wildlife Rescue. Honestly, I find it rather maddening that so much of the developing world remains dependent on the Western media spotlight to even survive. So as an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and film scholar based in New Delhi, do you yourself have a complicated (ambivalent?) relationship with the West?
Sen: The relationship with the Occident is obviously a fairly ambivalent one on multiple levels. It is frequently a dominant source of resources and validation via festivals and reviews, etc., for various films; and this flow of soft (and hard) power obviously has some disquieting features. But it isn’t just a straightforward or simplistically deleterious presence. For instance, for various films stemming from extreme political (particularly parochial) regimes, this patronage from outside takes the shape of more productive forms of companionship and solidarity. So while acknowledging the power differentials involved, it’s also important to take into account contextual nuances that make each film’s relationship to the global West different and specific.
This is also a question about whether the film itself contributes to the problematic or exoticizing or patronizing images of the Global South; whether the awareness of the film’s reception in the West makes one peddle harmfully narrow cardboard cliches. For me, everything from the aesthetic form, to the choice of investing characters with depth, profundity and intellect, to the edit choices I make, are about maintaining integrity and dignity to not flatten the image. The New York Times story did indeed contribute to the popularity of the brothers, but it would be massively overstating it to say that it was life-changing. Various other factors changed and developed their fate, of which that report was one. In short, the West can be simultaneously an uneasy shadow as well as an enabling ally, depending on the context.
Filmmaker: What are your — and your protagonists’ — ultimate goals for the film?
Sen: It feels impossible for me to delineate concrete distinct goals for the film. It ranges from making a cinematic piece that intuitively and with beauty resonates something of our local zeitgeist; to pushing the Indian documentary form in more lyrical directions; to more personal ones, where a vague evanescent glow at the back of my head turns into a tangible experience that exists and travels in the world.
I think the brothers want to share their knowledge, receive more knowledge and make a bid for more resources so that they can improve their conditions of work.