Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at Sundance 2022, All That Breathes is not a film that is easily forgotten. Its quiet grace and profound world view will linger long after it’s over. Even a few days later, I found myself thinking about its message about humanity—its reminder about what it’s like to be human in this age of social, political, and environmental upheaval—even as I marvelled at the gentleness of its approach. The film’s lyrical style is its key to its genius.
Don’t get me wrong, All That Breathes presents a world where things are not easy—in fact the situation is dire—but this film has much to teach us about seeing everything in context so that we know how to proceed. All That Breathes is brilliant in its simplicity. This doc accomplishes much with its seemingly effortless verité approach. In its focus on a pair of brothers and their noble life’s work, All That Breathes reveals an intricate interrelationship between all living things and the larger universe in which they coexist.
Brothers Saud and Nadeem have shared a particular bond with the birds in New Delhi known as black kites—a carnivorous bird native to the region and a symbol of hope and prosperity. They grew up watching their elders feeding the birds, an activity that Muslims believe will take away all troubles. As they grew older, more and more birds literally fell from the sky due to the overpopulation and overwhelming pollution in the city. Inspired by their mother, the brothers learned how to mend and rehabilitate them and have created their own makeshift veterinary hospital.
Director Shaunak Sen employs an impressionistic camera to capture daily rhythms, from their work to their domestic lives. He and director of photography Benjamin Bernhard capture scenes both from within the lives of the brothers and the lives of creatures in the greater environs. This impressionistic camera wants to take it all in: from the rodents in the street to the monkeys crossing a stream down the roadside. Perhaps most tellingly, the camera is continually panning across, both towards and away from things, in a manner that underscores an interrelationship.
All That Breathes is clearly a masterwork of observation, a meditative film whose ripples of understanding and meaning are the result of a deceptively easygoing observational approach. Saud employs a relaxed pace, and the captures telling details and moments so concisely: this is a distinctive approach, the most satisfying result of spending a length of time with the subjects.
All That Breathes subtly points to a reciprocal relationship among all living beings—to a more cyclical interrelationship—upon which every creature depends. When the film introduces the social unrest in New Delhi and its meaning for this Muslim family, the film reveals a different layer of connection. We are privy to the interference of the protests into their compassionate and peace-loving existence. These are individuals who we know would not hurt any living creature and it’s hard to imagine why anything or anyone would hurt them. In the end, All That Breathes is so impactful because of this universality.
All That Breathes screened at Sundance 2022. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.