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Interview with All That Breathes director Shaunak Sen

Shaunak Sen
A scene from All That Breathes. Courtesy Rise Films

Editor’s note: The Academy Awards will be presented this Sunday, March 12, and as you may know, a film about bird rehabilitators is among the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. All That Breathes was the first film ever to win the documentary prize at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. The movie, which is now streaming on HBO and HBO Max, tells the story of two brothers who run a wildlife clinic on a shoestring budget in crowded New Delhi. In early February, Los Angeles-based journalist Fernanda Ezabella, from Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, interviewed the film’s director, Shaunak Sen. Folha de S.Paulo first published the interview this week in Portuguese, and we’re pleased to present it here.

How did you meet the brothers and decide to film them?

The movie sort of began prior to meeting the brothers in a way. When you live in Delhi, the air has a kind of creepy sentience, heavy preponderance. And, as such, everybody’s always a bit preoccupied with it. I was interested in doing something about the air. And, alongside that, I was also interested philosophically in human/non-human relationships. That’s how it started. I was interested in avian life, and once you see the singular work of the brothers, and once you go to that basement, it’s inherently cinematic and riveting.

What did you do to gain their trust?


In terms of trust, boredom goes a long way. You have to wait for the characters to get bored. Initially, in any documentary, the first months you’re essentially just shooting knowing that your presence and the cameras’ presence are very obtrusive. But the minute you get the first yawn on camera, it’s the kind of unselfconscious behavior that you need.

The ambition of the documentary form is a kind of banal, everyday quotidian, mundane kind of style. And that only happens when the characters are both bored and trusting. It’s the combination of both. It can’t just be trust unless people are bored with you. So, you have to earn the boredom.

How are the brothers doing today? Did Nadeem get back to Delhi?


They are thrilled, obviously. Nadeem did go back to India soon after the film ends, just after what you see at the end of the film. The brothers have been thrilled with the travels. All three of them went to Cannes, and Nadeem has gone to almost as many film festivals as I have. He went to Krakow, went to Australia, went to New York twice, and he is now going to BAFTA. Salik is also going to the BAFTA. They’ll come to the Oscars, if not the three of them at least the two brothers.

They are thrilled with all the attention on their work. They’re thrilled because HBO released the doc just two days ago.

Our producers very kindly funded their hospital for a year. So, there’s been material help also, but one doesn’t want to simplify and say that a documentary in one fell swoop will transform a family’s life. It’s important to be responsible and not say these things. I do think that it will hopefully alleviate some of the persistent hardships.


How much did the producers provide?

Basically, the brothers asked to give a year’s budget, which they did, and then the producers are paying them that. I don’t know if the brothers would like to talk about the exact numbers.

What about individuals? Are people sending donations over?

The film has just become available to the public in the west. So, it has started, but I don’t think it’s enough. It’s been trickles. Hopefully, it will go on increasing as the film is open to the public.


How was your approach to filming the birds?

None of us are from nature or wildlife documentary background. So, we were very uncontaminated, visually. The thing we wanted the most was, firstly, a lot of long, uncut shots. You see there’s a range of other animals in the film — rats, pigs, horses, all of that. So, we decided that the grammar of the film has to be these long languid pans and tilts. Because the main idea was a kind of simultaneity, to show the entanglement between human and non-human life in the city.

To be able to communicate kinship and all of that, it takes a single take to communicate that better than the spoken word or the written word can communicate. That’s how we developed this style.

Even with the birds, these are not cute songbirds. These are, at times, ferocious birds of prey. So, we had to shoot them to retain that kind of monumental magisterial gaze back at the camera.


Did you feel you were doing a nature documentary in a way?

The whole directorial team was sure that we did not want to make it feel like a nature documentary at all. We did not have the experience, nor did we have the expertise. So, we were only very happy for it to not be that. The film’s ambitions were too philosophical for it to even resemble that kind of thing. The brothers and Salik, they are like three Don Quixotes, they are trafficking in micro miracles.

I saw a science editor and a science advisor listed in the final credits. How did they help the movie?

Our producers, executive producers and the financiers of the firm are from a studio called the Tangled Bank Studios, part of a larger extended science organization called HHMI, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Our executive producer is the head of the studio, Sean B. Carroll, who’s a very well-known evolutionary scientist. So, the organization is deeply steeped in scientific knowledge and scientific communication. They have a lot of rigor about what is right and what is wrong. Their protocol was to have a science advisor for checking facts. I had a science advisor who works in avian and ornithological studies at Oxford, and he basically looked at the film, advised on basically seeing that there was nothing wrong or inaccurate or egregious scientifically in the film. It was a very thorough and rigorous process.


I was curious as to why the birds are falling from the skies. The movie implies pollution is the major cause, but I wonder if…

It’s a complicated scenario, really. Basically, what happened is that there’s a multiplicity of scenarios.

Firstly, the thing is that the vultures died out very suddenly because of this thing called the diclofenac event. Diclofenac would end up in the kidneys of livestock, and when the vultures would eat their carcasses, they would have renal failure and die. The food source in Delhi for Black Kites, which now became the apex predator, was very high because of the waste of the city; there’s so much, the landfills are huge, and therefore the food sources huge.

Apart from that, we don’t really know exactly what the toxins are in the air and how that affects the Black Kites. But the opacity there (Delhi), of course, is also a factor because everything is more opaque. So, it’s not one simple correlation. It’s a variety of ecological factors.


What about the man-made kites?

Of course, that’s also a huge reason. Huge, very, very big reason, which is the paper kites and the strings that are used to fly them. The kites often sort of get stuck in it.

When the New York Times wrote about the brothers in 2020, the reporter said the “manja” was 90% of the cause [the kite string coated with powdered glass]. Could the number be that big?

I don’t know what the percentage is. I wouldn’t know if that percentage is accurate, but it’s a huge factor for sure.


Even being illegal, people in Delhi still fly the dangerous kites with threads coated with glass…

It’s a huge cultural thing. It’s an enormous cultural practice. I don’t know if all kite flying is illegal. Some strings are not allowed to use, but otherwise, it’s a very big cultural phenomenon.

The brothers say in the movie they were moving some 170 birds when building the new hospital area. Do they have a cap on how many they can treat?

I think they have treated around 26,000 birds in the last 15 or 20 years. They have very meticulous records, but I currently don’t know what the average numbers are. During the summer, when it’s the breeding season, I’ve seen them sometimes get as high as 25 to 30 kites a day. Sometimes it’s like four or five kites a day. It fluctuates with the seasons. Winter is usually when the lineatus, a subcategory of the Black Kite, comes to Delhi.


Read BirdWatching’s review of All That Breathes

Donate to a GoFundMe for the wildlife rescue featured in the film

Watch an interview with Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud about the man-made kites that threaten Black Kites

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Fernanda Ezabella

Fernanda Ezabella

Fernanda Ezabella is a Brazilian journalist based in Los Angeles who writes for Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper. 

Fernanda Ezabella on social media