All That Breathes

A mesmerising film about the fragility and resilience of Delhi, the bond between brothers and incredible raptor birds.

Is it any wonder All That Breathes is in contention for the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards?

From its silent opening images, as cameras crawl across landfill in Delhi raided by dogs and rats in the still of the night, you know you’re in for something special.

Artfully directed by Shaunak Sen, this is an environmental film told through the rescue of black kite birds. But it is also a human story about the bond between two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, who run a struggling bird rescue clinic.

Both grew up respecting these birds of prey where their noble work is believed to lead to religious credits. Their late mother also instilled a philosophy not to differentiate between “all that breathes” whether human, animal or vegetation.

In Delhi’s heaving underbelly Nadeem and Mohammad operate a crumbling bird clinic in their small home. Assisted by colleague Salik Rehman, they rescue the raptor birds from rooftops, streets and rivers, providing medical care on an operating table where the electricity shuts down without notice.

The kites, which hover effortlessly in mesmerising circles above the city, provide a major function to Delhi by feeding of its expansive waste. Yet to many locals these creatures are treated with disdain. The brothers began their own hospital when veterinarians refused to offer care to non-vegetarian birds.

But Delhi’s urban sprawl means pollution is endagering their world. As the kites try to adapt to a fragile ecosystem, they are literally falling from the skies.

Devoted to their life’s work, the brothers are also in dire need of financial assistance to remain viable, with Nadeem constantly applying for funding from intenational groups. In the face of ongoing rejection, with failing equipment, crowded space, and families to feed, the brothers despair over a bleak outlook.

“What will we do now?” one asks.

“What we’ve always done. Get by somehow,” he is told.

Amid their own struggles is a political backdrop of refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, civil unrest over India’s constitution and riots on the streets. Much of this is is related through the eyes of the brothers and their family, with glimpses of TV and radio news… just enough for the viewer to understand the encroaching threat, only 2km from the doors of the bird clinic.

While Saud finds his nirvana from working with the kites, Nadeem still yearns for more.. education, travel, a thirst for knowledge.

“Darwin and Newton were my heroes, now I spend all day on Excel sheets,” he says after endless funding applications.

“Delhi is a gaping wound and we’re a tiny bandaid on it.”

Young Salik is also devoted to the work -watch for the moment a raptor steals his spectacles from his head – but instead of anger on his part, there is quiet awe.

Director Shaunak Sen’s sensitivity with the material is transfixing, and the cinematography by Ben Bernhard, Riju Das & Saumyananda Sahi is exquisite. From caterpillars to jumbo jets in a single shot, you feel the vastness of Delhi. Creatures of all sizes are respected by the camera in hypnotic vision that belies the surrounds. In ugliness, it finds beauty.

And then there are the birds, supreme, almost prehistoric in appearance.

Up close or circling from afar, they never fail to captivate. No wonder these brothers want to protect them. You will too.

All That Breathes screens 8:30pm Wednesday on FOX Docos and Binge.

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