All That Breathes review – Delhi’s birdmen on a mission to save the black kite

Two Indian brothers dedicate themselves to rescuing birds that are being poisoned by pollution in this complex and quietly beautiful film

Shaunak Sen’s documentary is a complex, thoughtful, quietly beautiful film about the ecosystem and human community. Two brothers in Delhi, Mohammad and Nadeem (and their humble, faintly put-upon employee Salik) have spent the past two decades on a mission to help the black kite, a commonplace bird that wheels in the skies above the city, but is becoming slowly poisoned with pollution, just as the city’s society is becoming poisoned by sectarianism and hatred. They rescue injured and sick birds and nurse them back to health.

The kites themselves are, arguably, not especially delicate or beautiful creatures: they are fierce predators who have become used to scavenging in the city, encouraged by a tradition of “meat tossing”, and the city’s age-old conviction or superstition that it is good to feed these kites because they eat the sins of those that feed them. Like ravens in the Tower of London, the black kites are thought of as a vital part of the city, a kind of secular holiness. The brothers’ ramshackle animal welfare clinic is dependent on local charity, and they are increasingly stressed and depressed at the lack of support, although a supportive article in the New York Times in 2020 (which presumably inspired this film) does bring in more money.

But one brother is thinking of abandoning this vocation and going to study in the US, before it is too late for him to do anything other than this – so a sadness underlies the film. There is something quixotic in their support for the kites who would otherwise be unsentimentally ignored by the vast majority of people; Mohammad and Nadeem experience something mystical and mysterious in their devotion to the birds, a kind of ritual dedication to their community and to the ideal of interconnectedness.

• All That Breathes is released on 14 October in cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘A gaping wound’: how a film about birds of prey is a warning to India’s capital city
Meditative documentary All That Breathes is about two brothers’ devotion to protecting black kites against a backdrop of pollution and violence in Delhi

Saptarshi Ray

23, May, 2022 @9:44 AM

Article image
Stricken by smog: the miraculous, Oscar-tipped film about Delhi’s bird hospital
Years in the making and boasting astonishing footage, All That Breathes tells the extraordinary story of the bodybuilding brothers getting pollution-choked birds flying again. We meet its director

Patrick Barkham

06, Feb, 2023 @5:01 PM

Article image
'We were trying not to get hit by their tails' – how I filmed the Faroe whale hunt
Whale hunts in the Faroes cause global outrage. But Mike Day spent four years filming – and getting to know – the islanders. He uncovered a far more complex story

Patrick Barkham

29, Mar, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Indian government takes major step to save vultures | Janaki Lenin
Janaki Lenin: Almost a decade after banning the veterinary drug diclofenac, the Indian government has banned large vials of the drug meant for human use

Janaki Lenin

05, Sep, 2015 @4:59 AM

Article image
Bird Island review – strange goings-on at a Swiss avian sanctuary
This quasi-documentary about injured birds and distressed humans in a secluded locale will appeal to the most rarefied of viewers

Leslie Felperin

23, Sep, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Ama-San review – a deep dive into Japan's fisherwomen culture
Cláudia Varejão’s camera embark’s on an enigmatic and occasionally baffling study of a hypnotic world

Leslie Felperin

17, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Sharkwater: Extinction review – an eco-doc with bite and poignancy
Rob Stewart’s follow-up to his 2006 feature shines a light on human cruelty – and gains power from the fate of its maker

Cath Clarke

22, Mar, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Born to be wild: India’s first captive-bred endangered vultures are set free
Numbers of the country’s carrion-loving birds dropped by over 97% in the 1990s. Now, a successful breeding scheme is giving them a boost

Kamakshi Ayyar

19, Aug, 2021 @5:15 AM

Article image
Of Fish and Foe review – gripping tale of seals, salmon and saboteurs
Clashes between pro-wildlife protesters and Scottish net fishers over the shooting of predators are the focus of this lively documentary

Leslie Felperin

25, Jul, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Rajan the last ocean-swimming elephant: Jody MacDonald’s best photograph
‘He had been used for logging on the Andaman Islands. When I found him, he was 60, living in retirement – and loving his swims’

Interview by Graeme Green

08, Dec, 2021 @3:27 PM