As its title suggests, Shaunak Sen’s film, now in theaters and streaming next year on HBO Max, is about much more than Black Kites, a species that thrives in Delhi largely by scavenging trash. It’s also concerned with environmental degradation in a city where the air is so polluted that breathing it caused an estimated 54,000 premature deaths in 2020 and where its “sheer opacity,” per the movie’s website, “ensures that bigger birds, especially raptors, regularly collide into buildings or get entangled in wires.” And looming behind Sen’s lyrical shots of this urban environment is a wave of horrific sectarian violence against Muslims like the film’s heroes.
Most directly, though, All That Breathes—the first film to win best documentary at both the Sundance and Cannes festivals—is about the brothers’ refusal to ignore the suffering of the abundant but vulnerable Black Kites. Audubon spoke with Sen about the film and its subjects’ extraordinary dedication to their avian neighbors.
Audubon: How did you first meet the brothers?
Sen: When you live in a city like Delhi, the air sort of has a heavy, opaque, omnipresent quality. It’s like you’re surrounded by this kind of gray lamina that’s constantly coating your life. And you’re very conscious of breathing in noxious fumes, and the sky is like this gray monochromatic expanse with tiny dots—Black Kites. So, essentially what happened is that I wanted to do something about the triangulation of people, birds, and air. I think if I had to pinpoint a moment of what led me to meeting the brothers, I was stuck in a traffic jam and looking up at the lazy dots in the sky that are the Black Kites. After noticing that one of them sort of seemed to plummet, I was gripped by the figure of a bird that falls out of the Delhi sky. I soon started researching what happens to birds that fall out of the sky, and that’s when I first met the brothers. And the minute you walk into their very dark and derelict tiny basement with these very industrial heavy metal-cutting machines on one side and these magisterial birds on the other, it’s very thematically dramatic.
Audubon: And you just knew right away they would be the main focus of your film?
Sen: The film took us three years, but once you start a film it’s like jumping off a cliff, right? It’s a free fall. And I was just very taken by the brothers and their kind of hypnotic, ravenous relationship with Black Kites. I was reading a lot of literature that featured birds as metaphors—you know, books like The Peregrine, or H Is for Hawk, or Grief Is the Thing With Feathers—and a number of books that work with avian cultures and use them as poetic, lyrical references. For the brothers, the kite emerges as a kind of otherworldly, wondrous, magical being. I was very drawn to that perspective.
Audubon: Can you talk about the way Black Kites fit into this urban ecosystem or the role they play in Delhi in its culture?
Sen: It’s very interesting to me that it’s not a conservation crisis because the Black Kite is very successful. And I think Delhi has the densest population of Black Kites in the world. The Black Kite is very central to the city’s metabolism. The film talks about this enormous landfill that’s in the city and the Black Kites are, in a way, part of the microbiota of the city. If the city is sort of like a stomach, they are absolutely crucial to the metabolism of it because they dispense of the trash. They deal with the refuse of the city. They’re absolutely crucial to the city’s ecological framework.
Audubon: We’ve written about how these birds can be injured or killed by sharpened strings used for competitive kite flying in the city. Is that still a significant threat to Black Kites or has the public become more aware of the danger for the birds?
Sen: It for sure is a big threat, and I really don’t imagine that the public has become aware of it yet. On certain days of the year that are big for the country culturally, what happens is that as they’re flying kites from the terrace, a lot of birds get entangled in the wires, and it’s a real problem. The number of birds that fall are very, very, very big. So it is absolutely a problem. With the film gaining some traction culturally, increasingly the problem has been spotted. But no, I don't think there is awareness about it at all. It’s extremely, extremely negligible. And the number of birds that are falling are not lessening at all.
Audubon: What was your biggest challenge making this documentary?
Sen: I think there were multiple challenges. I think finding the grammar to be able to speak about the brothers, finding the grammar of how to show the multiplicity of animals in a film, and finding the grammar to talk about birds creatively and lyrically. Making a nonfiction film is really making something out of nothing at all, and the world isn’t very supportive. It’s emotionally, financially, creatively exhausting, but it's also rewarding—every day.
But what also happened is I lost my father very suddenly in the middle of last year. And to be able to be intuitive and authentic to what was happening in my life and make it—you know, because your own life is kind of the raw material for the film you’re making. And to use it to be able to express the sad elegance of the brothers themselves. They were really challenges of texture. But more than that, just staying at it. Three years is a long time, and to be at it constantly takes a lot out of you.
Audubon: Compared to when you set out on this project, did you complete the film with a different sense of what it was about or a different understanding of the relationship between people and birds?
Sen: Completely different. Initially I thought maybe the film was an exploration of care, an exploration of trans-species love between the brothers and the kites. But that’s not at all how it panned out. All the stuff about the emotional fissures and tensions between the brothers and the turbulent stuff happening in the streets outside socially, you know, the fact that the city was on the boil outside and all of that—I didn’t anticipate at all. A lot of it constantly changed, which is how it should be. Documentaries are a radical embrace of the unscriptedness of life.
Audubon: You mentioned the unrest in Delhi. How did that impact filming?
Sen: Because things were so turbulent, the question was whether we included all of that. The brothers themselves are not, frankly, political people in the sense that they are interested in the politics of humans and birds and non-human life, but not so much the sectarian identity-based politics that the city was at that point erupting with. I didn’t want to eschew it. I think the idea was that it’s going to be an oblique presence. It’s like wallpaper to their lives. And you would constantly tangentially sense the political rather than flatly confront it. So it leaks through audio. A character goes to the balcony and you hear the crowds in the background. It’s potentially present in small, minor, oblique ways, but you only sense that there’s something of interest that might be brewing. We were very conscious of not making it front and center because it’s not front and center to the lives of the brothers.
Audubon: I noticed that there were a lot of really raw moments with the brothers. They have a great sense of humor. They would be joking around while they were working on the birds. How did you get them to warm up to the camera?
Sen: Boredom. When you first show up, people are very conscious of the essence that they project in front of the camera, and the cameras are a very obtrusive, big presence in the beginning. But boredom is your friend because if you keep showing up and shooting every day, after a while, people get bored with the camera, get bored of you. When you get the first yawn in front of the camera is when you know that—you want to get a sense of emptiness and the real, and that only happens if people are not conscious of you.
Audubon: What would you say is the most important thing you learned while making this film?
Sen: I think patience. It’s very easy to be blinkered to what’s happening in the non-human world. So I think that kind of patience to stay with the trouble and watch and get a larger perspective at length, but also the patience to stay with the project and keep at it until you find a correct and authentic form for it. And that’s very rewarding.
Audubon: There is a lot of pain and sadness in this film, but it also seems to have something to say about the idea of hope, or about the ability of both people and wildlife to adapt to difficult circumstances. Is this ultimately a hopeful work, or is that too easy a response to the challenging themes you’re grappling with here?
Sen: Well, I think there’s two things about this. What I find interesting in the brothers’ perspective is that, of course there’s a kind of sadness and the kind of recognition of the inevitability of ecological devastation that we are at the brink of. It’s like they have front-row seats to the apocalypse—birds are literally falling out of the sky into their tiny basement. But having said that, why I find the brothers interesting is that they have—hope is maybe too simplistic, and I don’t mean it in a simplistic way. But there’s a guarded, cautious optimism that they have. They have a wry resilience, an unsentimental stripe of wry resilience, of just soldiering on, putting your head down and getting on with it because the birds are falling and somebody needs to take care, which I have truly incredible respect for. I think the world needs more of these Don Quixotes to do these kinds of micro acts and micro gestures. And these become the life rafts for hope.