Director Shaunak Sen says his award-winning film All That Breathes can be seen as “a kind of love story between man and bird.”
The birds in question are black kites – a type of raptor – that float in plentiful numbers in the skies over Delhi, India. The men he refers to are brothers Mohammad and Nadeem, who have taken on the role of rehabilitating black kites and other birds that increasingly suffer in the city’s choking air pollution. Dreadful air quality has become a fact of life for creatures both avian and human.
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“When you live in Delhi, you’re constantly thinking of the air,” Sen said during an appearance at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary event. “The air itself is a palpable, visceral, tactile, heavy and gray phenomenon and kind of a texture of grayness constantly laminates your life.”
The film, winner of top prizes for documentary at Sundance and Cannes, shows the brothers and their young assistant Salik nursing ailing birds back to health in a dank basement of a building that doubles as a machine shop. Sen describes their efforts as “micro gestures of radical hope,” adding, “I find that as a kind of life raft to think about the current times. And every bird that flies off that cage after falling down is a bit of a tiny miracle. And I think there’s great importance in… putting your head down and soldiering on despite what’s happening” to the environment.
Despite spending a great deal of time in the makeshift rehab center, the director says he kept something of a safe distance between himself and the recovering birds.
“Remember that these are not cute songbirds,” he noted. Rather, they’re “big, magisterial and often ferocious raptors. These birds can mess you up, they have really sharp talons. And of course, these guys have acquired a level of expertise that’s difficult to imagine over many years. I still haven’t reached a point of comfort with them.”
Check back Wednesday for the panel video.