Shaunak Sen on ‘All That Breathes’: It is not a direct political film, but purely an ecological film

As his documentary soars at the international festival circuit, filmmaker Shaunak Sen discusses its mood, metaphors and underlying politics

Updated - February 16, 2023 12:36 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2022 02:06 am IST

Shaunak Sen

Shaunak Sen | Photo Credit: Chris Pizzello

Shaunak Sen has landed in India but the win at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival is yet to sink in. After winning the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, his documentary, All That Breathes, has won the prestigious L’Oeil d’ Or, the top prize for documentaries at Cannes.

The Delhi boy, who studied the craft at Jamia Millia Islamia and is presently doing his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, says he feels honoured his film was screened alongside the masters whose works he admired and studied during his growing up years.

A creative non-fiction, the mood piece follows the lives of siblings Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud who rescue and treat black kites in the dilapidated basement of their house in Wazirabad, Delhi. Through them, the documentary looks at the environmental and social decay in the political capital of the country through man-animal relationships and their interdependence

Keen to hold a screening in their neighbourhood in Wazirabad as soon as they catch a breath from all the international attention, Shaunak talks about the visual grammar of the film. Edited excerpts:

How did the film come about?

I was interested in the visceral, heavy, opaque, greyness of the air we experience in Delhi. I have a philosophical interest in the human-animal relationship, especially in birds. I was very interested in the figure of a grey, monotone heavy sky in which these birds float like tiny dots and the dreamy image of a bird falling off the sky.

 A still from ‘All That Breathes’

 A still from ‘All That Breathes’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When I started looking for people who have a deeper meaningful engagement with birds or the skies, I chanced upon the work of the brothers. The minute I met them in the remarkable basement, with industrial decay on one side and these regal-looking birds on the other, I immediately sensed it is an inherently cinematic place. The film became a kind of free-fall, afterwards. It was three years of the rigorous long-winded shoot.

How did you arrive at the enchanting visual language and background narration?

We eschewed the usual style of using a telephoto lens to film a bird in the sky. With German cinematographer Benjamin Bernhard, we shot the simultaneous co-existence of the non-human life in the city. We developed a particular film grammar where we shot long takes with slow languorous tilt downs and pans. The main thing was, we decided we won’t cut.

The shots of rats in the beginning and turtles and the snail thereafter, essentially juxtapose some elements of the urban with the animal life in the city.

I had a diary full of things the brothers had told over two years. As it was obviously a kind of stylised piece, I decided to take out the best lines, compress them, and then those lines are spoken in the voice-over bits. Those are not directly interviewed recordings but things they have said and I stylistically plotted them.

Why have you used camera techniques that are usually used to orchestrate fiction?

As it was a small space with very predictable movements, we could not try cranes and tracks. It would not be correct to draw a division between what is fiction and what is non-fiction technique. In the last few years, in creative non-fiction, a lot of these styles have been used. For example, Russian master Viktor Kossakoveskyuses these techniques quite often.

Everyday birds come in boxes, they are treated in the basements and are taken to enclosures on the rooftop. Obviously, it was possible for us to predict movements and have a sense of inner rhythms and cadences of movements in it. That is how we discovered the pacing of the camera and the movements that will work. So, we kept trying these slow, poetic movements.

Apart from the ecological concerns, the film also hints at the sociopolitical decay...

It is not a direct political film, but purely an ecological film that deals with the relationship between man and bird and the internal emotional struggle between the brothers. The brothers themselves are not political in the conventional sense. I wanted to fully respect that.

When you are shooting for a long period, there would be some things that would start emerging from the background. You vaguely sense that there is some sense of turbulence in the city in a few scenes. I disagree with the characterisations that frame it as a very prominent thread. It needs to be sensed as the wallpaper of their lives.

Tell us about your love for the documentary form

 Non-fiction is more hospitable and accommodating of personal interests and films that are made on a small scale. I got exposed to the documentary circuit and DocedgeKolkata [a forum for documentary filmmakers], and familiarised myself with different grammar and vocabularies. Once I made my first documentary, I decided to practise it more.

How was the experience of working with an international crew?

You try and work with whoever you think will best do the job. The direction crew is from Delhi as we needed people who could understand the colloquial contexts of Delhi. For shooting, Benhard was somebody I truly admired. I thought some of the styles that we were trying needed his calibre and inputs. Alongside him, there was an Indian DP as well.

In the editing team, we have Vedant Joshi as the co-editor who worked on The Disciple. But for the longer edit, we went to Denmark to work with master editor Charlotte Munch Bengtsen who has worked onThe Truffle Hunters and The Act of Killing. I was really fascinated by some of the structural logic she brings into her edits.

What’s next?

l I am a bit scared of the behemoth that is Bollywood. I have worked with the same set of people in Delhi who are like family. I watch a lot of fiction and my next is most likely to be a fiction film, though I am not clear yet what it would be about.

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