Director Shounak Sen on his documentary, All That Breathes

Shaunak Sen on his award-winning documentary about urban ecology centred on the lives of two raptor rescuers
A still from ‘All That Breathes’, which follows the life of Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzaad, founders of Wildlife Rescue.
A still from ‘All That Breathes’, which follows the life of Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzaad, founders of Wildlife Rescue.

“You don’t care for things just because they share the same country, religion, or politics. Life itself is kinship.” Delhi-based filmmaker Shaunak Sen’s documentary All That Breathes ends on these thoughtful words. The film that won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance International Film Festival 2022, follows the life and work of Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, co-founders of Wazirabad-based Wildlife Rescue, a rescue and rehabilitation centre for birds of prey.

Shot with utmost detail and attention, this film is more than just an account of the ecological damage that Delhi is experiencing. By tapping into the realities of identity, politics, humanity, and existence, the film offers a peek into Delhi as a whole. In this interview, Sen (34) discusses the process of working on All That Breathes and the love it has received.

You have mentioned that you had a certain idea of what the film should look like before you started working on it.  How much of the final product, would you say, has come out the way you envisioned it?

We began with a vague visual texture of what we were interested in about the sensorium of living in the city and also this sense of thinking about the city through a non-human lens, about different forms of life that are constantly jostling cheek by jowl in the city. If I had to stencil what we were thinking in the beginning and correlate it with what emerged at the end, absolutely nothing. We had a vague sense of the grammar and the durational experience of the film; it’d be slow, it’d be snapshot-y, and it won’t be chronological, but that’s largely about it. With a collaboration of cinematographers—Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, Saumyananda Sahi—the film’s vocabulary developed intuitively and organically over time. The way we shot non-human life, which is largely the slow cinematic reveal, and this grammar that we decided that we are not going to edit at all, it'll be on unit. The fact that we’ll be using slow pans or tilts or focus shifts without cutting in the middle, developed organically too. The idea was to show the collisions of different experiences of time. So, if you have traffic and a turtle looking at it, the urban as a kind of ecological space opens up in different ways, and only cinema has the power to do that. So, these are things that we developed on the fly and only through the making of the film.

In a deeper sense, you become the filmmaker who can make this film and it is not the other way round. And again, the film was almost found in its viewing experience on the editing table with the work of the editors Vedant Joshi and Charlotte Munch Bangsten. So, we did not pre-meditate it to an accurate degree at all. 

Even though the film is essentially about ecological damage, it vividly touches upon other themes too. Were you always certain that you wanted to make a film layered as such or did these nuances just leak in amid filming?

We were very certain of what the film was not to be. We were sure that it wouldn't be a wildlife documentary. We were also sure that it wasn't going to be a straightforward ecology film. The film walks through different layers and one layer leaks into the other. The broadest bubble is the ecology or life wherein you feel you are at the brink of something wrong. The second layer underneath it is the social unrest where you feel everyone around the life of these brothers is going through some kind of churn. There is this kind of turbulence or unrest or a sense of the threat that you sense but do not normally encounter it ever. The bottom-most level is that of the brothers’ lives itself, which form the emotional anchor or sanctum on which the film piggybacks. That is how it was developed; there are these layers and it is a broad tapestry of things, and it was in this kind of meshwork structure that hopefully it is not about one thing but multiple things.

We were interested in the idea of the leak, so the social stuff sort of leaks in. The character goes into the balcony and you hear the audio as it happens in real life. You are doing what you want to do, but the world outside hemorrhages in.

How did you ensure your subjects were comfortable in front of the camera?

The first month of shooting in any film is less to do about the visual object or the theme but largely the labour goes into making your characters comfortable, earning trust, and creating a space for open dialogue where you get a sense of what is okay and what is not okay, what are the rhythm and cadences of conversation, and what can be excavated from the character’s mind. Inevitably, in the first month when you get the camera in, it is this big intrusive presence and people are too conscious of themselves. None of the material initially is useful ever. The joke in the crew was it is only when the subject starts yawning in front of the camera that you realise that they are truly bored of you. That is when good material starts coming out. It is only when you become the wallpaper of their lives, once you have receded into the background, that it works.

On some days I would go to them and say, “Aaj hum deewar hain (Today we are like walls.),” which means they are just going about their day and we are shooting. When you go to a house for three years and shoot, after a certain point they really don't care about your presence.

My conversations with Nadeem where he opened up about the more emotional recesses of his desires, his sense of incompleteness is only something that gets slowly culled out, extracted, sharpened, and properly articulated; that is a function of time. It is like any friendship, you peel out layers of people and things, and if people feel like you have given the gift of attention then that brings with it a sense of integrity and that's also why people also open up. There is a texture of them being in front of the camera rather than behaving. In the first half of the film, you can feel they are conscious but by the second half, they are free.

Before All That Breathes you made Cities of Sleep (2015) that touches upon the infamous “sleep mafia” in Delhi, another pertinent issue the city grapples with. What is the relationship that you share with the city, and is it in any way reflected in your films?

The whole direction team is from Delhi and were deeply interested in the vernacular and colloquial cultures of the city. I don’t think we’d be able to make a similar intimately-flavourful story as Cities of Sleep or All That Breathes in any other city. I just don’t know any other city this way and that's the case with everyone working in the direction team. There was this idea that one can disassemble Delhi through a certain lens. If Cities of Sleep was about looking at the urban through the lens of sleep, or the lens of the horizontal, this film [All That Breathes] was about looking at the city through the lens of birds, or through the vertical.

The fact that I grew up in Delhi and the film, when it first came as a vague idea and texture, it was a texture so salient and endemic to Delhi… this sense of grayness that all of us have gotten used to. You look at the sun and it is like a diffracted, diffused blot, and you have these tiny dots gliding in the sky that are the kites. It is organically all tied and has its genesis in Delhi, of course.

With All that Breathes being the only Indian film to be screened at Sundance this year and also winning the Grand Jury Prize, do you think this will help bring some change in the Indian documentary space that is rather restricted?

All of us have some kind of guarded optimism or measured hope about this. Yes, the dissemination infrastructure makes things very difficult in the country. With Cities of Sleep, we were super happy being as evangelical as possible, showing the film as widely as we could, and we travelled very widely with the film. But despite doing 100 screenings, we couldn't find an online sanctuary for it. That’s how things are. With this film and the Grand Jury award, the hope for being able to reach out to other people and have a broader spectrum of people who want to watch is bigger, of course.

Yet, I don’t want to harbour the misplaced hopes of a bigger paradigm shift but looking at the films that have recently come in like Writing with Fire (2021), Katiyabaaz (2013), and An Insignificant Man (2016), there has been some degree of shift anyway. It is not the old model with Indian documentaries. With such films, I think what will happen is that the appetite for watching documentaries or this sense that documentaries are also high-prestige art objects and entertaining will also increase, and therefore the curiosity around them will increase. Hopefully, the distributors and buyers in India will open up a bit more. Katiyabaaz and An Insignificant Man played in the theatres, Writing with Fire has made its Oscar run. These are big landmark films in the horizon of the documentary. Films like Placebo (2014) and Invisible Demons (2021) have also pushed artistic boundaries.

So, like I said, there is a measured hope that some things are changing but in a very guarded way.

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