Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2023 12:57 pm 
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"One shouldn't differentiate between all that breathes"

This is a remarkable documentary that, while appearing unpretentious and ordinary and really quite drab on the surface, unfolds entirely in its own way, with its own look, feel, edits, and rhythms and tinkly orchestral score. One doesn't even like to call it a "documentary." It's a film. It draws us into its world and in doing so it takes its time. Often a great documentary creeps up on you and must be a slow gathering of details, a gradual astonishment. So it is with All That Breathes. I had a sense that this would be special since missing it in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival, and it turned out even better than expected.

All That Breathes is a film about three men in perhaps one of the worst parts of the city of Delhi. Brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, and Salik Rehman, their cousin who works with them are all of Muslim origin. Things are becoming discriminatory under the Hindu nationalist and increasingly dictatorial Narendra Modi and if they're outlawed, they muse, they haven't the credentials that would get them into Pakistan. Their life project is saving black kites. These birds replace vultures in consuming waste. Mountains of garbage would grow without them. More of them are falling from the sky: the air of Delhi is the most polluted in the world, for the birds, as for humans, increasingly unsustainable, but it may be their numerousness and proximity to the millions of the city that is their undoing.

The brothers are sometimes grumpy with each other and break out in verbal battles. But they say it's not them. It's what's happening in the sky that causes these little fracases. Mostly they work peacefully together. They have done so since they were "teenage bodybuilders" and discovered the kites and their need for first aid, and they applied information on muscles and tendons they'd gathered that way to the muscles and tendons of the birds. As boys they'd been taken to throw meat to the kites by their father, and knew it was deemed good luck. As youths they'd rescued small animals but they gradually focused on kites because regular bird hospitals rejected them for being meat eaters. Now their bird hospital is incorporated as a charity called "Wildlife Rescue."

They also assemble soap dispensers for income, and the older brother, toward the end, goes to the States to study for a while, leaving brother and cousin to hold the fort till he returns. We have glimpsed and heard of violence and houses set afire quite nearby as well as demonstrations against violence. The brothers work on. Their urgent effort to save the kites is a still point of reason and wholeness in what we may dimly perceive as an apocalyptic and crumbling capitol city. A motif of the artfully askew All That Breathes is the oneness of men, and the unity of man and nature, which here seem both impossible, and inevitable. Beside a torn up street, a terrapin crawls. Along a flooded street, cattle walk. We even glimpse a wild pig. Nature is alive and well after all in this overpopulated city.

An unseen eye and an unseen voice and a camera that likes to slide slowly across a scene provide us with views of the brothers and their work surroundings. The first thing one may notice is hands holding one of the big birds and the firm, gentle, practiced touch. Placing the bird somewhere, carefully. Prying apart the feathers to examine a wound, a weak limb, a spot of blood.

Their digs are shabby but somehow cozy. The younger, thinner cousin, Salik Rehman, is on a balcony when a kite comes by and grabs his glasses. It flies off with them. It does not come back. He talks about those lost glasses for a while, rather to his cousin's annoyance. Another time two of the guys strip and swim out into the river to rescue a wounded kite that will be eaten shortly if they doh't save it. Nadeem Shehzad directs them. Surprisingly, the seemingly more fit Salik runs out of energy and panics, caught in the middle of the water. But they make it back.

As suggested, these activities in themselves may seem inconsequential, but it's the focus they show, and the patient rhythm. It turns out the black kites of Delhi are often injured by glass-coated strings used for the other, human, sort of kites, those flown in the air by people. The birds of prey have grown more numerous due to large slaughterhouses in the city. (I get this and much more from a copiously illustrated local article in CitySpidey They are falling out of the sky in greater and greater numbers, but also this bird hospital is known to more and more people. Selek Rehman is bringing more and more of the cardboard boxes used to hold the sick or injured birds every day. A NYTimes article helps get more funding and a lovely white "open cage" up on the roof has been created.

The work at Wildlife Rescue strives for non-invasiveness, for preservation. The style of this film likewise is to help things along without ever seeming to intrude. It's an unusual combination, and the gentle tuning in to the naturalist's view is unusual too. All That Breathes lives up to that cliché: it takes you somewhere you've never been before. I wouldn't want to tell you too much about it, but there's no danger: no review can capture the unique style and mood of this lovely and thought-provoking film.

All That Breathes, 97 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2022, winning the Grand Jury Documentary Prize, and it went to Cannes, winning the the Golden Eye best documentary prize May 28. Numerous festivals, awards, and nominations followed, including showing Oct. 11 & 12 in the the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival. It will be released on HBO Feb. 7, 2023. Screened as part of the Mostly British Film Festival, San Francisco (Feb. 9-16, 2023). Metacritic rating: 86%.

"Democracy Now"interview with Shaumak Sen about the film.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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