Director Shaunak Sen did not want to make a conventional nature documentary. “‘All That Breathes’ is about all the things that tie us together,” he says. “It’s about kinship and…
Director Shaunak Sen did not want to make a conventional nature documentary.
“‘All That Breathes’ is about all the things that tie us together,” he says. “It’s about kinship and neighborliness to non-human life.”
In an episode of Variety’s Doc Dreams presented by National Geographic, Sen spoke with Variety Deputy Editor Meredith Woerner about his stirring film that focuses on finding the beauty inside moments of the mundane and even moments of despair. Set in New Dehli, the nature documentary follows brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud who run an animal hospital for injured kites affected by the city’s pollution.
Sen accumulated over 400 hours of footage for his nature documentary, saying that, during filming, he encountered thousands of these medium-sized birds of prey.
“We were often shooting skies that are just full of kites, where the sky gets completely covered by these tiny, lazy, floating black dots.”
To Sen, along with cinematographers Ben Bernhard and Riju Das, the language of the film needed to be poetic.
“One of the languages that was developed by Ben Bernhard — the German [director of photography] of the film — and then the Indian DP Riju Das, was that the film couldn’t just be the through line of these two brothers and the work that they do,” Sen says.
“The brothers are contemplative, meditative people. So over time, I realized that the film had to have that kind of quality,” he adds. “It had to be contemplative, and it had to below slow, and it had to be poetic.”
The director also noted an unusual component he captured in his nature documentary: boredom.
“I think boredom goes a long way. Boredom kind of has a blunt power where the minute the camera’s not an obtrusive, big presence — and they’re bored of you,” Sen explains. “And you get the first yawn on camera, is when you know that you suddenly get quotidian life in all its everydayness and humdrum mundaneness, which is the aspiration of the documentary.”
Despite the social unrest and worsening conditions of New Dehli, Sen believes that the question of hope is the “founding question of the film.”
On the two brothers and their assistant Salik Rehman, he says, “They have a stoic, wry resilience. The birds are going on falling, you have to put your head down and go on. And in that, there’s a cruel optimism. It’s a complicated redemptive hope where, of course, they’re hopeful — and every bird that flies off is a tiny miracle, every bird that they’ve helped and treated and it flies again. Essentially, they’re three Don Quixotes who are doing tiny micro acts of micro gestures of radical hopefulness.”