Shaunak Sen’s Oscar- and BAFTA Awards-nominated ‘All That Breathes’ traces the story of two brothers, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who make it their personal mission to take care of raptors, especially black kites, literally falling off the sky because of polluted air.
‘All That Breathes’ producer Aman Mann spoke about the movie and the challenges the makers had to deal with when they were shooting the injured birds.
The documentary feature, co-produced by Sen, Mann and Teddy Leifer of Rise Films, has already won the prestigious Golden Eye at Cannes 2022 and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance 2022 World Cinema Documentary Competition.
Recalling how the film came about, Aman said: “I think we are still wondering about it because the film’s journey has been beyond our wildest expectations. It all started with a thought process. Shaunak was pursuing a fellowship in the UK in 2018 when he became very interested in human-animal relationships, particularly in spaces such as the city.
“When he returned to Delhi, one day, he was sitting in traffic, and he was looking at the sky, and he saw birds circling above as if they were about to fall off. Just that image got him to do research about birds in Delhi.”
Sen, incidentally, is an alumnus of Jamia Millia and received his Ph.D. from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal University, and got interested in human-animal conflicts in cities when he participated in the Cambridge University’s ERC Urban Ecologies Project as visiting scholar in 2018.
This research led Sen on to the two brothers operating out of Wazirabad in North Delhi, who took care of black kites that fell off the sky.
“When we went to their facility, it was really fascinating,” recalled Mann, a maker of ad films, documentaries and video installations. “Their day job is to manufacture soap dispensers. For that, they have metal cutting machines lying around the basement from where they operate, but then on one side is a tiny room where they treat the helpless raptors.”
Continuing with his description of the place where the two brothers operate, Mann said: “That space by itself was so cinematic. And then on the roof of their house, they had a big cage where the birds that were undergoing treatment were housed. You can walk into that cage. There were at that point 70-80 birds in there, and it was really amazing.
“So, from that point on, we knew that there was a compelling story to tell through them. And then we never looked for any other characters. We just began shooting.”
Mann pointed out that these birds are not among the endangered species, nor do they face any imminent threat.
Aman said: “That’s actually the interesting thing because these birds are not endangered. There is a very large volume of them in Delhi. So, it’s not a story of them being under any imminent threat.”
He described the exact plight of the birds and said: “What happens here is that because of the sheer number of them, there are a lot of injuries and accidents. That is why the birds suffer. Particularly as Delhi’s pollution gets more extreme. And there’s nobody else who takes care of them, other than these two brothers when it comes to these birds. So now over the past 20 years, they’ve treated more than 25,000 birds.”
But it is not easy to make documentaries in India. “There’s always a problem finding funding for documentaries in India,” Mann said. “So, initially, we were shooting ourselves with a tiny crew. And maybe we were fortunate enough to get some grants from organisations that then helped us find co-producers from the US and UK.
“That also took a long time, like the first year and half, we were shooting on a very limited scale. Then Covid happened. For a long period, our shoots were stopped because of the waves of the pandemic.”
But filming ‘All That Breathes’ did have its lighter moments. Recalling an incident that is now a part of the film, Mann said: “One of the great moments happened early on. It’s actually in the film, where a kite stole a character’s glasses on camera. And that actually went into the film. It’s one of those moments we couldn’t believe was actually happening.
“And it almost ended up being a problem because our associate camera person, who was shooting that day, started laughing. We were terrified that the giggling would ruin the shot, but thankfully, it did not!”
–By Ila Sankrityayan