‘All That Breathes:’ A Story Of Two Brothers Saving New Delhi’s Raptors
The Oscars are right around the corner, and one of the nominees in the documentary category is called “All That Breathes.” It tells the story of two brothers—Nadeem and Saud—who dedicate their lives to rescuing black kites, a type of raptor that dominates the skies of New Delhi.
Since they were children, the brothers have rescued more than 25,000 of these birds, who are quite literally falling out of the thick, polluted, hazy sky. Their conservation efforts have triumphed over limited resources and periods of religious violence in New Delhi.
Guest host John Dankosky speaks with Shaunak Sen, director of “All That Breathes,” about the making of the film, and how it’s a story of urban ecology, politics, and hope.
The film is available to stream on HBO Max.
Shaunak Sen is a filmmaker and director of “All That Breathes.” He’s based in Los Angeles, California.
REGINA BARBER: This is Science Friday. I’m Regina Barber.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And I’m John Dankosky. The Oscars are right around the corner. And I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to power through as many nominated films as I can. And one I recently watched is a documentary called All That Breathes. It tells the story of two brothers, Nadeem and Saud, who dedicate their lives to rescuing Black Kites. They’re beautiful birds, raptors that dominate the New Delhi skies.
[WINGS FLAPPING, BIRDS CHIRPING]
The brothers have managed to rescue more than 25,000 of these birds who are quite literally falling out of the thick, hazy sky. And they’re managing to do this despite very few resources and during periods of religious violence. Here to tell us more about this film is Shaunak Sen. He’s director of All That Breathes, joining us from Los Angeles. Shaunak, congratulations and welcome to Science Friday.
SHAUNAK SEN: Thank you. Really pleased to be here.
JOHN DANKOSKY: How did you first find this story?
SHAUNAK SEN: Well, the thing is that when you live in Delhi, the air itself is just such a– has a kind of creepy sentience, and it’s constantly gray and heavy, and everybody’s always preoccupied with it. And in it are these tiny, lazy, gliding black dots, which are the birds. And the bird that you see most commonly is this bird of prey or this raptor called the Black Kite.
And this one time when I was sitting, I remember looking up and feeling distinctly this impression of watching one of these black dots hurtling down, falling from the sky. And essentially I started researching where birds go when they fall off the sky. And the singular work of these two brothers, these two Muslim men, Nadeem and Saud, they work in this very tiny, grubby basement full of industrial decay and machines.
And in it, they treat these magisterial birds. And in the last 15-odd years, they’ve saved over 25,000 Black Kites. And that’s how we started on this venture to make something poetic, and philosophical, and cinematic about ecology, politics, and the emotional life of the brothers.
JOHN DANKOSKY: For these brothers, saving Kites has become a type of mission. How did they start doing this? And how did they learn to take care of these birds that were falling from the sky?
SHAUNAK SEN: I think they sort of stumbled into it in the most slapdash of manners. Their story goes that they used to be amateur bodybuilders as teenagers, and they were interested in matters of flesh, and tendons, and the ways in which muscles work. And once they would find injured Black Kites and would bring them up to their house and start healing and repairing them on their own.
And that’s how it began. It started with picking one bird up, and then 10, and then 100, and then thousands, and now scores of thousands, really. And it’s remarkable because these are not cute songbirds. They’re often ferocious raptors. And these are big, magisterial birds. So their story is really one of absolutely radical kindness.
They’re like three Don Quixotes who peddle micro miracles every day. And even though they have, as you can see, a front row seats to the apocalypse, as you’ve seen, the film doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticize anything. What’s interesting is the stuff of soldiering on. To my mind, it’s a very interesting philosophical disposition towards climate change and to planetary damage.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You started our conversation by talking about what drew you to this story in the first place was the sky above Delhi, which you described quite beautifully. And I can imagine this gray haze hanging over the city. Explain a bit more about what draws these birds from the sky. What makes them fall from the sky that is so polluting that it must be harming the humans who live there too?
SHAUNAK SEN: Well, of course, it’s harming the humans who live there too. I mean, lung disease and other kinds of respiratory ailments have really skyrocketed. They’ve really gone through the roof in recent years. Of course, it affects all nonhuman life as well.
With the Black Kite, it’s a complicated scenario. There’s a bunch of reasons why they fall down. One, for instance, is a cultural reason. The cultural practice of flying paper kites, and they have those sharp strings or the trails, you know the paper kite trails that are used to fly them– often, birds get entangled in them.
