In New Delhi, two brothers devote their lives to rescuing black kites in Shaunak Sen’s mesmerising documentary


All That Breathes

Source: courtesy of Sundance Institute

‘All That Breathes’

Dir/scr: Shaunak Sen. UK/India. 2022. 91 mins 

Surrounded by evidence of climate catastrophe, two brothers do their small part to heal a broken planet in All That Breathes. Shaunak Sen’s beguiling documentary follows the duo as they rescue and care for thousands of New Delhi’s black kite birds. The brothers’ actions and conversations reflect much bigger concerns for a city reeling from environmental disasters and civil unrest. Sen’s perceptive, melancholic city symphony should attract theatrical interest and the keen attention of documentary channels after its win in Sundance’s world documentary competition. 

Sen’s style is to invite our own thoughts and draw us towards our own conclusions

Sen’s opening images are of Delhi by night. Armies of rats scarper around, feasting on waste. Dogs are caught in the lights from a passing car. The darkness is filled with the sounds of life. Sen quickly establishes that humanity is just one species in a city and a planet shared by creatures great and small. It is a recurring theme throughout the film as we witness squads of ants on the march or cattle stoically wading through streets filled with water and mud. One striking shot later on sees a backdrop of riots and fires with the foreground focus on a determined snail slowly inching forward on its own private journey. Brothers Saud and Nadeem have devoted much of their lives to rescuing kites; a traditional bird they describe as like “a furious reptile from another planet”. We are told that Indian Muslims believe feeding the kites will bring them a religious reward or sawab. 

There is an endless supply of candidates for the care and attention of the brothers and their assistant Salik. Birds are tumbling from the smog-choked skies in record numbers. The brothers take them to a makeshift bird hospital where they tend to their wounds, clean their feathers and perform any minor surgery required.

Sen’s style is to invite our own thoughts and draw us towards our own conclusions. He fills the screen with images of the mess humanity has made of the planet. Rivers are polluted and drying up. Delhi is subject to power cuts followed by monsoons that create flooding and send sewage floating to the surface. Landfill sites are among the biggest in the world. The kites have now replaced vultures as eager consumers of the mountains of garbage discarded by the human population. “Delhi is a gaping wound and we are a tiny Band-Aid on it,” says Nadeem.

Cinematographer Ben Bernhard and his team capture piercing images of individual birds gliding on the wind or beady eyed in their scrutiny of the humans who seek to help them. Birds in flight turn the sky black as they congregate and swarm. Humans also fill the skies with colourful paper and cardboard kites. The addition of blurry, murky smog creates conditions in which it is no wonder that the birds crash into buildings, lose their way or tumble to the ground. Everything has an impact on everything else and creatures either evolve to cope with the conditions or die.

The brothers run a soap dispenser business but it is clear Saud and Nadeem have made many sacrifices to create and maintain their animal rescue service. Families have been neglected and personal ambitions set aside. We gain a sense of this through their conversations. That insight gradually expands throughout the film. They talk of the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan and the growing unease over the proposed changes to the Citizenship Act that seems devised to divide communities and provoke violence. The lives of these two brothers, their friends and families become a window into wider facets of Indian society.

Saud, Nadeem and Salik are engaging and inspirational individuals. Shaunak Sen’s film does justice to their efforts but also allows us to see the bigger picture of a highly connected, complex world that humanity shares but seems intent on destroying.

Production companies: Rise Films, Tangled Bank Studios

International sales: Submarine Entertainment.

Producers: Aman Mann, Shaunak Sen, Teddy Leifer

Cinematography: Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, Saumyananda Sahi

Editing: Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Vedant Joshi

Music: Roger Goula