Conveyed with a majestic vision and reverence for the natural world, Shaunak Sen’s gorgeous, immersive documentary All That Breathes is one of the essential films of the year. Recently awarded the inaugural Indie Film Site Network Advocate Award, along with picking up much-deserved awards at Sundance and Cannes, the film follows two brothers—Nadeem and Saud—in New Delhi as they strive to protect the black kite birds amid a changing ecosystem.
On the day of the film’s U.S. theatrical opening at NYC’s Film Forum, I spoke with Sen about his cinematic vision, subverting environmental documentary tropes, what he learned from Joshua Oppenheimer, and the current journey of the brothers.
The Film Stage: To start out, can you discuss your unique approach to capturing environmental issues? There are no talking heads or infographics and by taking a very micro look at something, it makes it more universal in some ways.
Shaunak Sen: When I began filming, and through the process of when we were making it, if you’d asked me or any of the other people who were making the film if this was a film about pollution or the environment, I think all of us would have vaguely nodded our heads to say no, because our main, founding ideas was interest in human / non-human entanglements. I was interested in the kind of philosophical approach of the brothers to the world. And I was interested in the city as a space where human and non-human lives are constantly jostling cheek by jowl. More than anything it’s only obliquely about the environment in that how the film began was: for anybody who lives in Delhi, the air is a really opaque, visceral, tactile, palpable entity. And I was interested in the kind of broader, gray texture that constantly laminates our lives. That’s how I was interested.
But I suppose your question is also about grammar. A lot of the environmental discourse is the stuff that I feel less patient about because a lot of it is either pedantic—or whether it’s lecturing people or it’s a kind of gloom-and-doom thing or it feels like there’s nothing that one can do at all or this kind of bleeding-heart sentimentality about reclaiming a kind of paradisiacal lapsarianism nature. And all of these seem not very appealing to me. The brothers are interesting because they have a kind of wry resilience. They have a kind of thing about: put your head down and unsentimentally soldier on because the birds are falling and somebody has to look after them. And that’s a very interesting kind of philosophical disposition, which I was interested in. And because of all of the things that I’m saying, also, sort of change the grammar of it. Films are meant to be Trojan horses. You have to emotionally move people—even if it is the people who are on the other end of the spectrum of your beliefs, right? So this is we have to sneak in things and whisper things to the better angels of people’s nature. So of course it had to not have talking heads in a conventional sense. The idea was to make the kind of story where you felt like you were observing a world and you felt that the idea was to try and make something that was cinematic and witty and poetic and lyrical and to emotionally move people. And more than anything else, the texture had to have a kind of elegiac quality.
As a director, what’s your actual location and involvement on set when you are capturing both your subjects and this majestic environment? How do you work with the cinematographers? And what specifically was your involvement with the brothers?
I mean, there’s constant interaction. With documentary, you are sort of airdropping yourself with a bang in the thick of things of your subject’s lives, and then sort of jumping off a cliff, holding the hands of your subjects and your crew. And before you know it you are part of a fever dream and, cut to three years later, you are in another country for a premiere. That’s how it usually goes. And a lot of it is just like a freefall. Nadeem is here actually, and he’s going to be here for the release also, so he would say the same thing: well, for one, when you start shooting the first thing—especially for the kind of work that the kind of films that I’ve been trying to make—they’re not talking heads. So initially, for instance, the brothers are very media-savvy people; they sort of get ready and think that there’s an interview coming. But after a while you have to sort of try your best to communicate that the aspiration of the film is to get people to be instead of behave in front of the camera. So the idea is to try and capture some of the quotidian, humdrum, mundane everydayness. The material has to be soaked in a kind of banality. Soon they got a sense of it. Every day we would come and say “Okay, now from this point, we are the wall.” And they go, “Okay.” And then go about their work. They are also strong interlocutors in the film. We kept showing them the material. Of course, what the final film will be like, they had no idea and I had no idea because when you have 400 hours of footage, that’s a mountain that nobody knows how you’re going to chisel it down to 90 minutes. It’s like any friendship: it’s a question of active consent and conversation and it’s a question of what is okay to ask and what they’re willing to let you into.
In terms of the footage, the production—I’m sure as you can make out—we were very interested in the aesthetic in the film, the grammar of it. So if you’re shooting the whole panoply of animals, at what point it begins in and what point it ends, and then what the language, the pan will look like, exactly what the cadence of the camera will feel like, and all of that. Of course, with animals they are utterly recalcitrant to your interests or desires. So what they would do in the middle is, of course, something that was a matter of chance and contingency. [On location] I was extremely involved. I would keep whispering into the DP’s ear––be in Ben [Bernhard] or Riju [Das]––”Okay, faster…okay, slower… okay, stop.” It is constantly that kind of thing. Even if we were shooting in a very cramped space, I would have a video output outside.
You said you had over 400 hours of footage. What kind of conversations and challenges were there in the editing room? The story really beautifully weaves together the brothers’ personal and professional struggles as well as the environment. What was it like finding that balance?
