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.