Review: ‘All That Breathes,’ starring Nadeem Shehzad, Mohammad Saud and Salik Rehman

Salik Rehman in “All That Breathes” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe)

“All That Breathes”

Directed by Shaunak Sen

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Delhi, India, the documentary film “All That Breathes” features a group of working-class Indian men involved in rescuing pollution-affected and injured birds, especially black kites.

Culture Clash: The members of this rescue group face obstacles such as civil unrest in India, a shortage of funds, and some disagreements about the direction of the group, when one of the members wants to relocate to the United States.

Culture Audience: “All That Breathes” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional documentaries about animal rescue groups and the environment.

A scene from “All That Breathes” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe)

With immersive cinematography, “All That Breathes” offers contemplative moments that tell more than just a documentary story about rescuing birds. Viewers can look at the bigger picture of how people’s decisions on what to save can affect our ecosystem. Rather than preaching what people should think, “All That Breathes” lets the story unfold so that viewers can make up their own minds by watching this moving and effective story about humanity and nature.

Directed by Shaunak Sen, “All That Breathes” focuses on a specific group of people in a specific place, but the themes in the movie are universal. The movie centers on three men involved in the grassroots group Wildlife Rescue, which was founded in 2010 by two brothers who live in Delhi, India. Older brother Nadeem Shehzad is the group’s intellectual leader, who plans to temporarily relocate to the United States to get more training on animal rescuing. Younger brother Mohammad Saud (who prefers to be called Saud) is the most extroverted member of the group featured in the documentary.

Nadeem (who gives voiceover narration) and Saud have had a specialty in rescuing birds, particularly black kites. As Needem says in a voiceover, they were teenage bodybuilders when they first noticed an injured bird. They took the bird to a veterinary clinic, which refused to give the bird medical treatment because it wasn’t a “vegetarian bird.”

The brothers’ bodybuilding experience gave them some knowledge of bandaging muscles and treating injuries, so they rescued the bird and gave it medical treatment on their own. It led to the formation of Wildlife Rescue, a makeshift animal sanctuary/clinic, which they operate out of their home with a great deal of compassion and care. The brothers have since rescued thousands of birds that have been sick or injured. Because of Delhi’s rampant air pollution, there’s been a crisis of black kites and other birds being afflicted with pollution-related diseases and injuries.

A third person who’s part of the Wildlife Rescue is Salik Rehman, who started volunteering for the group in 2010, and he officially became a staffer in 2017. The documentary shows that Nadeem has taken on most of the administrative duties, while Saud and Salik do most of the “leg work” in going out and rescuing birds that need help. Salik is not as confident as Saud, who often trains Salik or gives him encouragement when Salik wants to do something where he feels he doesn’t have enough experience.

Of the three men, Salik is the most tech-savvy, almost to a fault. Nadeem says in a voiceover, “Salik belongs to the digital age. He doesn’t understand mercury monitors.” Salik is also the one who’s the most caught up in social media. He has an easygoing, sometimes goofy personality that can lighten the mood when things get grim. And things do get very grim.

During their rescue efforts, the members of this tight-knit group of Muslims grow uneasy about the increasing civil unrest in India, where Muslims are being targeted over citizenship issues. Just as the black kites and other birds are at risk of being displaced from the sky because of air pollution, so to do the Wildlife Rescue team start to feel that toxic elements are making them uncomfortable about where they live. It shouldn’t be lost on viewers of this documentary why the members of this Wildlife Rescue Group can relate to the animals that are under siege from life-threatening factors.

If “All That Breathes” were a conventional nature documentary, it would go into much more detail about the technical aspects of these rescue efforts. And there would probably be at least one bird who would get its own story and possibly even a pet name. Although some information is given about black kites (for example, they use cigarette butts as repellents to attacking insects), and there are some scenes of birds getting medical treatment, this isn’t a documentary where viewers will learn a lot of about ornithology. After all, Wildlife Rescue is not a group of scientists.

“All That Breathes” has made the rounds at several film festivals, including the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (where the movie won the jury prize for World Cinema Documentary), the 2022 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie won the GoldenEye Award, the festival’s top documentary prize) and the 2022 New York Film Festival. The movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and gives a lot of screen time to showing visually striking scenes of the beauty and the grime of a crowded big city such as Delhi. If the point of “All That Breathes” isn’t made clear enough, Nadeem sums it up when he says in a voiceover, “Life is a kinship. We are a community of air.”

Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe in association with HBO Documentary Films will release “All That Breathes” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. HBO will premiere the movie in 2023, on a date to be announced.

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