- Shaunak Senfilmmaker, video artist and film scholar based in Delhi.
We speak with filmmaker Shaunak Sen about his Oscar-nominated documentary, “All That Breathes,” which follows two self-taught brothers who rescue black kite birds suffering from air pollution in New Delhi. The brothers, Nadeem and Saud, have saved about 25,000 black kites from the dirty air in India’s capital over the last 15 years. “When you live in the city of Delhi, you’re almost always preoccupied with the air,” says Sen, who explains why he centered the film on the brothers and purposely stayed away from obvious environmental and political messages. “The idea is to open the conversation and not close it,” he says. “All That Breathes” became the only film ever to win the best documentary prize at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals last year.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to a stunning new film, just nominated for an Oscar, called All That Breathes. It follows two brothers in New Delhi, India, who are self-taught bird doctors trying to save a type of bird called the black kite, which is suffering from the city’s dirty air. They’re falling from the sky. This is what Filmmaker magazine wrote about All That Breathes:
“'You don't care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship. We’re all a community of air.’ Those are the poetic words heard in the closing voiceover of Shaunak Sen’s mesmerizing All That Breathes. … [T]he film’s an ambitiously intricate study of the intersection of environmental collapse, religious tension, and the love of two Muslim brothers for a feathered scavenger unnervingly falling from a smoggy Delhi sky.”
That, again, the opening of the article in Filmmaker magazine. This is the trailer for All That Breathes.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] When we got our first kite, I’d stay up at nights staring at it. It looked like a furious reptile from another planet. I’ve devoted my entire life to this.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] It took my glasses!
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] What on Earth is wrong with this?
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] What are you pointing your finger for? You’re not doing me any favors.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] Saud, if we play dead inside the cage, will the kites try to eat us?
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] Go, try lying down.
Life itself is kinship. We are all a community of air. One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes. For our radio audience, we’ve added voiceovers where there are subtitles. The film premieres Tuesday, February 7th, on HBO. After its premiere last year, it became the only film ever to win best documentary prize at both the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes.
We’re joined right now by the film’s director, Shaunak Sen, a filmmaker, a video artist, a film scholar, who lives in New Delhi, India, but joins us today from Munich, Germany.
Democracy Now! welcomes you, Shaunak Sen. What a remarkable, breathtaking, transformative film! Now, this is an odd question, but if you can start off by talking not only about why you made this film, but also define it as what you didn’t want it to be?
SHAUNAK SEN: Actually — well, firstly, thank you. That’s very kind of you.
The film actually started, more than anything else, with a clear sense of what we did not want to make. To begin with, we knew — I mostly wanted to steer clear of three things. Firstly, I did not want to make a nature doc or a wildlife doc. I did not want to make a kind of frontally, conventionally sociopolitical documentary. And mostly, I did not want to make a — you know, a sweet film about nice people doing good things. But that version is possible of this film. And instead, we wanted to make something which is cinematic about the air of Delhi, about birds, about this one remarkable and singular family in Delhi that takes care of these black kites, and, you know, put together a poetic, lyrical, cinematic piece.
In terms of how the film started, the thing is, when you live in the city of Delhi, you’re almost always preoccupied with the air, because, you know, the air has taken on a kind of almost creepy sentience in recent years. It’s this gray, opaque, heavy, palpable, tactile expanse, and you’re always sort of preoccupied with it. And alongside that was also a kind of philosophical interest in thinking about the entanglement of human and nonhuman life. So, essentially, I wanted to do something which was a kind of abstract triangulation of air, birds and humans. And, essentially, that’s how the film began.
I remember sitting in a car one day and looking up at the gray expanse of the sky of Delhi and looking at the black dots peppering the sky, and at one point I had the distinct impression that I saw one of those black dots, the birds, the black kite, sort of fall, plummet to the ground. And since then, I was gripped by the figure of a bird that falls off the sky. And I literally googled, “Where do birds that fall off the sky go?” And the work of the brothers came up. And the minute you go to the tiny, cramped basement where the brothers for the last 15 years have saved over 25,000 black kites, it’s inherently very cinematic. And, you know, it’s very, very dense, and it’s a tiny industrial kind of a basement. And, you know, since then, a film is like a free fall. It’s like a fever dream, really. And it took us three years to make it. And, essentially, this is how the film began.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Shaunak, I mean, the film is really of the highest aesthetic quality, which all reviewers have said. And the mood you’ve created is simultaneously melancholic but also transcendent. And part of the reason for that is the brothers, the kinds of things the brothers do, of course, in treating these wounded birds, but also these extraordinary insights they offer throughout the film on both the human and animal condition. Could you talk about that, how — when you started speaking to the brothers, what you were most struck by, and when you decided that they would be the central focus of the film you wanted to make?
