Friday , April 12 2024
All That Breathes, black kites, NYFF60, wildlife rescue
'All That Breathes' at NYFF60 (coursey of Sideshow, Submarine Deluxe Documentary Films)

New York Film Festival Documentary Review: ‘All That Breathes’

In All That Breathes, filmmaker Shaunak Sen creates a lyrical and cinematic tone poem. Visually, he focuses on the beauty of natural life amidst the urban ugliness that would choke its survival. Concentrating on the overcrowded, air- and water-polluted city of New Delhi, India, he immerses himself in a fascinating story that merges climate change, political corruption and religious divisiveness with activism and a positive philosophical outlook.

A Focus on Two Muslim Brothers

With poetic sensibility Sen recognized the vitality of the two Muslim brothers who formed a wildlife rescue operation to save black kites. Stunning cinematography propels the film’s wonder. Sen represents the two sides of climate change through the brothers’ experiences with the birds. He shows that one either works to save those who fall into climate change’s destructive path, or profits from destruction while denying one’s own imminent demise because of it.

With jump cuts, glorious imagery, voice-over narration and extended sequences of cinéma vérité, Sen’s story of brothers Nadeem and Saud encourages us. Both began their journey with the native bird of New Delhi when they were teenage bodybuilders. Though Nadeem narrates, Saud contributes his humor to Sen’s documentary of their trials and obstacles. As a result their story inspires us to never give up.

Nadeem describes how both brothers took up the mantle of animal rescue in 2010 when they noticed an injured bird. Decisively, they took it to a veterinary clinic. The clinician, a Hindu, refused to give the bird medical treatment. Why? Rejecting its significance to the ecosystem and all life, he claimed it wasn’t a “vegetarian bird.”

Discrimination is one backdrop of All That Breathes

Disagreeing with this discriminatory religious response to an innocent creature, the boys took the bird’s rescue upon themselves. Following their mother’s adjuration that one shouldn’t differentiate among “all that breathes,” they saved it. Because of her love and wisdom, they set on a course to rescue other wounded creatures.

But black kites, considered a noble bird, held a special fascination for them. As New Delhi’s pollution grew to dangerous levels, humans and kites succumbed to the the toxic atmosphere. Unable to use their wings, the kites fell from the sky in great numbers. With weakening immune systems, the birds struggled to adapt. But the poisoned air and water overcame them. As they were considered a nuisance bird, many in the culture didn’t care about their survival. Thus when manja, the dangerous cotton threads of paper kites, sliced through their wings incapacitating them, most people ignored the result. But the birds’ plight touched the brothers’ hearts.

Black Kites are a Blessing

Apparently feeding black kites earns sawab, religious credit or reward for Muslims. When kites eat the meat offered, they “eat away the difficulties” of the one who feeds them. Ironically, there aren’t enough rescued kites to devour the problems for Muslims in New Delhi. Tying in religious persecution to the brothers’ story, Sen notes the CAA protests and riots in North East Delhi, just a few miles from their home.

By degrees, with visual imagery and gorgeous music as his imperative, Sen explores how the brothers heal the kites on their rooftop and in their small, closed-in garage basement where they make soap. Sometimes Nadeem and Saud take in as many as 28 kites a day, working as veterinarians. Bathing, bandaging and operating on the birds first, they then rehabilitate them, strengthening them with meat purchased with their own meager cash reserves and donations, painstakingly grinding it up for their patients.

Spotlight on the brothers’ trials

Laboring in sweltering heat and cramped quarters, in one scene Nadeem expresses his fury at the broken-down grinding machine they can’t afford to fix. The brothers often argue and complain. Nadeem says that one day he will have a heart attack under the pressure of the stifling, grimy conditions, and is only partially joking. Nevertheless they persist in their vital mission.

With philosophical good will, the brothers believe that life itself is kinship. Sen mirrors their philosophy with superb images he captures of the natural world in the dense, grungy, urban environs. Revealing the deleterious effects of climate change, Sen shoots roiling floods that swamp the streets. He records feral pigs running in the flood waters which humans, too, must traverse. As monkeys hang off wires, rats, snakes and turtles swarm over garbage mountains. All forage for delicacies or tools to help them survive. Indeed, kites select cigarette butts to use as their insect repellent.

Striking shot compositions enhance All That Breathes

With delicate and sensitive compositions, Sen’s closeups enhance the philosophy of the worthiness of all living creatures. Inclusively he shoots insects going about their business. Nothing escapes his lens as he identifies the urban ecosystem of co-dependent species. Through Sen’s perspective, living creatures shine their beauty if we look closely. As those that breathe, they cohabit with humans in an advanced yet wild, ancient yet modern setting.

One composition captures a centipede crawling across a puddle. The tiny pool of water reflects the blue sky and a passenger jet flying by. Sen merges the great contrasts among the modalities of different living beings. Acknowledging this diversity and contrast makes all the difference. In dismissing it, one dismisses oneself. The interconnectedness of all living beings is Sen’s and the brothers’ special message.

Global social and environmental issues

Exploring these rescuers through long visual sequences accompanied by haunting music by Roger Goula, All that Breathes strikes one’s heart. The problems Sen highlights are universal. Activists fight against air and water pollution hidden by corporations for decades. Dwindling resources and the effects of climate disaster grow with each passing year. Thus, New Delhi’s issues as a dangerous city with a toxic environment and escalating violence between Hindus and Muslims resonates. Animals coexist as well as they can with man-made toxicity that attempts to render them invisible. Without intervention, climate change will do the same to human populations.

This award-winning film uplifts, revealing the possibility that we can fight climate change on our own level. How the brothers continue to struggle to save the kites to this day embodies the worthiness of this cause, which celebrates life in all its beautiful forms.

Check for ticket updates online. The film is in wide release October 14, 2022.

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