All That Breathes

All That Breathes is an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature and with good reason. The film follows two brothers, Saud and Nadeem, and their friend, Salik, who manage a bird hospital of black kites in Delhi. Black kites are ubiquitous in Delhi and are part of the urban landscape as are other animals like dogs, rats, cows, pigs, chickens, frogs, and insects. The film opens with the camera following rats and other night creatures in the city’s cluttered and ubiquitous rubbish heaps. The first human comes into focus only a few minutes into the film after this extensive focus on the animal life. From that opening shot, the viewer sees Delhi as the animals experience it. This Delhi is also smog-filled ( a character notes that the Air quality is at 700 on a particular day) and the smog downs many soaring kites. These men rescue the injured kites and bring them to their makeshift hospital that shares space with their other business, tools, and cars in a ramshackle multi-story building. Many shots show the brothers climbing steep stairs with boxes containing injured kites or trays of ground meat to feed the convalescing birds and underscore how much they do with so few resources.

We follow the brothers through their daily lives. They swim across a freezing and polluted river to rescue an injured bird, they visit a butcher to find cheap meat to grind for the birds, and they advice neighbors being attacked by a nesting kite on how to live alongside the protective mother. We watch them gently hydrate sick birds, wrap injured wings, and steadily care for the birds until they are well enough to be returned to the skies. Sometimes these birds don’t survive and the men bury them with dignity. We see these men raise funds, build better cages for the sick birds, and slowly expand the hospital.

Even if this film were just about these injured birds, it would be soulful. The camera lovingly captures the expressions in the eyes of the birds—curiosity, pain, trust—and the gentleness of the humans who care for them. But it is much more. The brothers Nadeem and Saud talk about the philosophy they learned from their mother—the kinship of all creatures who share the air, the kinship of all that breathes. This simple belief frames their entire life. At the same time, the film captures subtly the growing anti-Muslim politics in India. The family talk about the citizenship act that sought to make Muslims second-class citizens and the rising protests in India. Nadeem’s wife shares that she will be joining the protests of the women in Shaheen Bagh and asks her husband if he will come. He simply tells her to go because there are too many birds needing care. From that simple exchange we see the contrast between the brothers’ philosophy of kinship across species and the bigotry of nationalist policies. We hear of Nadeem getting a scholarship to study in the United States and the final scene in the film is of Nadeem on a video call from somewhere in the United States. This eloquent film asks us to consider the relationship between animals and humans and how unchecked industrialization ( a cornerstone of the globalization policies embraced by the Indian government) impacts all that breathes. We are also invited to ponder the links between jingoistic politics, ecology, and everyday life of animals and people. The film is lyrical and despite the depressing state of affairs in Delhi, the soaring kites that overcome adversity and the intimacies of the animal and human world offer us hope. The film deserves all the accolades it has been receiving.

All That Breathes. Shaunak Sen (Dir); Stars Salik Rehman, Mohammad Saud, Nadeem Shehzad. A Submarine and Sideshow Deluxe Production, 2022. Streaming on HBO Max.

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