“A Community of Air”
Bishnupriya Ghosh (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Shaunak Sen’s visceral documentary All That Breathes (2022) burst onto the international scene with a slew of accolades, including the rare honor of winning the 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary and the Golden Eye for documentary at Cannes. Inspired by Delhi’s “air sensorium” (as Sen put it, when I interviewed him), one would be hard pressed to isolate a single protagonist. It could be Delhi’s air, an elemental medium whose textures are palpable in moody greying skies populated by soaring kites (Fig.1). When Saud, the poetic narrator muses, “we are a community of air,” this medium is no doubt privileged; and yet air habitually transmutes, dissipating and thickening, into water and soils. The three opening shots immediately establish the relatedness of all elements. We start “in” the soils strewn with garbage, shot from the level of scampering rats, then open up to the skies configured by a single kite, and finally pause on flies in a pool of water that, in turn, reflects the skies. By this time, a voiceover has introduced the human protagonists, two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, who run a makeshift bird hospital in their basement (Fig.2). Tracking the brothers’ efforts to fund their wildlife rescue, this plot also features the premiere creaturely protagonists: the kites. We learn about the brothers’ upbringing that taught responsibility for all creatures; in particular, feeding kites earned religious credit (sawab). That upbringing spurred their pursuit of evolutionary thought—inquiring how kites have learned to use cigarette butts as parasite repellents, how kites that eat garbage reduce Delhi’s waste tonnage—and consequently their care of injured birds.
In Sen’s unflinching account of fraught entanglements, there aren’t any cutesy human-animal intimacies. When Salik nervously asks Saud if the kites that they treat so tenderly would eat them as dead human flesh, the answer is mockingly ambiguous: perhaps so. After all, the kite is of ferocious raptor lineage (Fig.3). But how can a filmmaker shoot this avian protagonist looking not at but with the kite? Eschewing nature documentaries that valorize animals and birds, in the interview Sen noted three strategies for shooting the birds. The most poetic one films kites swirling in the skies; without a telephoto lens, these shots pitch the spectator toward the kites’ majestic movement in depthless expanses (Fig.1). Such shots decompress us from the alternate spatial experience of compression in the tightly-framed indoor sequences set in the basement (Fig. 2). Oscillating between congestion and release only reinforces the sense of difficulty of breathing in Delhi’s air. A second strategy involves shooting the kites from the level of the birds, at their line of sight, as in Fig.6 where the human watering the open-air cage appears just as hands holding a hose. Finally, when there are extreme closeups of an avian visage where the bird meets “our” gaze, the lighting from the side retains the bird’s opacity—and its radical alterity (Fig.4).
The refusal to anthropomorphize led to a series of creative collaborations with the photography team (Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, and Saumyananda Sahi) around the lighting schema and its coordination with camera lenses. In Fig.5, we see one well-considered shot: as the birds sit huddled, injured, in the open-air cage, the partially-lit birds cannot be visually demarcated as separate objects; this refuses the proverbial colonial-modern taxonomic capture. These non-anthropomorphizing moves, respectful of species difference, accompany aesthetic choices that deliberatively enfold all creaturely life into the community of air. As Sen’s eco-aesthetic thoroughly enmeshes air, humans, and creaturely life, the “more-than-human world” (where humans are but one cog in the wheel) emerges as the true protagonist.
All That Breathes is situated in the gritty urban ecologies of Delhi (also the setting for Sen’s first feature-length documentary, Cities of Sleep, 2016). Delhi just teems, not only with human bustle, but with creaturely life—a snail, a turtle, a frog, centipedes and flies, monkeys and pigs – amid built structures and sagging infrastructure. When the camera pauses on these creatures, they are often in the foreground of rack focus shots; frantic industrial and human activities recede as blur. Niladri Shekhar Roy and Moinak Biswas’ sound recording further amps up the patter of feet, the squelch of larger bodies, the squawks and snarls, post-production delivering off-screen worlds imperceptible to the eye. Shekhar Roy’s remarkable sound design orchestrates a sonic universe that renders creaturely existence haptically palpable.
The larger question the documentary poses then is how to cinematically fabricate the more-than-human world? For those familiar with Viktor Kossakovsky’s documentaries, one finds resonances; and in interviews, Sen confirms it, naming ¡Vivan las Antípodas! (2011) as one inspiration. (Sen selected Kossakovsky’s cinematographer, Ben Bernhard, as his director of photography.) We might recall Kossakovsky’s contrapuntal shots joining places diametrically distant from each other, often through the use of reflective surfaces (Fig.7). Sen experiments with such shots partly to impart texture to the great transparency of the skies where industrial air resides. An aerial shot of water-logged streets, for instance, distances us from the earth’s dragging muddiness only to foreground the thickening air (Fig.8). In another, as the slow camera pans over water collecting on a straggling banner, it pauses on a centipede (Fig.9). We see the centipede crawl out of the frame (left top corner, Fig.9) just as the shadow of an airplane (right bottom corner) crossing the skies appears. The plot thickens: what do these iterative contrapuntal shots achieve?