Other than that, the ecological reasons are very many. For instance, the main apex predator of in terms of the avian ecosystem for the longest time used to be the vulture in Delhi. But with what’s often called now as the diclofenac event, that has changed because essentially the excessive use of this chemical called diclofenac meant that it would end up in the kidneys of livestock. And once those livestock would die, the vultures would eat the carcasses, and then they would have renal failures. And there was a mass death event, which meant that the Kit suddenly became the top raptor.
Secondly, the amount of food available given the size of the landfills in Delhi means that there’s constant supply of food. Delhi in recent years the highest density of Black Kites. And of course, apart from that is the pollution itself. And I don’t think there’s a study that exactly pinpoints which precise toxins cause what kind of damage. But of course, the sheer opacity in the air, et cetera, doesn’t help.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Throughout the movie, you have all of these beautiful closeups of the birds as they roost. How did you capture these scenes that really allow you to see the faces of the Kites?
SHAUNAK SEN: Well, we spent about three years shooting it. When we began, we were very clear of one thing. We were more sure of what we did not want to do. We did not want to make a wildlife doc– I mean, in the conventional sense. And as you’ve seen in the film, it’s not just the birds, but there’s a whole panoply of nonhuman life like rats, and pigs, and snails, and horses, and so on, and so forth.
And what we decided is that we’ll use these long, slow pans, and stills, and these really languid, languorous shots. And the main idea that we had to communicate was a simultaneity of life, a kind of entanglement, or kinship, or neighborliness of life. And I think those are best communicated in these kinds of single takes where you’ve show these two kinds of life and temporality and so on stapled together in that one shot. If you look around wherever you guys are right now, there’s definitely different kinds of nonhuman life within a few hundred meters of you, right? And we’re constantly simultaneously inhabiting, especially urban ecology, like in cities. So we had to figure out this grammar of this slow, contemplative, meditative style of slow, long takes.
JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s interesting how you describe your desire to not want to make a traditional nature film. I think one hallmark of the nature film that we all grew up with is that scientists and photographers go out into nature, whatever we call nature– the African Savannah, say– and take pictures of animals in their own habitat. But what your film does is it’s showing these animals living right next to people, next to all of these people. And it shows a very different type of ecology. And I think you really succeed in making us understand that we’re part of nature, that nature is not out there, that it’s right here with us in the city of Delhi.
SHAUNAK SEN: The main problem in terms of thought is how we draw mutually exclusive binary between these things, where nature is apparently something that occurs in beaches, and forests, and under water, and not in the cities. But we know that that’s a staggeringly silly thought, right? So much of inhabited land in the world is actually urban, and it’s exponentially growing. So of course, it’s not like nonhuman life is only consigning itself to non-urban space, which is why urban ecology is so interesting.
It’s like in the film, the brothers talk about how in the cities in Delhi, they’ve noticed that certain songbirds sing over the sound of traffic to hear its mate. The city is a very dominant and aggressive driving factor for nonhuman life as well. And we have to understand that. And the film really was about interested in urban ecology.
The brothers are phenomenally skilled in terms of what they do and have incredible knowledge. But it’s a kind of knowledge that is also taken from a lived experience. It’s also as inflected by the spiritual or by the other kinds of belief systems. So they’re kind of organic intellectuals, and I think that those kinds of voices are also very obviously equally important.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m glad that you mentioned the spiritual aspect of this. I think one of the striking things about the film is the way that you show the brothers during a period of violence and unrest in their neighborhood, Muslims being targeted because of their religion. And it seemed as though these Kites were more than just birds that they could rescue. But it really was a symbol of hope. Every time they let one of these birds free, it seemed to symbolize something very powerful for them emotionally and spiritually.
SHAUNAK SEN: That is precisely why the brothers are singular to my mind because, you see, it’s as much a story of redemption and hope. And it’s not a simple-minded optimism. It’s a hard-fought, radical, and a very kind, empathetic kind of hope.
And that’s what really sets them apart, really, because essentially they see a really staggering amount of ecological devastation every day. But for them to still soldier on and do the kind of work that they’re doing is incredible because they don’t speak in the language of martyrdom or heroes. There’s a kind of, well, matter-of-fact wryness to them. There’s also levity, and joy, and laughter, and joking, and fooling around. And I think that kind of attitude is incredibly enriching to witness.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Shaunak Sen is the director of the documentary All That Breathes. It’s available to stream on HBO Max right now, and it’s also been nominated for an Oscar. Shaunak, thank you so much for joining us. And best of luck with this film at the Oscars.
SHAUNAK SEN: Thank you so much. Lovely talking.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Shaunak Sen is the director of the documentary All That Breathes. It’s available to stream on HBO Max. And next week, we’re going to be rounding up all the sciencey films that were nominated for the Oscars, from Best Picture nominees to documentaries. Please join us.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.