Director – Shaunak Sen – 2022 – India – Cert. – 97m
Set against the backdrop of heavily polluted Delhi, Muslim siblings devote their time to healing the local species of bird that seems to get injured more than most: the black kite – plays in the BFI London Film Festival 2022 which runs from Wednesday, October 5th to Sunday, October 16th in cinemas and on BFI Player, out in UK cinemas on Friday, October 14th
Plunging the viewer right from the start into a rarely seen, night time netherworld, this contains incredible intermittent footage of life in a modern city, in this case Delhi. We are on a patch of waste ground, whether an officially designated rubbish tip or simply the place people check their waste is not clear, but the refuse is piling up and you can hear creatures scuffling around. The takes are long and soon you’re picking out rats in the darkness, and thinking that if only the rubbish was more securely contained, the rat infestation wouldn’t be a problem.
There are several similar lengthy shots that punctuate All That Breathes, and they’re absolutely mesmerising. This is in no small part due to the use of the unbroken take, coupled with complex camera moves which reminded me of last year’s pig documentary Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky, 2020).
Alas, the unbroken take can be a mixed blessing. While it delivers gold in these dark exteriors with barely visible wildlife, these shots only function in the film as establishing shots, setting the scene for the documentary’s main thrust. And while that more prominent through line, which concerns the brothers spending all their time looking after injured birds, specifically Black Kites which are prevalent in this part of the world, promises much, Sen’s obsession with long, uncut takes – which serves him so well in the background wildlife establishing shots – here proves his undoing.
Early on, a pile that one of them has brought inside suddenly topples off the pile seemingly of its own volition, the reason turning out to be, when the box is opened,that a live, injured bird is inside. Although later on a long scene has the two brothers wade through polluted water to an island to rescue a reported bird, bringing it back in a floating, home made container resembling a cross between a buoy and a lobster pot, the film seems to eschew the technique of film editing in favour of just letting shots run on and tell the story, and for every shot that holds the viewer’s attention, there are a dozen more that alienate him by not isolating what’s compelling in the footage but forcing you to watch everything else, the entire take. The subject matter is rich, yet the predominant non-editing (for want of a better description) throws it away as you watch.
I was intrigued by the fact that the brothers are Muslims and that they might be motivated to do this work in whole or in part by their faith and its accompanying view of the world. However, the proceedings as here constituted largely fail to engage with this issue (although it’s lurking in there somewhere).
The whole thing rapidly outstays its welcome and the end couldn’t come quickly enough. Nevertheless, what these brothers are attempting to do, in setting up a bird hospital / sanctuary to care for these animals, is to be applauded. Such a shame the film is rendered so difficult to watch by its sloppy editing.
All That Breathes plays in the BFI London Film Festival 2022 which runs from Wednesday, October 5th to Sunday, October 16th in cinemas and on BFI Player and is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, October 14th.
Trailer (DocEdge Film Festival):
LFF 2022 Trailer: