‘A Gaping Wound’: How a Birds of Prey movie is a warning to India’s capital | Movies
Jhe award-winning documentary All That Breathes is a meditation on life in Delhi through the eyes and hands of two brothers who tend to injured birds. After winning the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s screened at Cannes, and in many ways it’s easier to say what it’s not than to define what it’s not. that it is. This is not a wildlife documentary, nor a resounding call to action; it’s not a family drama or a political film – and yet it contains elements of all of that, woven into a poetic and beautiful tapestry. The events depicted are less important than the overall feeling.
It has a lot to do with the role of the Indian capital in the film: a scruffy, belligerent character, an integral part of the story. “Anyone who lives in Delhi knows that you’re constantly surrounded by this gray sensorium,” says the film’s director, Shaunak Sen. “This fabric of grey, this mood, this tone, where the sky, the clouds and the buildings are kind of interlocking with each other has fascinated me for some time. The sun is this diffused stain and the he air you breathe, the whole ecological bubble you find yourself in, seems hostile to your sense of sustenance.
“And the feeling that Spaceship Earth’s air conditioning system is going bad is very strong in the city. So the starting point was not so much a story as a texture.
Sen has already made his hometown a central part of his work: his 2015 feature debut, Cities of Sleep, examined the nature of insomnia as told through the city’s informal shelters and underclass who often need a safe, warm place to spend winter nights. This time, he became inspired while regularly stuck in endless Delhi traffic and looking up from his car. “I was seeing these tiny lazy black dots sliding around. They were black kites, and it’s one of those things where once you start thinking about them, you can’t stop noticing them.
The first experts Sen spoke to were brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud: and the director knew he had his subjects. They narrate the film with spoken thoughts. They have loved birds since a young age and have cared for black kites for almost 20 years through the organization they founded, Wildlife Rescue.
While both are passionate about birds, adjusting to animal hospital duties in the midst of their daily toil takes its toll. Saud seems happy to continue doing what he does, but Nadeem longs to see the world beyond their district of Wazirabad and wants to pursue an education in America.
“You shouldn’t tell the difference between anything that breathes,” Saud says, in one of many ruminations, and the very idea of breathing is fundamental to all the themes the film touches on. Delhi’s chronic air pollution problem affects so many aspects of their lives. Saud’s young son has a worrying cough, people wore face masks in the city long before Covid hit, and the family’s air purifier seems permanently stuck on red as filters need changing.
The brothers’ problems keep getting worse: the meat grinder for the kites’ buddy is broken (as is their freezer), the city is engulfed in sectarian protests against a divisive citizenship law, considered as targeting Muslims like them and they still have to deal with all the other jobs that a hardworking family has to deal with on a daily basis. All the while, the kites continue to fall from the sky. “Delhi is a gaping wound and we are just a small band-aid on it,” Nadeem says.
Sen says it’s both the stoic work ethic and their insightful nature that made them ideal subjects for the project. “They weren’t typical documentary subjects because they were also interlocutors in terms of form and storytelling, and they understood how we were trying to balance this noble act of bird rescue with the everyday existence they It was much more collaborative than traditional documentary sayings would suggest.
While this all sounds like too much thoughtful, thoughtful stuff, the movie also has touching and funny moments, sometimes veering into farce. The bird treatment is mostly done in a hot, claustrophobic basement which immediately excited Sen. “As soon as I saw this garage, I knew it had to be the focus of the documentary,” he says. “That seedy, cinematic basement that makes soap dispensers, filled with all kinds of junk and metal-cutting machinery and industrial rot; then you have these masterful birds being lovingly cared for by these guys. It’s fascinating.”
And in the brothers’ young assistant, Salik, they find the perfect counter-energy and endearing scene-stealer. Everyone knows someone like Salik – a little brother, a cousin, a nephew, a colleague, a buddy – who asks innocent and baffling questions about nuclear war and the American struggle at inopportune times.
At one point, a bird rushes in and steals Salik’s glasses, but he only smiles. But later he thought sincerely, “why the glasses?” In a lovely scene where he’s riding in the back of a tempo (a three-wheeled cargo truck), he suddenly reveals he has a baby chipmunk in his shirt pocket, like an adorable desi Newt Scamander of the Ministry of Magic.
Sen is overjoyed to be going to Cannes, saying, “Let’s face it, this is the place, in terms of status and recognition,” and adds that he is looking forward to the event as much as cinephile than as a director. “The filmmaker in me is honored, and the film buff in me is over the moon!”
Close-ups of the imperious birds – often shot down, ironically, by child-piloted paper kites, which stick broken glass on the ropes for aerial battles – are intercut with news and social media footage from Muslim areas razed by Hindu fanatics, including a rogue extremist scaling a mosque and knocking down the Islamic crescent atop one of its ornate minarets. This is the story of a tragedy that slowly befalls man and beast.
Sen perfectly captures Delhi’s duality in this ode to his hometown, its people and creatures, on the run and in distress.