Certain films have the potential to transcend boundaries, capturing the core of human experience with remarkable creativity. All That Breathes by Shaunak Sen is a tribute to the power of storytelling with its depiction of the subtle interplay between nature, people, and the delicate balance of life. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2022, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary Competition. Then came best documentary at Cannes Film Festival 2022, followed by a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 95th Academy Awards in March this year.
Over a phone chat from Bavaria, Sen explored his experience of making the film and the future for documentaries in India. Excerpts:
While All That Breathes engages primarily with environmental pollution, it has distinct political undertones, chiefly through repeated references to the Anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests. How did you strike a balance between the two?
At the beginning, it was primarily an ecological film. Its main concerns were philosophical—exploring the ties between human and non-human beings. However, as we shot the film over three years (2019-2021), Delhi went through a turbulent period. Nobody wants to force a social issue on a film, especially when it is not germane to the lives of the people you are featuring. But the outside world did impinge on the two brothers’ lives, and we brought this out through oblique, tangential but palpable references without any overt political commentary.
The brothers are not political figures: their engagement with the birds is political in a sense, but not by way of identity or sectarian politics. The outside world enters subtly, such as through audio leaks: when a character goes to the balcony, you hear distant sounds of a crowd or a protest. We also used audio from TV news to the same effect.
The two brothers go about their lives seemingly unperturbed by the camera. How did you achieve this level of comfort with them?
What one achieves on screen is more often than not a function of the amount of time you have spent on it. We spent three full years shooting the film, and we shot very often, very intensely, and vigorously.
Initially, of course, everyone is conscious of the camera. The material that emerges from the first month is always unusable because people are too conscious of the presence of the camera and the crew. So, initially, the aim is to get people to just “be” instead of “behave” in front of the camera. In the first month, the running joke was that we are waiting for the first yawn of the characters: that is when you know that you [the crew] are slowly merging with the wallpaper.
The film has a mix of bits that are pure verité and some where the characters are aware of the camera. There are things I could easily ask them in the third year of the shoot which I couldn’t have in the first. For instance, Nadeem [one of the two brothers] talks about his dissatisfaction with life and what it would mean if his life ended now. That was something we shot at the end of the third year. It would have been unthinkable in the first year. The boundaries of what is okay to ask is constantly mutating.
““They [the brothers] are like two Don Quixotes who believe in micro miracles. Every bird that flies off their terrace is a miracle... I found their radical perseverance fascinating.””Shaunak Sen
The darkness in the film’s world, with its dystopian shots of polluted skies, smoke-belching factories and massive piles of garbage, is offset by the sense of hope inherent in the act of saving and rehabilitating the kites. Did you intentionally bring in this glimmer of hope?
When making a film, you have many things you’re interested in, conceptually, dramatically, and aesthetically. And, of course, you have visual cinematic ambitions. Providing hope is not intentional. Of course, the fact remains that the brothers’ lives are singular: the way they soldier on against all odds is remarkable.
They have these front-row seats in a dystopic scenario where birds of Delhi are falling off the sky straight into their basement. Every day, they wake up to find 20-25 injured black kites but they still carry on. They are like two Don Quixotes who believe in micro miracles. Every bird that flies off their terrace is a miracle.
Of course, I was primarily interested in why they do what they do, but there aren’t any easy answers to this. I found their radical perseverance fascinating. So, in a sense, we can say there’s a glimmer of hope, but it would be wrong to say that it was premeditated or that the film is all about that hope.
As a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge in 2018, you conducted research on human-bird relationships. How did this research contribute to the creation of All That Breathes?
Before Cambridge, I was not particularly interested in the environment or even in birds. I had amateur birding interests. In Cambridge, I got drawn into a wider field of human-non-human relationships, especially because of a circle of people who were also exploring these connections. I spent a lot of time reading about people who are fascinated with birds and animals. All this formed a fertile ground and a solid base for the film.
In India, funding and grants for documentaries are scarce. How did you secure funding for your film? Is it also difficult to find platforms for showing documentaries?
There has been a massive shift in the field of documentaries in recent years. Between Cities of Sleep (2015), my first film, and All That Breathes, there has been a huge transformation. Thanks to OTT platforms and documentary mentorship labs, there are far more opportunities now. Pitching forums like DocedgeKolkata are also helping. So, we are being guardedly optimistic.
While things are better, they still leave much to be desired. There are not enough grants. Once you start applying for grants, pitching to forums, and meeting producers, you know you’re in it for the long haul. The process starts accruing more collaborators and the team becomes bigger.
The first year you’re only learning the ropes, finding your film vocabulary, and getting the characters used to the camera. In three years, it grows.
An invisible censorship board seems to exist in India. What are your thoughts on the future of Indian documentaries?
Indian documentaries have won several awards in the past few years including at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, and Berlin, and are clearly doing well, perhaps even better than mainstream movies. Most of these films haven’t faced censorship issues. We will have to wait and see.
The documentary scene in India is in a state of flux right now; it is changing rapidly. The main problem is that documentaries do not find viewership in India because people don’t know where to access them.