All That Breathes (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Of Nature and Human Life in Delhi

Documentary film “All That Breathes”, which won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year and then received an Oscar nomination in last month, is an extraordinary piece of work you should not miss. Mainly via two brothers who have cared for thousands of black kites in their big city for many years, the documentary gives us a vivid and meditative look into nature and human life, and we are reminded of how inseparable they are from each other.

At the beginning, the documentary effectively sets the tone with its impressive opening scene. While the camera slowly and pensively pans across on the ground level, we see lots of wild rodents scurrying around here and there for their dinner at one trashy spot in Delhi, India at one night, and then this fascinating moment is suddenly punctuated by a blinding sign of urban human life passing right next to the spot.

And that is just one of many moments showing how nature keeps trying to thrive even in the middle of a huge city like Delhi, which has been infamous for its serious environment pollution problems. While the sky is often dim and cloudy, the water is not so clean to say the least, but the animals and plants in the city continue their circle of life despite that, and there is a sublime scene when the camera looks at a shabby apartment building at first and then shifts onto a nearby stream where several different wild animals are spending their evening.

One of the most notable wild animals in the city is black kites, local predatory birds which often fly around in the sky above the city, and these birds have been always important to Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud since their childhood years. During that time, these two brothers usually looked at the sky filled with countless black kites ready to be fed by the Muslim citizens in the city who believe that feeding black kites would expel troubles, and these flying birds was an intimate symbol of dream and freedom to them.

Although they remain stuck in their old neighborhood as before, Nadeem and Saud have dedicated themselves a lot to caring for those sick or injured black kites. After they happened to take care of one injured black kite around 20 years ago, they came to found their little private bird clinic in one shabby building, and that eventually became the main center of their life. While Nadeem usually handles those financial matters, Saud takes care of many black kites in their bird clinic along with their volunteer employee Salik, who cares about black kites as much as his employers.

As these three figures go through one day after another, we gradually come to gather how difficult it has been for them and their precious bird clinic. Despite Nadeem’s diligent efforts, the bird clinic frequently lacks enough fund, and he and Saud become more concerned about whether they can really go on during next several years at least. Yes, they did get some attention via a recent New York Times article, but they are still struggling to get any substantial fund, and they and Salik are often frustrated with how poor their work environment is. At one point, their old meat grinder has some annoying mechanical problem, and that leads to a little conflict between Nadeem and Saud.

Meanwhile, we also get glimpses into how life goes on around them. We see them spending time with their family members, and one particular scene ably conveys to us their shabby domestic condition as the camera patiently looks around their residence. We come to gather that Nadeem’s wife wants her husband to pay more attention to other things besides the bird clinic, but he is still determined to maintain it – even when things get tough for him and many other Muslims out there due to the recent surge of Islamophobia in the Indian society.

Although it is mostly restrained about the ongoing political situation in India, the documentary does not look away at all from the troubles and concerns surrounding its human subjects. When the circumstance becomes much more alarming than before, Nadeem has no choice but to guard the bird clinic at one night, and he comes to express more of the concern and frustration behind his usually phlegmatic façade.

Nevertheless, there is some progress for the bird clinic at least. We see Nadeem and Saud visiting a new place for their bird clinic, and they become a bit more hopeful than before. In addition, Nadeem happens to get an opportunity for more professional education in US, and both of him and his brother are pleased about that, but that also means they will be separated from each other for a while.

And we continue to get mesmerized by a series of remarkable moments of nature observed from here and there in the city. Some of them, including the one involved with a flock of mosquitoes on a puddle, may not look that pretty on the surface, but all of them are filled with a vivid sense of life besides considerable verisimilitude, and you will admire several spontaneous moments such as the one when Salik suddenly gets his glasses snatched by one naughty black kite.

In conclusion, “All That Breathes” is a slow but profound experience to be cherished, and director/co-producer Shaunak Sen, who received the Golden Eye award when the documentary was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, did a commendable job of presenting many different slices of life and nature on the screen. This is indeed one of the best documentaries of last year, and I think you should check it out as soon as possible.

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1 Response to All That Breathes (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Of Nature and Human Life in Delhi

  1. Pingback: My Prediction on the 95th Academy Awards | Seongyong's Private Place

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