The sense of a city as a complex, ailing ecosystem is rendered with unusual vividness in “All That Breathes.” Shaunak Sen’s documentary has no formal interviews, onscreen text or omniscient narrator to provide relevant stats on Delhi, where air pollution is reportedly twelve times worse than in Beijing, which ranks second on the global list. Instead, the environmental impact is felt on the microcosmic level of two resident brothers dedicated to urban bird rescue. Meanwhile, they worry about a different kind of threatened extinction event: anti-Muslim policies that trigger waves of protest and violence.
This snapshot of self-harm both societal and planetary nonetheless manages a gentle, impressionistic lyricism. Like Sen’s prior feature “Cities of Sleep,” which revealed the subterranean networks providing places of rest for Delhi’s homeless, “All That Breathes” — which won the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance’s World Documentary competition — is a portrait more compassionate than bleak, emphasizing individual resourcefulness over big-picture despair.
The interconnectivity of life forms is deftly illustrated straight off with an opening shot that pans across some derelict open space in New Delhi. Bordered by houses and a busy road, this area at first seems no more than a trash-strewn wasteland. But as the camera gradually descends to the ground level, we notice a stray dog, hear a cat’s yowl, then discover the muddy soil teeming with all manner of rodents and who knows what else, living in an environment just as crowded as the city’s human population.
While life clearly does go on throughout the species spectrum, siblings Nadeem and Saud have spent nearly two decades so far tending to animals that aren’t faring so well. As teenage bodybuilders already schooled in the problems of “flesh, muscles and tendons,” they turned a fascination with the birds overhead in their poor New Delhi neighborhood into amateur veterinarian work. Now as adults with families of their own — all under one roof — they run a basement clinic for injured raptors, with particular emphasis on the black kite. This isn’t just an eccentric hobby: Air pollution here is such that they claim hundreds of birds of prey simply drop out of the sky every day.
With their fondly quarrelsome dynamic extending to assistant Salik and others, they operate on, bandage, nurse and release the vertebrates in quantity. One afternoon sees 28 new charges brought in, some too far gone to be saved. This work, under the name Wildlife Rescue, has attracted attention as far afield as the New York Times, and towards the film’s end Nadeem is granted an advanced training stint in the U.S. But it’s still very much a DIY operation, perpetually overstretched for funding and labor. As if the pressures of an ever-escalating environmental crisis weren’t enough, the protagonists (who are Muslim) also have cause for alarm in nationwide sectarian violence, with arson, looting, gunplay and more edging closer to their door.
Without any exterior commentary beyond overheard snatches of news reports, “All That Breathes” doesn’t explain the specifics of that politically-driven religious divide. Nor do we even get a terribly clear picture of how the brothers’ complicated household, non-profit and business concerns work — though they seem to sideline in soap dispensers — with several unidentified employees variably in the picture. But the intent here is not to deliver a straight explanatory portrait. Sen is more interested in capturing idiosyncratic details of personality, community, and the natural world that stubbornly co-exists within this somewhat squalid urban landscape. From monkeys to boars to frogs and mosquitoes, the camera finds creatures of every stripe within this “jungle.”
There’s an inventive lyricism to the imagery here, aesthetically unified despite three credited cinematographers. The humidity seems to permeate soft-edged interior shots, while outdoors we’re dazzled by the spectacle of pinwheeling kite flocks, or impressed by the unexpected poetry of a plane reflected in a litter-filled puddle from which a centipede crawls. While never seeming over-fussed, these pictures convey a tangible sense of all life as one interconnected organism. When someone here groans that his throat “feels like charcoal,” he might be speaking for the aggrieved “lungs” of all Delhi itself.
With a tone more melancholic and charming than one might expect given the various crises at play here, Sen’s deceptively casual observational documentary prefers dwelling on resistance and resilience to pronouncements of doom. The meditative yet ingratiating impact is furthered by Roger Goula’s score, which strikes aptly spectral notes.