New Delhi: Delhi-based filmmaker Shaunak Sen’s documentary All That Breathes has bagged the prestigious L’OEil d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. Also called The Golden Eye, it is the biggest documentary award at the festival. The 90-minute long documentary follows siblings Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who have devoted their lives to rescue and treat injured birds, especially the Black Kites. The Delhi brothers become the central focus of Sen’s film and their story documents a larger snapshot of the city, where the air is toxic and the ground is on a slow burn of social turmoil.
Your last documentary Cities of Sleep focuses on seeing Delhi through the prism of sleep and the mafia around it, you have traveled quite a bit since then, In All That Breathes, you focus on wild creatures living in Delhi and a rehabilitation center dedicated to saving them. What made you zero in on telling a story about these two brothers and their work with Kites.
Shaunak Sen: The brothers came eventually. Before that, the girl sort of started with the triangulation of three things. Firstly, I was interested in this texture of greyness that one encounters in the city constantly. The air is a kind of heavy, concrete, tactile. I was interested in that kind of finding that sort of decennial quality in the air. Apart from that, you have this hazy grey monotone sky that is laminating the city entirely. In this sky, there are small black dots, which are the black kites. I was interested in this figure of the world that’s falling off the sky and it felt, in the first instance apocalyptic, but above and beyond, it is some kind of a metaphor for the ecological malaise of the city. Apart from that, I was also very interested in the human-animal relationship, as a sight philosophical query, I was conceptually interested in it. I started looking for people who have a deep or profound relationship with the sky or birds. That’s when I encountered the work of the brothers. Once you have gone to their house and their damp basement, it is very inherently cinematic. The sheer bipolarity of those two places, I got very interested in those brothers because they have a philosophical disposition towards climate change that felt to me very refreshing and different. A lot of environmental discourse is either saddled with sentimentalism or has a reek bloom and gloom narrative towards the inevitable apocoplsype that we are heading towards. The brothers are the kind of front row seats to the apocalypse, literally treating birds falling off the sky. but they have a rye resilience and a ‘put your head down and get to work’ kind of an attitude, which felt very refreshing to me. I shot them nonstop for three years while also shooting the wildlife in the city. Once you begin, it is a freefall.
What were your thoughts on making them the main subjects of your film and what angle to take in the story?
Shaunak Sen: These things always seem bigger in prospect but suffer in retrospect. When you begin, what happens is that you have a conceptual scaffolding that is undergirding everything that you are doing. For me I was interested in the air, the experience of the air, this vague sense of being on the brink of some kind of collapse, like how we all feel with the environment. But it is also a city that is deeply loved and is embedded in the vernacular culture. So it is laced with affection, interest, and engagement. Alongside this were the brothers and their surreal life every day. So we started shooting like that but my interest was not in making a pedantic observational documentary that is purely sociological, but my interest was in making something that is cinematic, poetic, lyrical, and interested in denser philosophical questions. These brothers’ lives are ripped with it. I had a very good fortune of working with a German cinematographer and an Indian cinematographer. The structure we decided on was to stick to this tiny dingy basement where the brothers work with the injured birds and that cuts to the broader vistas of the city itself. We keep the homing in on the very specific and particular lives of the brothers and zooming out to the broader vistas of the city. That kind of extreme compression and decompression was the grammar of the film.
What were some of you learning in terms of the importance of Kites in an urban landscape like Delhi? What are the issues facing these predatory birds?
Shaunak Sen: Delhi has the densest population in the world of Black Kites right now. That has to do with a lot of food because of landfills. Its urban career is thriving but it is also increasing day by day. Urban ecology is a fascinating thing right now because more of the world is becoming urbanised and whenever we think of nature it is about jungles, but not the city, today the city is the foundational place where behavioural and evolutionary changes are being triggered and activated in animal lives. Songbirds are singing at a higher pitch so that their mates can hear them over the sound of traffic. Behaviour of species is changing due to urbanisation.
You’ve said in the past that the film began as a project only to uncover the stories of these two brothers but ended up being about our fragile ecosystem.
Shaunak Sen: I don’t think it was ever about covering the brothers’ lives. I was interested in the broader issues of ecology, human-animal relations, and the relationship between the sky and the city of Delhi NCR. The brothers became vectors and the specificity of their lives was a blunt force that overpowers everything. That’s how the film began. What was truly exciting is that I began with a simple question – why do the brothers do what they do? And I don’t think even they have an answer, the film was an explanation of that. I wanted people to walk out of the theatre and look at the sky, I want to enchant the sky. I have received messages from people after Sundance and Cannes Festivals saying whenever we see birds in the sky now, we think of your film, that’s the kind of thing I am interested in.
Do you think documentary filmmakers can help raise awareness about such social and ecological issues through their lenses?
Shaunak Sen: I think it’s about how you use the word message. I hate the word solution, as the film is not meant to be a solution. The film has to move people and not be immediately transparent in terms of what it is saying. Over time, you orient your vision to see the world a bit differently.
In the larger discourse around climate change are we missing the significance of the role other species, like birds, and insects, play in maintaining the fragile ecological balance?
Shaunak Sen: Of course. I think one of the problems is that it is overtly humanist. In that, it sees the causal agent also as being the most significant. Somebody in the film says that we are all a community of air and I think it is good to hold on to such messages. One has to decenter the human as the absolute reference point.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.