So what we did with the editing was that we started editing simultaneously to the shoot in India with the co-editor Vedant Joshi. When you’re doing that, you sort of try the first 40 minutes of a loose edit and say, “Okay, this is what the problem is, so this is what it’s feeling like.” When you’re shooting you have no sense of the experience of time. And so much of when you’re shooting, you feel like this is clearly a great third-act piece and then you watch it and you feel like, no, it’s taking too long. And there’s a kind of forward momentum and pace required the minute you cross the first act. The first act has a kind of expositional exemption where you’re allowed to be a bit [free-form]. So those are things that you can’t always understand when you’re shooting or for that matter, emotionally, what two shots juxtapose well and what two shots don’t. You have no sense unless you see them together. So editing in India was very helpful.
And then we sort of teemed some of the mountain of footage down to a three-hour or two-hour, sort of a sprawling cut and took that to Denmark to work with Charlotte [Munch Bengtsen], who was a very senior and excellent editor. Also, I should say that, while shooting, our ritual for the day was to put the footage on a big TV set together, relax after the day, and just watch the footage. I was very fortunate to have this family setting and to have assistant directors who I’ve been very close to and have been working with me since my last film. So we would just sort of playfully put things together, etc. Then in Denmark, with Charlotte, the thing is that until the age of 32, she was a professional dancer and then she moved into editing. She has this kind of a playful, light touch and a choreography to the editing process. So this film was great with her being there because we had a kind of a whiteboard where we took printouts of the film of different shots, of pictures, and we put it up. And then a lot of the edit was on the whiteboard. We would ask, “How does this look?” Every day I would come to the edit suite and something new had happened. So it’s like we were looking at this jigsaw puzzle of constantly arranging, rearranging. “Do we start with the snail? Or do we start with the mosquitoes?” Constantly that kind of thing. And I think the main structure in terms of structure that Charlotte figured out is that we are constantly working between extreme compression and extreme decompression. So the tightness of the brothers’ claustrophobic house and the decompression of the vista of the city’s skies. So it was like compression, decompression. So it was a bit like inhaling and exhaling. It is a bit like breathing, which became a kind of structuring principle of the film.
I noticed Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence) is a consulting producer. Can you talk about how he came on board and what discussions you had with him?
Well, we were very fortunate and Joshua was very kind and generous. He came after the very first rough cut that we had made. He saw it and gave a lot of comments. And it really helped us sculpt and it helped me gather courage and stay at it because there’s some things he liked and there were some things that he didn’t. And it was very, very good for me to understand that some things are of value and that some things are just not working. So he came for a single session, like a long three-hour chat, and he has a giant brain and he speaks very eloquently. He’s a very good friend of Charlotte’s, and afterwards he offered to be involved in some producing capacity. And I emailed him and asked if that was okay. And he was kind enough to say yes, so I’m very grateful because that was a single meeting that I had with him when he saw the film and gave feedback, and it was supremely helpful at that stage, the feedback that he gave, and he was kind to give his name.
This film has been on such an incredible journey. As the director, what has most surprised you about the reaction and the conversations it has led to?
I wanted to see how the film would land with non-cinephile audiences because it has a certain pace and it obviously has artistic ambitions. So when I realized that I had, usually, non-cinema-loving people be very emotionally moved firstly—then, secondly, people who were absolutely disinterested in animals, ecology, and the climate were also moved by the sheer ethical force of what the brothers are doing—that also was pleasantly surprising because I realized there were other things that you could hold onto in the film and which was valuable to them. So yeah: I was worried about the pace possibly being a bit alienating. So the fact that it wasn’t was very welcome. And I always knew that the brothers’ lives were remarkable and singular enough for it to make people just be really taken in. I was not sure of how the whole parade of animals that we have in the film would land, and people seem to really enjoy that. So overall I was worried it would only speak to a niche art-cinema audience, which thankfully it hasn’t. And it doesn’t alienate somebody who’s only interested in mainstream cinema, so that’s been pleasantly surprising.
Lastly, with it being about a year since the premiere, what is the latest with the brothers and their journey? You’ve said they are still kind of financially struggling, but this film and the media attention around their mission has given it interest.
Nadeem has been traveling with us often. They all came to Cannes and went to a bunch of festivals—in Krakow, Australia. He’s now here for the New York Film Festival and the film release today. They’re strong interlocutors and representatives of the film even now. And our producers have been very kind in offering support to the hospital for the next year and possibly longer. I’m proud that that’s been an actual material, concrete help to the subjects above. And it’s of course not easy. What they’re doing really is fundamentally quixotic. They are like three Don Quixotes literally trying to find a more hopeful [future for] Delhi. So it’s not easy and it’s not materially or financially or emotionally easy. And they are still soldiering on. So a lot of the things that you see in the film are still ongoing and similar.
All That Breathes is now playing at NYC’s Film Forum and will open in LA on October 28, followed by an expansion. Learn more here.