How to heal a world that’s hell-bent on tearing itself apart? That’s a question that haunts this powerful, poetic and quietly moving documentary about two Muslim brothers who dedicate themselves to nursing New Delhi’s injured black kites back to health.
The two siblings, Nadeem and Saud, work out of a basement in the ramshackle back streets of a city shrouded by air pollution and riven by sectarian divides (the film is backdropped by the 2020 violence against the city’s Muslims – a different kind of pollution). Delhi’s powerful birds of prey, disoriented by the fug of toxic fumes, are increasingly prone to accidents. There’s a spiritual quality to the brothers’ meticulous work stitching broken wings and tending to the birds’ wounds – and a deep sadness at the state of the city.
Director Shaunak Sen has a knack for knowing when to hold the frame for emotional impact and when to open up the film’s crowded urban environments with slow pans. Overhead shots give a kite’s eye view down on a cityscape too bustling and oblivious to notice the problems piling up. It’s a sympathetic, observational style that yields plenty of delightful moments as the brothers squabble over a game of indoor cricket, have a stare-off with a recuperating kite, or gently lather up a snowy owl behind the ears.
Sen’s 2015 doc Cities of Sleep captured the plight of the city’s homeless, peering through the darkness into makeshift nocturnal shanty towns to show an entire nomadic ecosystem at work. Beneath the soothingly Malickian inset shots of urban wildlife, the ambient score and contemplative vibes, All that Breathes is an ever more urgent follow-up. It’s a wake-up call to a city sleepwalking towards ecological disaster.
In UK cinemas Oct 14. In New York theaters Oct 21.