Stricken by smog: the miraculous, Oscar-tipped film about Delhi’s bird hospital | Documentary films

Stricken by smog: the miraculous, Oscar-tipped film about Delhi’s bird hospital | Documentary films

There is an astonishing second close to the starting of All That Breathes, a luminous documentary about the labours of two brothers who rescue birds of prey falling from the polluted skies of Delhi. Salik Rehman, a youthful assistant, is feeding an injured raptor on a rooftop. A chipmunk scampers together the balcony and, looking at the chook, abruptly turns tail. Then, suddenly, a wild black kite dive-bombs Rehman, neatly lifts his glasses from his nose and carries them absent.

It is the type of tiny, unusual miracle that belongs in magical realism fiction. The point that it is serious can only imply that director Shaunak Sen spent 1000’s of several hours gathering material for his all-conquering feature-movie, which has won very best documentary at Sundance and Cannes and is now nominated at the Baftas and the Oscars.

“We had been there for a extended time. We shot for almost a few many years,” states Sen, an eloquent, philosophical Delhiite who is talking from a lodge home near Munich in the midst of an epic advertising tour. “But the moment with the eyeglasses remaining taken is actually not a functionality of time – it’s a perform of pure, liquid luck. I could have expended 10 decades capturing and that minute wouldn’t have happened, and for it to come when the aperture was correct and the framing and the gentle had been Okay – we have to thank our superior stars for it.”

Sen’s very first full-size movie, Metropolitan areas of Rest, slipped into the environment of Delhi’s tough sleepers and its “sleep mafia”. All That Breathes enters the universe of a further set of having difficulties city underdogs: its non-human inhabitants. This poetic, dreamy but avowedly unsentimental film is adorned with cameos from myna birds and mosquito larvae, turtles on garbage dumps, pigeons, goats and rats as very well as the magisterial kites, with their stern, amber gaze, as if sat in judgment of the air pollution about them.

Movie strategies, says Sen, start as “an ineffable glow in the back again of your head, where you only have a perception of texture and tone”. He wanted to discover “the human, non-human entanglement” and also the air, because “everybody in Delhi is preoccupied with the air in one particular way or a different it is this gray, opaque expanse that’s just laminating just about every facet of your life”.

Then he was stuck in a traffic jam pondering the “dystopian picture-postcard of Delhi, this monochromatic sky and these birds falling from it” and he Googled: “Where do birds that fall out of the sky go?” Brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud arrived up: previous bodybuilders who rescue and rehabilitate birds of prey in the garage of their modest property in north Delhi. “When you visit, their residence has a sort of surreal, cinematic density – this grubby, dank basement comprehensive of industrial decay, and in the middle of it, these regal birds,” claims Sen. “After that, the movie is a fever desire. You bounce off a cliff and the upcoming couple a long time come to be a freefall.”

Trafficking in micro-miracles … from left, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud.
Trafficking in micro-miracles … from still left, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud. Photograph: Dogwoof

To receive the intimate realism he desired, Sen to start with established himself the process with the brothers – who were made use of to journalists reporting on their do the job – of disappearing. “Nobody can give obtain to that form of intimacy even if they desired to, due to the fact it is actually not a question of volition,” he suggests. “Initially, they were incredibly media savvy. My problem was to split that. The key weapon in the toolkit of a documentary film-maker is boredom. The to start with thirty day period you shoot continually. At last, you achieve an unselfconsciousness, exactly where individuals are remaining as a substitute of behaving. It is only when you get your first yawn in front of the camera that you know the substance will now be usable.”

Gradually, the brothers’ tales emerge. Saud is a quiet vet who performs each day miracles on dozens of birds introduced in boxes to his makeshift running theatre his more mature brother, Shehzad, is the far more garrulous fixer, who applies for charitable cash to maintain their hand-to-mouth company. “When we started off, I didn’t know what we were being producing, but I did not want to make a wildlife documentary. I did not want to make a conventional sociopolitical vérité doc. And most of all, I did not want to make a sweet movie of great people today doing superior items.”

