Opening on Friday at Film Forum in New York and on October 28 at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes arrives in theaters from the festival circuit with an unprecedented track record. It’s the only film to have won best documentary awards at both Sundance and Cannes, and this past weekend, it topped the documentary competition in London.
On Monday, the Indie Film Site Network, an alliance of five popular online media outlets that came together at the end of the summer, announced that it’s presenting its inaugural IFSN Advocate Award, “established to highlight one theatrically released indie film each year that illuminates a humanitarian or environmental issue with a singular artistic vision,” to All That Breathes. “Layering urban ecology, spiritual philosophy, politics, and distilled character study, All That Breathes is a remarkable, vital work of cinema,” writes Nick Bradshaw in Sight and Sound.
Around the turn of the millennium, Muslim brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad founded Wildlife Rescue in the basement of their home in New Delhi. Working with assistant Salik Rehman, they have treated more than two thousand birds of prey each year. The wings of many of these birds have been slashed by the city’s ubiquitous nylon kite strings. Other birds have simply succumbed to the poisoned air looming over one of the world’s most polluted cities.
“Nearly all of those birds are black kites, which are everywhere in the city,” wrote Oliver Whang in a profile of the brothers for the New York Times in 2020. The Yamuna River is “so toxic that some sections cannot sustain aquatic life, but kites scavenge muddy trash from its banks in swarms. On a typical day, dozens can be seen circling above Old Delhi, the bustling heart of the city, rising on columns of warm air.”
Writing for Slant, Pat Brown notes that the kites “live off the giant landfills on the gargantuan city’s outskirts—reducing the size of the dumps, as one observer remarks in the film, by thousands of tons a year—but when it gets too hot or smoggy, the noble hawk-like birds tend to fall out of the sky. As human alterations to the environment accelerate, the animals who share our world are finding they can’t keep up.”
“When the sun occasionally emerges from behind the thick smog, it’s as a hazy blotch of gold that appears to be fighting for its life,” writes Soham Gadre at Screen Slate. “A shot of factory stacks spewing smoke with the kites gliding away from it recalls the final sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), when Julia tells her son, surveying the industrial plants around them, ‘The birds know not to fly here anymore.’”
For Reverse Shot’s Farihah Zaman, “the artistry of the film lies in how Sen has captured a thousand tiny miracles within the brothers’ unfolding story, moments just as easy to overlook as the kites, and woven them together with exceptional vérité footage, landscape photography, interviews, and voiceover to meaningfully depict our entwinement with ‘all that breathes’ . . . Pigs rutting through a dirty canal are filmed with graceful silhouettes contrasted against the city lights shining off the water, with composer Roger Goula’s glittering electronic arpeggio, contributing to the feeling that the city’s seemingly ordinary sights are imbued with a touch of magic—when the light is just right and one has learned how to look.”
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