Sundance 2022: All That Breathes

Directed by Shaunak Sen

Written by Michael Clawson

At one point in “All That Breathes”, a compassionate, environmentally concerned documentary set in Delhi, India, the elegant mode of flight that distinguishes birds of prey from other bird species is described in simple, but poetic terms. Whereas some birds appear to flutter strenuously as they fly, birds of prey, or kite, as the movie refers to them, look more like they are comfortably “swimming” through the air above us. Likewise, “All That Breathes” is a documentary whose unhurried, regal flow makes some of its cinematic brethren seem comparably fitful.

Directed by Shaunak Sen and a selection in Sundance 2022’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, the film centers on the scrappy but determined bird rescue efforts of several men living in Delhi. Slow camera pans across the city’s urban landscape reveal, pollution in the region is dire: swarms of rats canvas the large swaths of land that are littered with garbage, lakes and riverbeds are strewn with debris, and as the city’s air quality deteriorates, kite fall from the sky in sickness at a distressing rate. Despite an ongoing struggle to find money to fund their modest veterinarian operation, brothers Saud and Nadeem work tirelessly to save every wounded kite that’s been brought down to earth by ecological degradation. 

Saud and Nadeem consider their relationship with kite on both humanistic and spiritual grounds. It is said that when you feed kite, religious credit is earned, and the beautiful, regal creatures consume not just the food out of your hand, but also the difficulties that nag at you. More generally, however, the brothers empathically see no hierarchy in the animal kingdom, considering kite and their habitat as in as urgent need of care and attention as the humans they live beside. Some of their comments about this gracious worldview might have felt platitudinous, were it not for the tremendous, hope-inspiring devotion that their actions lay bare.

While tenderness towards kite colors the film’s foreground, the background is more volatile. Political tension rages off-screen as radio broadcasts describe a new law that bans Muslims from entering India, a recurring topic of conversation among Saud and Nadeem’s family. If, despite its earnestness and controlled filmmaking, the documentary never quite achieves greatness with its portraiture of animals and humans coexisting, it does possess multiple layers of interest.

“All That Breathes” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the Sundance Film Festival.

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