Have you ever felt vertigo looking at the sky?
The origin story for why Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud have opened a wildlife rescue hospital inside their garage is a simple one: the injured black kite they brought to Delhi’s regular animal hospital was rejected from care because it was a non-vegetarian bird. These brothers couldn’t fathom that as a reason. Not when they were raised by a mother who believed no living creature should ever be held as superior or inferior to any other. So, they brought it home instead. They used the knowledge they had in biology and muscles courtesy of their aspiring weightlifting careers and nursed the kite back to health themselves. As the air over Delhi deteriorated due to pollution, more birds started to fall from the sky in need of assistance. This duo complied.
While a heart-warming tale of conservationism and altruism, good karma doesn’t suddenly create perfect lives. It’s the inherent struggle to keep pushing forward after twenty years despite dwindling funds, increased patient numbers, and mounting personal frustrations that documentarian Shaunak Sen latches onto with All That Breathes. He, like Nadeem and Saud, saw the bigger picture of what their life’s work (the two own a soap dispenser company to keep their expanding family afloat) means beyond releasing kites back into the wild. There’s the species’ relationship with humanity via it taking the place of vultures to keep landfills down by eating waste meats. There’s the parallel between segregating kites from vegetarian birds and the rampant Islamophobia threatening to destroy their largely Muslim street. And there’s Nadeem’s dreams for more.
Stretches of the film are narrated by the brothers to provide context as far as why they do what they do and why we see so many squabbles (mostly Nadeem wondering why he must waste time doing menial things when he still has to write the proposals they need to acquire outside funding and Saud arguing that nothing is more important than being the lone voice protecting these animals—sometimes, and always presented humorously, even above his own child). Others parts are fly-on-the-wall sequences alongside their loyal volunteer Salik Rehman that show them at work on the operating table or in the coops as they deal with rolling brownouts, broken-down refrigerators, and a daunting swim to recover an injured bird surrounded by crows readying for a feast.
We hear snippets of the political and religious unrest via news reports, Saud’s wife talking about protests, or Salik’s mother calling to ensure he stays safe once violence breaks out. These are intentionally relegated to the background, however, so as not to hijack focus. Sen needs its presence to help illuminate the devolving nature of society alongside climate as well as to infer upon Nadeem and Saud’s lives as Muslims at-risk of injury, but for augmentation rather than focus. Is it a contributing factor for why Nadeem wrestles with leaving India to enhance his craft at an American school? Probably. Does it help make them a palatably charitable institution to finance a much-needed expansion of space? Perhaps. But it never alters their minds. Fear won’t endanger their mission.
It’s easy to like the two men and really pull for them both as “unofficial” veterinarians and human beings trying to adapt and exist in our ever-changing and volatile world. Whether their unwavering perseverance or their infectious good humor (Salik is often the butt of their sarcasm, but he never seems to mind), they are pushing forward no matter what obstacles arise. As they often tell each other when things get tough: “We’ll do what we always do—find a way.” They are selfless in their quest and notable for it too with locals calling them honorable men of great respect and the New York Times coming to write-up a feature. That they carved out this niche role within Delhi’s ecosystem to protect rather than profit says everything.
As a result, Sen can supply some amazing visuals courtesy of multiple slow pans devoid of artifice or intrusion. While the brothers speak for themselves and the kites, he and his cinematographers capture the wild juxtaposition of nature and industry via rats squeaking through garbage-laden streets, birds flying in and out of smog-filled skies, and mosquitoes drinking water pooled atop debris. The more we see animals adapting to their increasingly harsh surroundings, the less surprised we are when Salik’s arrival with four injured kites soon becomes twenty. And as Nadeem and Saud explain, there’s no real road back to how things were. Nature’s delicate balance has transformed. Cities have become the kites’ new habitat. The brothers can only hope to help these maligned and beautiful creatures survive it.
courtesy of HBO Documentary Films