It’s a wonder All That Breathes is in the running for best documentary al Academy Awards?
From its silent opening images, as the cameras slither through Delhi’s rubbish dump raided by rats and dogs in the silence of the night, you know something special awaits you.
Artfully directed by Shaunak Sen, this is an environmental film told through the rescue of black kites. But it is also a human story about the bond between two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, who run a clinic for rescuing birds in need.
Both grew up respecting these birds of prey where their noble work is believed to lead to religious claims. Their late mother also instilled a philosophy not to distinguish between “everything that breathes” whether human, animal or plant.
In the panting underbelly of Delhi, or perhaps the heart of it, Nadeem and Mohammad run a run-down bird clinic in their tiny home. Assisted by colleague Salik Rehman, they rescue birds of prey from rooftops, streets and rivers, providing medical assistance on an operating table where the electricity cuts out without warning.
Kites, soaring effortlessly in mesmerizing circles above the city, provide an important function in Delhi by feeding on its vast wastes. Yet for many locals these creatures are treated with contempt. The brothers opened their hospital when vets refused to offer care to the non-vegetarian birds.
But Delhi’s urban sprawl means pollution is endangering their world. As they try to adapt to a fragile ecosystem, kites are literally falling out of the sky.
Devoted to their life’s work, the brothers are also in desperate need of financial assistance to stay alive, with Nadeem constantly asking international groups for funding. Faced with constant rejection, with faulty equipment, a crowded space, and families to feed, the brothers despair over a bleak prospect.
“What are we going to do now?” one asks.
“What we have always done. Come forward somehow,” he is told.
Among their own struggles are a political background of refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, civil unrest over the Indian constitution and street riots. Much of this is told through the eyes of the siblings and their family, with glimpses of TV and radio news…just enough for the viewer to understand the invasive threat, just 2km from the bird clinic doors.
While Saud finds his nirvana working with kites, Nadeem craves even more… education, travel, thirst for knowledge.
“Darwin and Newton were my heroes, now I spend all day on Excel sheets,” he says after endless requests for funding.
“Delhi is an open wound and we are a little plaster over it.”
Young Salik is also hard at work – he watches the moment a raptor steals his glasses from his head – but instead of anger on his part, there’s a silent awe.
Director Shaunak Sen’s sensibility with the material is overwhelming and the cinematography of Ben Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi is exquisite. From caterpillars to jumbo jets in just one shot, feel the vastness of Delhi. Creatures of all sizes are observed by the camera in a hypnotic vision that belies the surroundings. In ugliness he finds beauty.
And then there are the birds, supreme, almost prehistoric in appearance.
From near or far, they never fail to captivate. No wonder these brothers want to protect them. You will too.
All That Breathes screens Wednesdays at 8:30pm on FOX Docos and Binge.