Shehzad and Saud might “traffic in micro-miracles”, as Sen places it, but their story is not saccharin. He was drawn to their “grown-up, grumpy, wry resilience” and was privileged that they have a compelling, bickering dynamic that injects jeopardy into their story. They also expose them selves to be deep thinkers. Sen observed himself retaining a diary of their “clever, philosophical droppings”, then he persuaded the brothers to include a voiceover to converse them. Their 1st kite, the brothers remembered, “looked like a furious reptile from one more planet”. Today, they notice, “humanity is now the normal environment”.

‘Pure liquid luck’ … director Shaunak Sen at the Cannes festival.
‘Pure liquid luck’ … director Shaunak Sen at the Cannes competition. Photograph: Stéphane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

Sen is “a substantial fan” of British nature producing – Robert Macfarlane, JA Baker’s The Peregrine and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk – but through Shehzad and Saud he tells a world story of “neighbourliness or kinship with non-human life” and of how, by improvisation and ingenuity, non-human life even now finds niches in an natural environment dominated by people and their pollution.

“I was very interested in making this film about the interiority of the thoughts and the finer philosophical depths that the brothers had been ready to accessibility since of their get the job done. They arrive across as entire organic intellectuals,” suggests Sen. “Their voiceover turned a sort of bilingual type – the in this article-and-now observational type and the voiceover inner-life-of-mine fashion. It can make you reflect on the entanglement of existence varieties. If it experienced turn out to be the tale of just one family members, it would not have become a planetary factor, it would not have develop into certainly ecological.”

For all the brothers’ philosophical panache, Sen was “a little bit worried” about how their at times lugubrious manner would arrive throughout on digicam. The good news is, their assistant, Rehman, provides a counterfoil with his “unvarnished, pristine innocence,” smiles Sen. “He also has this quality of attracting incidents.” There’s an alarming scene in which Rehman and Saud swim throughout a swirling brown river to rescue a kite. And there is a gorgeous instant where Rehman is transporting rescued birds in a rickshaw and a chipmunk pops out of his shirt pocket. Rehman, claims Sen, tends to make audiences snicker. “He has an unbridled appreciate and gentleness for the animals. He was radically, emotionally and cinematically tremendously vital.”

As well as urban ecology, All That Breathes unexpectedly will become a story of complex human ecology, too. Gradually, the tense sounds of nearby demonstrations intrudes on the chicken sanctuary. The brothers are Muslim, spiritual intolerance is growing and riots are spreading via their neighbourhood. “This was meant to be a purely ecological and philosophical movie, and an emotional exploration of the brothers’ inner lives. But the metropolis of Delhi was likely via a genuinely tumultuous time. We had to wrestle with whether or not to stage the camera streetwards.”

Bath-time … a fallen kite is cleaned up.
Bath-time … a fallen kite is cleaned up. Photograph: © Submarine Deluxe

Sen made the decision that whenever troubling exterior activities impinged on their hen rescue filming, they would place it in the movie. “The actual globe generally leaks in acoustically. I like this variety of indirect, tangential presence to a entrance-and-centre hammering absent about what the sociopolitical circumstance is.” What emerges is a pretty genuine portrait of how broader political activities impinge on the life of ordinary people today.

The film ends on a bittersweet observe, but what has transpired considering that filming stopped is far more uplifting. Shehzad, Saud and Rehman have loved becoming a member of Sen at festivals close to the globe and their animal rescue centre has been – modestly – upgraded. The film’s producers have donated sufficient cash to support it for a calendar year, and donations are only probable to grow with the film’s results. Sen is cautious, however. “I do not want to simplistically overstate what a movie can do to improve a family’s lifestyle. Ideally it presents a form of oasis, but in the extended-term I really do not know.”

And an Oscar? Sen is far too self-effacing to specific anything other than “extreme happiness” and gratitude for his nomination, but the reality he admits to emotion “relief” when the nomination was announced suggests that he has appear round to the notion that he has created an outstanding movie that chimes with audiences close to the earth. “When something this major occurs, your mind almost struggles to wrap alone close to the new coordinates of life. It’s not a compact, easy emotion – it is a complex, garbled emotion,” he says. “After all of this is done and the Academy Awards are around, I’m going to unplug for two or three months someplace incredibly tranquil and obscure, flip inwards and get started contemplating effectively about what to do next.”

All That Breathes is on Sky Documentaries on 8 February at 9pm.