In Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes,” New Delhi faces a man-made apocalypse of cinematic proportions. A Black Kite, the ubiquitous relative to the hawk family, plummets from the heavens. One becomes a few more, then 28. In cardboard boxes pierced with holes, they’re delivered to a makeshift basement infirmary where Muslim brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad perform the quixotic effort of nursing these birds of prey back to health. That’s if they can be helped at all.
It feels like a cataclysmic event of fiction ripped from Alfred Hitchock’s “The Birds,” but the lamentable reality is that Sen’s film is a documentary. Peppered in the film are moments with the transcendental quality and poise of narrative filmmakers Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Terrence Malick. Sen’s deviation from the exhausted documentary formula — the sitdown interview, shaky handheld shots or slideshow of photographs — can make you forget that this is real. A magic trick three years in the making.
After becoming the first film to win Best Documentary at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals last year, “All That Breathes” is competing for the same award at the Academy Awards this Sunday. Should it win, India’s documentary submission would put Delhilites and the ongoing turmoil within the ecosystem they inhabit center stage at one of the most publicized events of the year.
For the past 20 years, India has been particularly vulnerable to air pollution due to an overwhelming combination of factors such as a rise in population, vehicular exhaust fumes, inefficient transportation systems and regulations, industrialization, annual crop burning — the list goes on. Twenty-one out of 30 cities with the worst air pollution in the world are in India. New Delhi, however, is the most polluted capital city in the world for the fourth year in a row. Fall and winter are the worst times of year.
The states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and the Himalayas mountain range landlock New Delhi, leaving the city with insufficient channels to flush the toxic air. Air pollution has been linked to more than a million deaths each year for the past 10 years in India. Tiny particulate matter infiltrates the lungs and bloodstream and increases the risk of lung cancer, and induces decreased lung function, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease. Wealthier families with air-purifiers, well-sealed rooms and transportation are not much better off than those less fortunate in New Delhi, New York Times reporters found in December 2020. Rich or poor, fine particulate matter exposure is inescapable.
Sen’s documentary is a poetic commemoration of many things, such as brotherhood, national identity, fortitude and the intricate biological community in New Delhi. Given that animals tend to have more sensitive sensory systems than humans, they’re equally, if not more, susceptible to the morbidity that humans face in New Delhi, forcing animals to migrate elsewhere. Stray animals suffer from repetitive vomiting and delayed reactions to their surroundings, while domesticated animals are lethargic and uneasy. Birdwatchers have taken notice for years now, attributing a correlation between pollutants — rapid urbanization not excluded — and the decline in migratory birds. The fine particulate matter is also known to reduce visibility. Just take a look at any number of photos of the New Delhi skyline. Bigger birds are then more likely to collide with buildings or entangle themselves in wires and sharpened competitive kite strings before meeting their untimely demise with the ground below.
Incentivising clean air shouldn’t be as difficult as it has been. Based on Dalberg Advisors’ report from 2021, air pollution cost India $95 billion, or 3% of its GDP, in 2019. Plenty has been initiated to curb toxicity in Delhi over the past decade and “visible strides” have been made, but a slow response to a silent killer continues to fall short of clean air standards and cost Delhi at an unreasonable rate. CBS News in November 2022 called the state of New Delhi “a gas chamber.” As of this month, Delhi’s Air Quality Index is “poor,” and regularly remains several times above the limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Black Kite led Sen to Saud and Shehzad, specifically the bird that dive-bombed into the ground in front of the director in 2018. The unvalued and carnivorous raptor is often depicted in the documentary with as much personality as dignity. Its role in the city’s metabolism, the director says, is invaluable, scavenging through mounds of waste and meats discarded in the capital and nearby landfills. It isn’t an endangered bird (nor is it black). The raptor, blanketed with hues of brown and plumage speckled with white, is as “unloved as the pigeon,” New York Times reporter Oliver Whang learned. ”If not us, then nobody’s going to take care of them,” Nadeem told Whang. Animal hospitals even send their wounded Black Kites to Saud and Shehzad’s cramped facility.
Nadeem posits that they’ve saved 26,000 kites since establishing Wildlife Rescue in 2010, costing them personal funds and precious moments with their families as they continue a prolonged fight for proper funding. Blue paint peels from the walls of the facility and the space is prone to power outages and floods. But Wildlife Rescue’s work has only been a bandaid for a gaping wound, Sen said during a Q&A at USC’s Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre.
Equally an achievement of genre, “All That Breathes” underscores a pervasive and man-made environmental crisis, with political unrest in New Delhi as the backdrop. The film, with its painstaking and often coincidental composition, admires what coexistence has to offer more than it leans on the plight of the city’s ecosystem. Despair is plentiful in this courtside seat to the apocalypse, but “All That Breathes” and Wildlife Rescue accept the challenge of finding the unsuspecting beauty in the dusk of it all.
“I think the world needs more of these Don Quixotes to do these kinds of micro acts and micro gestures,” Sen told the National Audubon Society. “And these become the life rafts for hope.”