Director Shaunak Sen didn’t want to make a conventional nature documentary.
“‘All That Breathes’ is about all the things that unite us,” he says. “It is about kinship and neighborhood with non-human life.”
In an episode of Variety Doc Dreams presented by National Geographic, Sen spoke with Variety Associate Editor Meredith Woerner on her moving film that focuses on finding beauty in mundane times and even times of despair. Set in New Delhi, the nature documentary follows brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud who run an animal hospital for injured kites affected by the city’s pollution.
Sen racked up more than 400 hours of footage for his nature documentary, saying that during filming he encountered thousands of these medium-sized birds of prey.
“We often shot kite-filled skies, where the sky was completely covered in these tiny, lazy floating black dots.”
For Sen, as well as cinematographers Ben Bernhard and Riju Das, the language of the film had to be poetic.
“One of the languages developed by Ben Bernhard – German [director of photography] of the film – and then Indian DP Riju Das, was that the film couldn’t just be the direct line of these two brothers and the work they do,” Sen says.
“The brothers are contemplative and meditative people. So over time, I realized that the film had to have that kind of quality,” he adds. “It had to be contemplative, and it had to be slower, and it had to be poetic.”
The director also noted an unusual element he captured in his nature documentary: boredom.
“I think boredom goes a long way. Boredom kind of has a dulled power where the minute the camera isn’t a big, intrusive presence — and they miss you,” Sen explains. “And you get the first yawn on camera is when you know you suddenly get everyday life in all its mundanity and mundane banality, which is the aspiration of the documentary.”
Despite the social unrest and deteriorating conditions in New Delhi, Sen believes that the question of hope is the “founding question of the film”.
Of the two brothers and their assistant Salik Rehman, he says: “They have a stoic and ironic resilience. The birds keep falling, you have to put your head down and keep going. And in that, there is a cruel optimism. It’s a complicated redemptive hope where, of course, they hope – and every bird that flies away is a little miracle, every bird they’ve helped and cared for and flies again. Essentially, they are three Don Quixotes doing tiny micro-acts of micro-gestures of radical hope.