The film ruminates on the interconnectedness of the world through the work of two brothers in New Delhi.
Over the course of three years, director Shaunak Sen filmed brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud as they do the work they have dedicated their lives to: tending to wounded black kites, a medium-sized bird that fills the skies of New Delhi. They work in a makeshift center and are known well enough in their community that people often bring them wounded birds. There is no shortage of birds that need Nadeem and Muhammad’s help, as the extreme air pollution in New Delhi causes birds to literally drop dead and fall from the sky. All That Breathes shows the best and worst of humanity alongside the persistence of nature.
Sen opens the film with a long tracking shot as the camera moves across a city space at night. We watch rats scurry about, investigating every bit of debris they come across in their search for food. As the camera moves, we grow attuned to the sounds of not just the rats, but the dogs barking in the distance, the bugs chirping away in the dark, the birds flying around, and, finally, the hustle and bustle of the city traffic. The film is full of these moments that find the intersection of humanity and nature and show how the two sides impact each other. One moment in particular sums up the dichotomy perfectly: The brothers and their friend, Salik Rehman, discover that the black kites are bringing cigarette butts into their enclosures as a means of repelling parasites.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear that nature is doing its best to cope with the hand humans have dealt them. In New Delhi, the vultures that help clear waste have fled the area or perished due to the extreme levels of air pollution. The black kites have come in their place and serve a vital role in keeping this ecosystem running. Without being overtly political, All That Breathes makes it all too clear the degree to which humans are harming the planet, making the efforts of Nadeem, Muhammad, and Salik—and people like them all over the world—seem like scooping water out of a sinking ship.
In addition to the environmental strains like pollution and a high population, New Delhi adds civil unrest to the equation. In one of the film’s more macabre moments, there’s a discussion about nuclear bombs and what the kites would do after humans kill each other. It’s as funny as it is morbid, mixing well with some of the more overtly humorous scenes, like when Salik and Muhammad strip to their underwear to wade across cold water to save an imperiled bird. In another moment, Salik is standing on the roof of a building and a kite flies by and snatches the glasses right off his face in one seamless move. All That Breathes is full of moments like these, quick instances that reiterate how intricately entwined everything in the world is.
There is a pair of quotes from the film’s narration that stuck with me as I watched. The first is “nature is cruel.” The second one comes from a longer quote and gives the film its title: “One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes.” It serves as a reminder that the world is an incredible and necessarily unforgiving place, and the best we can do is help each other get along as best we can.
All That Breathes is a remarkable documentary. It’s a pensive rumination on the interconnectedness of man and nature. It’s an intimate film showing the efforts of two brothers who have dedicated their lives to helping injured birds. It’s also an expansive film, showing the incalculable devastation man is capable of and the miraculous ways in which nature adapts. The film has been feted worldwide and is the first documentary to claim top prizes at both Cannes and Sundance, and it’s now available for all to watch at home via HBOMax.