Review: “All That Breathes” shows calm in the midst of chaos

In an age where we crave stories of warmth and connection, the Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes is a timely depiction of a microscopic bright spot in the midst of social and environmental upheaval.

Everything That Breathes has been nominated for Best Documentary at the 2023 Oscars. (Courtesy of Rise Films)

For three years, filmmaker Shonak Sen followed the efforts of two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, to rescue and rehabilitate the black kite, a species of bird of prey, as they neared extinction. Sen sublimely shows how all breathing creatures, from insects to humans, continue to live amidst the entropic ecosystem of New Delhi.

In an interview, Sen emphasized the importance of trust between him and the family of brothers during filmmaking Kineuropa. As a display of apparent trust, the film’s slow pace and length keep every moment sacred and deliberate. Over the course of three years, Sen managed to find moments of the ordinary everyday life of the brothers. The film includes scenes of Nadeem and Mohammad rescuing wildlife from an overcrowded basement that doubles as a staple of their soap business. He films their celebratory ice cream cones after they win new government grants and their casual debate about the consequences of nuclear war – what food will be left for the kites? Will the radiation harm them?

The wide panoramas of urban nature shown in the film should not be overlooked. The viewer is confronted with the indiscriminate impact of environmental degradation, from shots of kites soaring effortlessly amid clouds of toxic fumes, to vermin, turtles, and a collection of farm animals scavenging among mounds of trash and debris. Sen includes rare close-ups of kites next to cigarette butts, as well as caterpillars and millipedes clinging to rusty Twitter ads. His low-key filming style allows the audience to witness how humanity imposes itself on all creatures.

Sen keeps it very real because what he shows is not a warning — this is our present. Implicitly, this is a film about the far-reaching effects of climate change and civil unrest, tastefully folded into fleeting, almost deceptively calm and tender moments. It is only at the end that he zooms out and clearly highlights the rising tension and violence in New Delhi.

All That Breathes won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Eye Award for Best Documentary at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is now nominated for Best Documentary at the 2023 Academy Awards .

“All That Breathes” emphasizes the exact opposite of what the title suggests, focusing more on all who cannot breathe. The film fascinates the audience with the fact that even in moments of turmoil and excitement, we are more alike than we think.

We share the common experience of breathing. Like brothers, we’re all trying to keep celebrating over ice cream cones, keep loving, growing, and adapting to the background noise of change.

Contact Zoe Singh on [email protected]

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