SHAUNAK SEN: Well, the thing is that I — you know, I knew that the story had to be ecological, sociopolitical and emotional. It had to have a kind of emotional peg and had to be about this family. And, you know, it had to be a kind of — like, life is a dense entanglement of things, and it had to sort of have all these things for it to be truly moving for all kinds of audiences.
And when I met the brothers, I realized that apart from it being a very interesting, kind of, and emotional story between the two of them, their relationship with the birds — and, you know, like the stuff that was happening outside, around their homes, it was interesting — but more than anything else, the brothers are just such philosophers, you know? Such philosophers of the urban. And I soon realized that we had to have a form for the film that had to be meditative and contemplative and actually aestheticized.
So, for the first year, I was doing a lot of handheld, vérité, kind of more sort of conventional shooting. But soon I realized that all that footage had to be junked. We had to actually trash about eight months of shooting, because the form had to be more cinematic and meditative, in sync with how the brothers were, because the brothers are like organic intellectuals, you know, who — it’s a kind of experiential wisdom of having closely focused on birds and other life forms for almost two decades. And therefore, we decided that we needed to have a kind of outer covering of fiction films. So, even though we don’t tell characters what to do, but, you know, we use things like tracks and dollies and, you know, sliders and cranes and stuff to tell a nonfiction story. So I think the outer shell or the outer covering of the film is like a very — hopefully, a very cinematic kind of aestheticized object, whereas the way the people are behaving is obviously naturalistic, because nobody has told them how to behave. But, essentially, the form or the grammar of the film had to be this kind of an aesthetic thing to really get the point across in a more, you know, nuanced, sublime manner. And this is not a film that actually frontally says what it has to say. It’s all oblique. So, the form had to be beautiful, essentially.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. The film is extremely subtle in the things that it says, and also the things that it does not say. Now, you’ve — I just want to ask about something before we go to another clip from the film. You’ve said that films are meant to be Trojan horses, saying in another interview, quote, “We have to sneak in things and whisper things to the better angels of people’s nature.” Explain what you mean.
SHAUNAK SEN: Well, the thing is that, I mean, on all registers, really, a lot of — my grouse with a lot of environmental films prior to this was that there was a lot of, you know, gloom and doom, either despair or a kind of romanticized, almost prelapsarian vitality. And, you know, life is more plural than that. And I just felt like the idea is that you have to open up the conversation. We are filmmakers. And we are not — like, a film shouldn’t pamphleteer. You know, it shouldn’t show its cards too clearly. The idea is to emotionally move audiences, and especially audiences that don’t want to have a conversation with you.
The problem with a lot of either environmental films or political films, and so on, is that when you — you know, when you go at audiences with a sledgehammer and hold them by the collar and say, “Feel bad about this,” it ends up being too pedantic or moralistic and didactic, and very often it just — it feels a bit off-putting. Or you’re either preaching to the choir or just alienating audiences who have a different value system.
And the idea is that, you know, our skill set is to be able to rouse feelings and emotionally move people. And the idea is to open the conversation and not close it, so, you know, to have a film where things are sort of nudged at obliquely or tangentially, or let people sense the things that you want to communicate, instead of sort of frontally telling them on the nose. That’s essentially — even in this film, you know, the things that we want to talk about are really the epistemic wallpaper of their lives, and you don’t need to really constantly shine a light on it very frontally or conspicuously. The environmental stuff, the unrest around them, all of that is, I think, fairly palpable, but in a minor key. And that’s how — my favorite films are those that obliquely nudge at things, that have a sideways glance at things, in every way, politically, ethically, socially, in every way, really. That’s what I meant.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip from your film All That Breathes, beginning with the two brothers’ helper, Salik, holding a wounded kite, that famous bird that flies over Delhi, in the basement where they treat the birds.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] A nestling. The nestlings have started coming.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] Baby season’s about to begin. Many more will come. Today’s the 5th, right? It’ll get crazy soon. How many infants so far? Five to six last week, right? Nestlings? Turn it.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] It’ll survive, right?
