Directed by Shaunak Sen | 97 min | ▲▲▲▲▲ | Crave/HBO
A version of this review first appeared from the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival in September 2022.
New Delhi is one of the world’s largest cities. Its denizens — human and animal alike — have to live with its overpopulation, dirty air and water. In this astonishing documentary, life in the city is seen through the experience of a group of brothers — Salik Rehman, Mohammad Saud, and Nadeem Shehzad — who fulfill their mother’s wishes running a Wildlife Rescue organization. They help the Black Kites, raptors who have in some ways adapted to the city but who fall out of the sky on a daily basis, suffering from a variety of pollution- and human waste-related ailments.
People bring the birds to the brothers every day, to their crowded, cluttered office space and makeshift rooftop aerie. This while religious violence is going on in the city streets around them and they struggle to make ends meet, running a soap dispenser business in order to pay the bills.
The filmmaker’s gift to audiences is making sure to give us the animals’ vantage point — from a bravura opening tracking shot through a vacant lot overrun with rats, to close-ups of frogs, snails, dogs, cats, and other birds. This feels like a documentary the visionary filmmaker Terence Malick would make, which is about as high a praise as I can muster.
The film’s a lot more than an examination of how nature adapts — or doesn’t — to rampant urbanization. It encompasses the realities of climate change, of human beings’ relationship to an environment we’ve both created and destroyed, and a frightening look at a possible future in all large cities where we share the air, water, and food with other living things.
All That Breathes is both meditative and desperate, strangely beautiful and devastating.