Certainly, these lyrical shots provide meditative pause, a chance to notice everything entangled within the frame. More importantly, they establish a contrapuntal aesthetic for (what Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena name) the “many worlds” that make this one. Two spaces, puddle and sky, appear layered while the slow centipede and zooming airplane move at different tempos in them (Fig.9). Such an aesthetic formalizes the differential time-spaces of Delhi’s urban ecologies. Above all, the patience of the camera allows for an encounter between cinema and the “world itself,” as Sen explains it, appearing in unanticipated movements that catch the directorial eye. While the unscripted introduces contingencies into intentional filming, Sen deliberately retains some, as in the case of the airplane (Fig. 9) and the turtle (Fig.10), in the final edit. In the slow camera movement over urban waste ecologies, he is unmistakably inspired by cinema greats like Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr. One is reminded of Tarr’s ambling cows (Satantago, 1994) as Sen’s unhurried camera follows the slowest of creatures. One shot is an exquisite two minutes of turtle slowness in the foreground, as the creature (here circled in red) laboriously climbs a pile of refuse; meanwhile blurry traffic rushes by in the background (Fig.10).
These lyrical narrations syncopate the human story. Large political events enter the narrative in dribbles, mostly as soundscape: on the radio or television, and as amplified political speech fragments wafting into the street. Filmed during the first months of 2020 and of 2021, there was no escaping monumental events that impacted the brothers’ lives. Nadeem and Saud wonder about the difficulties posed by a spelling error on their father’s papers in the wake of the Citizenship Amendment ACT (CAA); family members attend the Shaheen Bagh demonstrations; the brothers join the neighborhood patrol during the Northeast Delhi riots of 2020. The main human story, however, unfolds in the brothers’ everyday interactions and daily struggles (with equipment, infrastructure, a time crunch), their soulful ruminations and practical rescue operations. The audiovisual narrations of the “world itself,” as the dangerous supplement we ignore at our peril, punctuates these stories. Those narrations are not interruptions, for the cinematic universe renders differentially textured many worlds (human, creaturely, elemental) as intimately continuous: none survives without the other, none can be privileged over the other. All That Breathes instills a keen sense of ecological relations whose complexity sometimes elude us. In this cinema of apprehension, however, they become sensuously indelible.
“Towards an Aesthesis of…Air”
Irina Leimbacher (California Institute of the Arts)
“Aisthe ̄sis (from the Greek aisthanomai, ‘to perceive’) is an elementary way of intimately relating to all perceptional dimensions of an object. . . . . An aesthesis of air . . . . would entail a sense of place and season, of the natural, urban, and social atmospheres in which we are situated. An aesthesis of air means bringing air (back) to the foreground of our perception as both object and condition of perception.” — Eva Horn
Can you hear me? The last line of Shaunak Sen’s celebrated nonfiction film All That Breathes suggests that communication is often tenuous. We see Nadeem, now in the U.S., on a cell-phone call with his brother Saud in Delhi. Saud’s image on the phone freezes. Nadeem keeps talking, then slowly realizes he isn’t being heard. He asks again: Can you hear me? Cut. The film is over. Provocatively, the question seems aimed at us as well. Can we hear what the film has just tried to say? And how might we best listen, with our bodies and our breath, through this medium of film? In interviews, Sen has stated his appreciation of films that “nudge at things obliquely.” With All That Breathes, he hoped people would “sense” what he was getting at tangentially. Indeed, his “philosophical interest in the entanglement of human and non-human life” is rendered palpable not through language but through the cinematic means he and his collaborators so carefully deploy.
These include the gracefully itinerant cinematography devoted to the non-human as much as to the human; the camera’s sensual and haptic rendering of the surfaces of animal and material worlds; the intimation of domestic, political, and ecological clashes through on- and off-screen sound; and a filmic structure and rhythm that enmeshes humans in a world of earth, water, waste, and air. Ostensibly the film is about two brothers, the above-mentioned Nadeem and Saud, and their assistant Salik, all devoted to saving black kites: birds of prey that are falling from the Delhi skies. Yet these characters are only introduced physically on-screen after more than five minutes, and their complex relationships with the birds, the city, and each other are foregrounded over their individual identities.
