by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
All That Breathes is said to be a documentary, and it almost is. It is a Hindi-language film directed by Shaunak Sen and coproduced by him, Aman Mann and Teddy Leifer for Rise Films. I say almost a documentary because it goes beyond recording to make philosophical and moral points, elides some realities, and hints at a dramatic issue. The film has won worldwide awards at Cannes Film Festival and Sundance as well as ratings in the high nineties by both critics and audiences by the Rotten Tomato ratings aggregating service.
The dramatic center is the relationship between two brothers, joined in a heroic effort that is on the edge of collapse: saving Black Kites, raptors that abound in Delhi. The elided issue is that a very frequent cause of the raptors’ injuries is the use of manja, kite strings with glass imbedded used in the ironically named kite flying/warring sport popular in Delhi. Manja is not only a hazard to the raptors, but also to humans flying the kites and, especially, to riders of the rapidly moving two-wheelers that crowd Delhi streets.
The two brothers, Mohammed Saud and Nadeem Shehad, are conjoined not just by blood, but by one of what C. S. Lewis describes as one of the four basic loves: a shared dedication. The New York Times chronicled that dedication in a 2020 article headlined Meet the Bird Medics of New Delhi. You can read it at www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/science/kites-birds-conservation-india.html. Arguably, the article sparked the transformation of the brothers’ rescue effort from a personal mission to an international charity with its own website www.raptorrescue.org.
A key dramatic element in the film is the decision of the younger brother, Mohammed, to emigrate to the United States, leaving his older brother—along with a few helpers—to the hands-on struggle to save birds. Nadeem, whose wife, Tabassum, does what she can while caring for their two children, tries to support his efforts, but she makes it clear that she fears he is “ruining his life.” Although Mohammad says he can contribute to the effort from abroad, his brother clearly feels abandoned, reflected in a key scene, the “freezing” of an international facetime call between the two.
The film’s central focus is on the interconnectedness of all living things—everything that breathes. It works to underscore the point that our planet is a shared space. It also sees a paradox. One of the brothers, I think Nadeem, remarks that humans’ speciesism makes them the loneliest species. I don’t know Shaunak Sen’s religious beliefs, but the film seems to be a testimony to ahimsa, a Hindu commitment to non-violence, respect for all things that breathe. I found that moving.
Perhaps less centrally, the film also involves human perversities—dangerous kite war celebrations that persist despite injuring human and non-human creatures so seriously that they became technically illegal, and riots in which professors of non-violence attack non- believers. These are the kinds of self-destructive behaviors that make a Freudian death instinct persuasive.