By C.J. Hirschfield
(January 17, 2023)
The Oscar folks recently announced their shortlist of 15 films that will advance in the Documentary Feature Film Category for the upcoming Academy Awards, out of 144 that were eligible. It’s an impressive list that includes excellent features on Russian activist Alexei Navalny, iconic poet/singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, and two fearless volcanologists who made an exciting life together.
And while I think it’s a long shot that a film about two brothers in New Delhi who have devoted their lives to rescuing injured birds will ultimately win, HBO’s All That Breathes deserves a place on the distinguished and competitive lineup for its sensitive portrayal of family, its reverence and respect for the natural world, and its warning about the dangers of religious hatred that divides us.Director Shaunak Sen and director of photography Ben Bernhard take their time in introducing us to the world in which Nadeem and Saud live, only slowly revealing its context. They begin with closeups of the teeming wildlife (crickets, rats, monkeys, mongooses, mosquitos) that make their home near what we later learn might be the largest landfill in the world. We’re teased to wonder: exactly what is in the many boxes that the brothers are constantly bringing home to their basement? The answer: kites, an impressive bird of prey that numbers over 10,000 in one of the world’s most populated cities, and that are literally dropping out of the sky because of the toxic air. Kites are essential to the ecosystem of the heavily populated city, and the comparison to the canary in the coal mine is not lost on us.
The so-called “Kite Brothers” rely on donations to keep their hospital/rescue operation going, and their commitment is extraordinary. Scenes in which they willingly risk their lives to save a bird, and painstakingly seek out and hand-grind meat to keep them alive are just accepted as their unspoken and critical mission.
Outside of their home, which often loses electricity, there is civil unrest in the streets, as religious riots result in fires and shootings. The director’s choice to show us scenes of nature accompanied by the sound of humans behaving violently illustrates the brothers’ belief that “One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes.”
The fate of the brothers’ operation looks bleak when they are denied funding by a foundation, but a positive article in the New York Times brings attention, and ultimately the money they need to build a larger rooftop hospital.
When a potential separation of the brothers becomes a reality, we are touched by the beautiful bond that they share, and wonder what their futures might hold.
A poetic documentary as well done as All That Breathes reminds us that we can care much about people—and animals—whom we may never meet, but will definitely not forget.
All That Breathes is currently streaming on HBOMax.
SHAUNAK SEN is a filmmaker and film scholar based in New Delhi, India. Cities of Sleep (2016), his first feature-length documentary, was shown at various major international film festivals (including DOK Leipzig, DMZ Docs and the Taiwan International Documentary Festival, among others) and won 6 international awards. Shaunak received the IDFA Bertha Fund (2019), the Sundance Documentary Grant (2019), the Catapult Film Fund (2020), the Charles Wallace Grant, the Sarai CSDS Digital Media fellowship (2014), and the Films Division of India fellowship (2013). He was also a visiting scholar at Cambridge University (2018) and has published academic articles in Bioscope, Widescreen and other journals.
My first feature-length documentary, Cities of Sleep, explored New Delhi through the lens of sleep. By focusing on the ‘sleep mafia’ of Delhi (these are people who control who sleeps where, for how long and what quality of sleep – for the homeless), I leveraged sleep as a political, philosophical and aesthetic prism through which to consider the city. As a method, I am deeply interested in looking at everyday banal phenomena that usually occupy the fringes of our vision, as objects of rigorous study. Through this film, I want to harness the enchantment of the sky. I want audiences to leave theatres and instinctively look up – to think of the sky and the birds in it as novel, wonderfully alien things.
At the most nascent level, my interest in the ‘more-than-human’ (as it is called in geography terminology) began during a fellowship in Cambridge University in 2018, under a research project called ‘Urban Ecologies.’ I began developing a deep interest in the behavioral and evolutionary changes in animals in Delhi prompted by air pollution. Coupled with this was a sense of unease many of us felt towards the escalating social tension in India. Focusing closely on the figure of the black kite opened up not just the environmental but also the most pressing socio-political dramas of our times.
I am not interested in making either conventional ‘nature-based’ programming or a ‘wildlife’ documentary. My focus is neither limited to the life of the human protagonists nor the avian ones. The city itself – replete with the many human-animal ensembles in it – features in the film as a character.
In recent months, Nadeem and Saud have felt under siege from factors other than Delhi’s ongoing environmental catastrophe. The family grapples with the seismic ecological and political changes taking place around them and their relationship with their work comes under severe stress.
The film experiences many of these macro-level changes through intimate details, as the family processes and deals with them. Sometimes through trepidation, sometimes through instinctive fear, sometimes with wry humour, occasionally with ugly in-fighting, but mostly – with quiet courage.
– Shaunak Sen
Factual America podcast
Read the Indiewire review and listen to their Filmmaker Toolkit podcast.
To find his story director Shaunak Sen tells Indiewire’s Chris O’Fait that he tossed a year’s worth of footage.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”