Director Shaunek Sen’s new documentary, “All That Breathes,” chronicles the efforts of two brothers, Nadeem and Saud, in Delhi, India, to rescue and care for the bird known as the black kite in their makeshift basement hospital. Although the film is scattered with gorgeous nature shots of soaring birds, frantic ants and slow caterpillars, “All That Breathes” is anything but a nature film: this is a haunting documentary on the complexity and necessity of interspecies coexistence.
Delhi’s smog-filled skies poison the kites, revealing an extreme level of environmental toxicity. The kites are crucial to Delhi’s ecosystem, as the species eats about five tons of garbage every few days. Without them, the landfills would be sky-high.
The brothers’ religious faith and scientific backgrounds shape their unique perspectives on climate change. As practicing Muslims, they reference the sawa–b, or reward, they receive from Allah when they feed or care for the birds. As children, their mother often told folklore stories about jinn, or spirits, emphasizing the interwoven existence of all life, seen and unseen, animal and vegetable. Their perspective is also rooted in a deep understanding of ecosystems, anatomy and climate. All of this culminates in a mission to preserve the kites as a means to preserve all life.
The film was shot over three years, and shifting civil unrest is a constant backdrop to the brothers’ personal crusade. While they struggle to acquire funding and nurse kites back to health, protests and violence explode. They carefully balance their anxiety about being the newest victims of Islamophobic violence with their lifelong concern about the health of the kites.
Even when Nadeem’s wife urges him to join the protests, he emphasizes the importance of his work: “I’m the only one doing it.” Perhaps he views the protests and violence as ephemeral, a temporary human crisis that will climax and eventually conclude. His work rescuing the kites, on the other hand, is never-ending.
The most memorable scene is filmed along a riverbed. Despite Nadeem’s protests, Saud and another companion strip to their underwear, swim hundreds of feet against the current and place an injured kite in a basket that Saud drags behind him on the swim back.
Living in Seattle, a city where humans often refuse to look at one another, I was in awe of their compassion. Nadeem and Saud’s unwavering commitment to their mission despite floods and burning mosques reminded me how small we are in relation to the ecosystems around us.
In a highly individualistic, capitalist society, there’s an emphasis on protection and preservation of the individual and the idea that our biggest obligation is to ourselves. What are our obligations to other people, to other species? Our greater ecosystem? Nadeem and Saud reminded me that ultimately, “life itself is kinship.”
Read more of the Nov. 9-15, 2022 issue.