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] It has metabolic bone disease.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] We can fix that.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] Let’s see if it can stand. It can’t.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] Can’t straighten its legs.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] When we got our first kite, I’d stay up at nights staring at it. It looked like a furious reptile from another planet. It’s said that feeding kites earns sawab, religious credit. When they eat the meat, they eat away your difficulties. And their hunger is insatiable. Our elders used to take us for “meat tossing.” We’d lie on the ground, watching the elegant curves in the sky. The head would spin. Have you ever felt vertigo looking into the sky?
AMY GOODMAN: “Have you ever felt vertigo looking into the sky?” We’re talking to Shaunak Sen, who is the filmmaker who made this Oscar-nominated film, All That Breathes. I have to admit, Shaunak, I watched this film after midnight last night with my little pup Zazu at my side, who cocked her head every time she heard the sounds and the animals, could not stop staring. But tell us about who these brothers are, with their helper, how they came to set up this animal hospital.
SHAUNAK SEN: Well, the brothers, they live in the northern part of Delhi, Nadeem and Saud, and their cousin Salik. And over the last 15 years, they’ve actually treated over 25,000 black kites, through what otherwise appears to be a very slapdash, informal kind of a work. They work out of a very — for the longest time, they worked out of a very grubby, dingy, tiny, cramped industrial basement, where they save these magisterial birds that are falling down in scores in Delhi, in Delhi, from the sky of Delhi.
And, well, they started because, initially, what happened was that they realized that a lot of the hospitals were overrun, and they had to treat the birds themselves. And they had no training in it at all, no medical training at all. And they used to be bodybuilders, amateur bodybuilders as teenagers. And they would pick up injured black kites and other kind of raptors, birds of prey, and bring them home, and sort of developed their own techniques to repair and heal these birds. And one thing led to the other, and over time people started bringing their injured kites to them. And today it’s become this kind of a informal hospital, but moving towards full formality now.
But it’s — what they’ve done is singular and incredible and wonderful. But the film, actually, apart from just the loveliness of what they do, is really an investigation of their minds, because they’re also profound philosophers in some ways. And it’s an investigation of their lives, and, you know, given stuff that is happening around them, and also what compels people to do what they do, and what it means to — when in the foreground of your life is a kind of consideration of the entanglement of human-nonhuman life, and when you think of — when you keep thinking of a kind of neighborliness or kinship with human-nonhuman lives. So, the film is a kind of — excuse me — my interest in the film was really about their minds and their everyday, quotidian life, and that’s how it started.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Shaunak, let’s go to another clip from All That Breathes, which begins with a wounded bird being brought into the basement for treatment.
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] Move aside. Check the water temperature.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] I don’t get it. It says 1, 2, 3, 4.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] Salik belongs to the digital age. He doesn’t understand a mercury thermometer! How you’re cleaning it behind its ears reminds me of how mother used to bathe us.
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] Our foreign funding application has been rejected.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] What? Our foreign funding application?
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] Yes, the FCRA application.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] But why?
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] They haven’t given any reason.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] What will we do now?
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] What we’ve always done: get by somehow.
SALIK REHMAN: [translated] Can’t we apply again?
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] Not for six months. Then they’ll take another six months to process it.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] So, a full year is gone?
NADEEM SHEHZAD: [translated] Yes, a year’s wait.
MOHAMMAD SAUD: [translated] We’ll need to manage domestic funding.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s another clip from All That Breathes. Shaunak, can you talk about that? And then, we have a minute. Just finally, if you could mention the filmmakers who’ve inspired you and inspired this film?
SHAUNAK SEN: Oh, for sure. Well, you know, the thing is that this was not a film which was like a regular vérité, observational documentary, and I wanted to make something which is cinematic and, you know, felt aesthetic and beautiful. And so, cinematographically, I was really very influenced by this Russian filmmaker, a nonfiction filmmaker, called Viktor Kossakovsky, who has this incredible — you know, incredibly very short films, and like phenomenal panning and tilting. And so I heavily recommend him. In terms of fiction, you know, the Russian great, Tarkovsky, was a huge influence. In terms of the edit, a New York-based filmmaker called Gianfranco Rosi was very, very, very influential. Other than that, just, you know, a ton of films that use slow takes and have a particular relationship with ecology or the world or the planetary or nature have been important. For instance, Terrence Malick was a profound influence. And also people who are able to hold —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Shaunak.
SHAUNAK SEN: And also, like, able to hold the political alongside the aesthetic is what has been very, very influential for me. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Shaunak Sen, thank you, the Delhi-based director of the Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes, premieres Tuesday, February 7th, on HBO, speaking to us from Munich, Germany. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.