“Delhi is a gaping wound,” says Mohammad Saud in director Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes. The documentary opens at night, fixed on a horde of rats racing across an otherwise arid wasteland. For longer than expected, Sen leaves the audience with the vermin before introducing the skies, narrowing in on the black kite—a beautiful raptor essential to the city’s increasingly unstable ecosystem. Across the city, the black kites carry a reputation as a scavenger, subsisting on the city’s mountainous landfills, but despite this, Saud and his brother Nadeem Shehzad revere these birds. The brothers devote their lives to protecting these birds, working tirelessly to shield them from Delhi’s pollutants and healing thousands of injured birds in their infirmary. Despite the job’s thanklessness, the brothers have saved nearly 25,000 black kites.
All That Breathes documents Saud and Shehzad’s devotion to the black kites, exploring the bird’s invaluable role in Delhi, but Sen composes a far more intimate narrative of the two brothers. The documentary, condensed into 90ish minutes from about 400 hours of rough rootage, captures a gentle, touching story of two brothers bound together by a similar devotion. However, Saud feels content working with Delhi and Shehzad hopes to leave for the United States to learn more and return with more knowledge. Saud views this as abandonment. The tension simmers as Salik—a volunteer enamored by the black kites—attends to the injured birds with a touching graciousness. All That Breathes teeters on the brink of sentimentality but never extends further than brief glances, because the unrelenting task of protecting Delhi’s fragile ecosystem remains.
Sen captures a compassionate microcosm in the infirmary, persisting despite the intensifying sectarian violence and the collapsing Delhi ecosystem happening outside. All That Breathes presents a poetic, intensely beautiful story so precise that, at times, it feels staged but instead emerges from hours of painstaking care. And this film emphasizes the importance of that seemingly mundane yet infinitely important sensitivity, in spite of social, fraternal, environmental, or quotidian strains. 97 min.