“All That Breathes” Review: Connected by the Same Air

In the midst of the chaos of New Delhi, two brothers are dedicated to saving birds affected by pollution. This is our review of "Everything That Breathes," nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary and available on HBO Max.

Still from the movie 'Everything That Breathes'

Photo: HBO

LatinAmerican Post | Juan Andrés Rodríguez

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In the midst of the chaos of New Delhi, two brothers are dedicated to saving birds impacted by pollution. Their work invites us to reflect on the connection of humans with the environment and their different ways of life. This is our review of "All That Breathes", nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary and available on HBO Max.

Cities have been conceived as the antithesis of nature, spaces where a person believes that can control the flow of life. But, in reality, that person is submerged in a chaos of its own behavior that makes that person feel alienated from its environment and those around itself. In reality, we are still connected to all beings, in subtle and imperceptible ways, and these connections are fundamental to our existence.

This is the essence of "All That Breathes", one of the 2023 Oscar nominated documentaries. In his second film, director Shaunak Sen presents the work of brothers Nadeem and Saud, who for more than 20 years have dedicated themselves to rescue and rehabilitation of birds in New Delhi, particularly the black kite. Growing up, the brothers would watch their relatives feed the kites, following the Muslim belief that the birds would take away their troubles. Now they witness how these birds fall from the polluted sky of the city and courageously redouble their efforts in their mission to save them in the midst of an increasingly hostile environment.

With astonishing photography and mesmerizing editing, Sen manages to configure a story that highlights man's relationships with nature in urban spaces and finds beauty in the midst of decadence thanks to the work of the Nadeem and Saud team.

The Flow of Life

The film opens with a sequence shot in a New Delhi garbage dump. It's night, the streetlights slowly come into focus and the camera subtly pans to the ground, where a pack of rats feeds on the debris. This scene, which due to its elements could be associated with the disgusting, is strangely beautiful. With fluency, he manages to highlight each part of this landscape and the interconnectivity between all beings, building a metaphor of the city as an organism.

Animals and subjects adapt to changes, articulating to the flow of life. The kites feed on the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of the city, thus combating the accumulation that results from excessive human consumption. The brothers come up with ways to care for the birds in the precarious basement of their home, which floods easily and loses light in the midst of surgeries. Both resist the hostility of an environment that persists on its way to self-destruction.

The documentary has a melodic quality thanks to leisurely editing. Long takes abound that invite you to examine the scene, like a controlled breath, to become aware of the environment. The scenes whose focus changes to detail each element of the shot, from the sky to an insect, stand out and highlight the relationships that form the world. This creates a deliberately slow pace, which is captivating, but with repetitive and therefore boring moments.

This problem is solved in the second half, when the environmental problem is intertwined with personal and social conflicts. The siblings' passion for their work creates a very strong bond, which increases their frustration at the scarcity of resources. It provokes discussions and the solutions are priced at distance. In addition, there is an underlying tension due to the persecution of the Muslim minority by Hindu nationalists, who confront the integrity of themselves and their families with the continuity of the work that gives meaning to their lives.

Also read: These Are the Documentaries Nominated for the 2023 Oscars. How to Watch Them?

Beauty in Decay

In the middle of a decadent neighborhood, with a battered street, is the home of the brothers, which functions as an operations center. Its walls are poorly painted, the rooms are overcrowded, and the basement where they attend to the birds barely has space for their computers and instruments. This does not prevent them from fulfilling their mission, which they execute with such delicacy that it equals the happiness of an artist.

This makes the film's photography one of its most memorable aspects of the film. Whether it's a garbage pile in which animals seek refuge or shots of flocks of kites soaring through the sky over New Delhi, which Nadeem describes as if they were swimming in the sky, every frame captures breathtaking beauty. It's a technical aspect that deserved more recognition in awards season. This absence or invisibility accounts for the limitations of the institutions that award prizes and their preference for the conventions of the genre and the conception of the documentary more as a journalistic product of denunciation than a sample of cinematographic art.

"All That Breathes” pays tribute to the incessant work of a family to combat the hostility with which we as a species treat other forms of life. The flow of his images reminds us that humans are part of an ecosystem, even in the concrete jungles we build to distance ourselves. Taking care of others is also taking care of ourselves, because there is an intrinsic brotherhood with all living things by sharing the same air.

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