Documentary on Delhi’s fragile ecosystem swoops in to collect Cannes award

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India's capital, New Delhi, is home to 20 million people and is one of the most polluted cities on the planet. Director Shaunak Sen is not afraid to highlight the drastic effect of air pollution on his beloved city and in particular on its fauna, from scavenging rats and dogs to birds in the sky.

Sen’s documentary “All that Breathes” – which won the L’Oeil d’Or for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival – looks at the devastation that climate change has brought on living creatures, in particular birds of prey.

The film is both a testament of his love and a cry from the heart.

“It's essentially about birds falling out of the sky, as a metaphor and symptom of ecological and social malaise,” he told RFI after the screening on 23 May.

World Environment Day

Marking World Environment Day this Sunday, the United Nations hopes to bring the gravity of the situation into focus, with air pollution being one of the key issues.

Estimated to cause around 7 million premature deaths every year worldwide, air pollution is linked to respiratory problems, heart disease, cancer and other serious illnesses.

Twenty-one of the world's 30 cities with the worst levels of air pollution are in India, according to data compiled in the 2021 World Air Quality Report.

Six Indian cities are in the top 10 and New Delhi has the highest exposure to toxic air in the country.

It could be labelled as an environmental “wake-up call”, but the film deftly escapes being "pigeon-holed".

The director says he is more interested in getting people to simply open their eyes look around them.

Sen explores the ambient global chaos by zooming in on the private daily struggle faced by brothers Nadeem and Saud, who dedicate their spare time to rescuing thousands of injured black kites and other raptors that have dropped out of Delhi’s skies, suffering from malnutrition and deformities.

The film’s scenes are either in the brothers’ dark, cramped basement that regularly floods, or outside, where the sky is permanently grey. The viewer can’t help but feel the weight of the smoggy air and a sense of doom.

Drop in the ocean

But Sen shows us so many moments of pure poetry: an aircraft floats across the sky, reflected in a puddle of water on the ground; a spider delicately spins its web. A baby chick is given a bubble bath, and a raptor swoops in and snatches one of the men’s glasses right off his nose.

The result is an unobtrusive meditation on the uphill battle of the men to stay afloat financially, to feed their families and save some lives, however small. Many walked away from the screening with tears in their eyes, moved by what seems a hopeless enterprise – a “drop in the ocean”.

“I wanted to capture both the world at the edge of a complete breakdown and moments of transcendental beauty when you’re shooting the animals,” he explains, adding that his team clocked up around 200 hours of footage over three years.

Since 2003, the brothers, with the help of volunteer Salik Rehman, have treated more than 20,000 injured birds in their makeshift clinic in their home. Towards the end of the film, when all seems lost, they receive news of a funding grant to build a wildlife hospital, providing a glimmer of hope.

Sublime and brutal

“It’s impossible to crystallise things down into positive or negative,” Sen says. “In the global south there are many contradictions. There is the truly sublime and beautiful and the truly brutal.”

There are unsettling moments when communal riots broke out in Delhi, after the government announced a citizenship bill.

Muslim families, like Nadeem and Saud’s were afraid to stay out on the streets at night. They organised patrols to protect property from marauding mobs.

Sen says it was natural for him to add this dimension into the documentary as it evolved.

“It was a very chaotic couple of years, for Delhi especially, so of course everything that was happening in the city leaked into their lives. That’s how real life is, right?”

“I hope the film leaves people thinking about a whole cross section of things,” he concludes.

"All that Breathes" won top prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been acquired by HBO.

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