Often more than 10 times worse than in any other city on Earth, the air in Delhi is so toxic and inhospitable to life itself that birds regularly fall from the sky like feathered rain. The creatures have done their best to compensate for other symptoms of pollution — one species began singing to each other at a higher pitch in order to pierce through the industrial noise, while another started using discarded cigarette butts as parasite repellent — but there’s no substitute or silver lining for the absence of breathable oxygen.
If the people of Delhi are naturally confronted with the same crisis, they are even less equipped to live with it. Unlike the city’s teeming wildlife, the human population is rendered helpless by its ability (or its need) to assign blame. As a disembodied voice puts it towards the end of Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes,” a vital and transfixing work of urban ecology about two Muslim brothers who share an uncommonly holistic perspective of the world around them: “You don’t care for things because they share the same country, religion, or politics. Life is kinship. We’re all a community of air.” In Delhi, every part of that community — from the flies in the gutter puddles to the black kites that swim through the skies above without struggles — is choking to death as one.
Soft-spoken siblings Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad have been sensitive to the situation since they were boys. Their late mother raised her sons to see the dignity in all living things, and their mutual affection for the black kite — a bird as common to Delhi as the pigeon is to New York, and similarly appreciated by its citizens — would eventually inspire Saud and Shehzad to abandon dreams of professional body-building in order to redirect their knowledge of muscles and tendons towards saving their favorite birds. Wildlife Rescue, the formal name for the ramshackle veterinary operation the brothers run out of their squalid half-basement in Wazirabad Village, has saved more than 20,000 black kites over the last 20 years.
“All That Breathes” is understandably besotted with these eccentric men who’ve devoted so much of their lives to the welfare of a creature that most of their neighbors would sooner ignore. Eeven Saud and Shehzad are liable to think of the kites as a nuisance, as we see in an early moment when one of the birds steals a pair of glasses from their child-like intern Salik, who mourns their loss for the entire film.
And yet, anyone familiar with Sen’s “Cities of Sleep” will know better than to expect a traditional documentary portrait that centers its subjects as forces for good in the universe — heroes in the unilateral war that we’re all fighting for and against our climate — and privileges the inspirational sentiment of their struggle above the poisoned dissonance that surrounds it on all sides. On the contrary, every facet of Sen’s film reflects Saud and Shehzad’s belief that humans aren’t the most important members of their ecosystem, but rather the most isolated. “Violence is always an act of communication,” one of the brothers says, and “All That Breathes” is determined to illustrate how two peoples’ failure to listen to each other is no different than one species’ failure to acknowledge the rest of its environment — that each aspect of Delhi is sharing the same broken conversation, whether they recognize that or not.
This meditative and occasionally shapeless film speaks to that idea from the inside out, eschewing the “this could’ve been a podcast” approach of the average climate doc in favor of an imagistic style designed to locate Saud and Shehzad’s place in their community, as well as their community’s place in the city around it. Shading his quiet characters with dashes of introverted voiceover (in a way that seems to approximate what a Wong Kar-Wai documentary might be like), Sen favors poetic abstraction over personal detail.
“Have you ever had vertigo looking at the sky?,” is as much as one of the brothers will volunteer about his affection for the kites circling above. We’re told that the Saud and Shehzad cared for these birds because no one else would, because the local animal hospital refuses to treat meat-eating animals (in contrast to the siblings’ Muslim tradition, which holds that birds take away your sins with the meat you provide them). We listen as the voiceover likens Delhi to a stomach, the kites serving as its microbes. We watch, at great length, as the brothers nearly drown in their effort to rescue a single kite from the foul waters of the Yamuna River.
And yet, we’re left to infer even the most basic information about Saud and Shehzad, like whether they have wives or children. When Shehzad mentions his desire to leave this work behind and stretch his wings — a beautifully staged moment that dissolves the border that gives physical dimension to invisible thoughts in the same way as the camerawork restores visual primacy to overlooked creatures — we realize that his wanderlust is one of the only unique things the film has shared about him.
There is so much life in “All That Breathes” that you won’t be left clamoring for more personality. “Gunda” cinematographer Ben Bernhard hits upon a miraculous visual language that relies on severe focus racks and the redrawing of physical space to emphasize the shared nature of seemingly human scenes.
One shot of people gathering around a firepit blurs until you can only see a previously invisible snail crawling across the extreme foreground of the frame. Another, straight out of Janusz Kaminski’s fever dreams, watches insects slurp from a puddle as a plane screams through the reflection a few thousand feet overhead. Roger Goula’s orgiastic synth score (a little Philip Glass, a lot of Dan Deacon) and Niladri Shekhar Roy and Moinak Bose’s visceral sound recording (brace for an entire chorus of rats) complement the micro-attention of the camerawork by hearing a tumult of life in even the most unassuming frame.
If it’s inevitable that such a detail-obsessed portrait occasionally seems overwhelmed by its options, death has an unfortunate way of refocusing our attention, and so it goes with Sen’s non-hierarchical look at Delhi life. “All That Breathes” doesn’t look directly at the horror that erupts from the city’s anti-Muslim fervor — it watches the violence foment on TV, then later confronts us with unsettling still images of the destruction it left behind — but it’s a testament to the film’s slow-building effect that this tragic climax feels like a testament to the urgency of Wildlife Rescue, and not just a threat to the people who run it.
“All That Breathes” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.