The film opens with a three-minute extreme close-up travelling shot through the rodent- and debris-strewn grounds of an urban park at night. We see dogs, rats, birds, mosquitoes, and sheep before seeing any human figures, who are reflected upside down in puddles on the Delhi streets. The first of the three protagonists we are introduced to on the screen is obscured by several boxes he carries and places inside a cramped basement. Later we see one carton branded “Fortune” tremble and shake before falling over, indicating some vexed life breathing within, probably one of the thousands of wounded kites that will be cared for. Even later we learn the young man with the boxes is the assistant to the two brothers. In the world of this film, humans appear as just one life form among many—complicated social creatures flanked by earth and sky, amidst other beings that crawl or scamper and those that fly.
In an article defending (and rethinking) observational filmmaking against its critics, Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz suggest that by carefully attending to the world, observational films can transform how and what we perceive. Over the last thirty years, observational methods, whether in social sciences or film, have been increasingly concerned with bodily senses and experience as well as the complex interconnections of human and nonhuman ecosystems. Grimshaw and Ravetz invoke the relational perspective of anthropologist Tim Ingold, an approach which envisages the human subject as “a complex organism enmeshed in a dense web of relationships that includes other sentient beings, non-human animals, and the material environment itself” (550). This perspective can be brought to film; and because film “foregrounds the power of sensuous detail,” what it discloses or renders is able to “enter the viewer’s consciousness and stay there” (552). In other words, observational cinema can, and sometimes does, alter our ways of perceiving, of relating to our shared world, long after a film is finished.
All that Breathes embodies such a sensuous and relational approach. Sen patiently and vividly portrays this entanglement of human and nonhuman through the film’s magnificent cinematography and the ways in which the film structure embeds his three main characters in the animal and urban realms. He allows us to visually and aurally contemplate the Delhi neighborhoods that are home, not only to the brothers but to myriad other creatures, and its skies, its ponds, its open-air waste disposal, its polluting factories, and its religious prejudice and episodes of brutal violence that seep in through sounds, media, and off-hand conversations. The regal black kites, whether in the sky, on the operating table, or in the makeshift hospital cage on the roof, are also given significant screen time, sometimes through the eyes of their caregivers but also through the autonomous eye of the camera. We learn to experience this world circuitously, perceiving its materiality and density from the camera’s micro and macro perspectives, but always relationally. Everything is interconnected.
With its passages of poetic voice-overs, occasional ethereal music accompanying the soaring kites (an error of judgment in this viewer’s opinion), and the inclusion of striking, elaborate cinematography, All that Breathes is not observational cinema by any 1960s standard. This approach to observation relies on the highly crafted and salient image to seize our attention, to shift our perception. Truth as immediacy or as “human interest” is not its aim. Sen acknowledges throwing away eight months’ worth of footage when he decided the piece needed a different cinematographer (Ben Bernhard) with a slower, more deliberate and contemplative gaze. The result of so much time already spent in the world of his subjects, however, is their relative ease and intimacy, in spite of the invisible cinematic apparatus that smoothly glides and silently racks focus.
The lack of primacy given to any single character is also fundamental to Sen’s emphasis on entanglement. Characters are never named on screen, and we must decipher the relations among the main three and the extended family that shares the brothers’ home. For those having to read subtitles, the identity of the speaker (one or both of the brothers) in the handful of philosophical voiceovers, is ambiguous. And it is not the brothers, but Salik — the enthusiastic young apprentice featured on the film’s poster — who is the first to appear. He is one among other figures in the crowded street, with his face concealed by the boxes he is carrying. His frequent ingenuous questions in the film – both about birds and about South Asian politics – are crucial to conveying the collective project and the complex fraternal relationship between Nadeem and Saud as well as giving the film occasional comic relief. Nadeem appears after Salik, inhaling a steam pot and complaining about a sore throat, one of many indications throughout the film of the noxious air pollution in Delhi which effects his family’s health and their ability to be outdoors. Over the course of the film, Sen presents a complex and insightful portrait of the brothers, former body builders and purveyors of soap dispensers who fell in love with kites as adolescents. Nadeem is philosophical, melancholic, ambitious, and sometimes impatient; Saud, seemingly happier and gentler, is deeply attached to his brother. The rescuing of kites has become their life mission as they transform their basement and roof into an aviary hospital and sanctuary. They sometimes argue, get exasperated, and wound each other amidst the stresses of increasing levels of air pollution, dying birds, need for financial support, and government-endorsed ethnic violence against Muslims in their Delhi neighborhood.
The film’s title, All That Breathes, comes from the brothers’ conversation about their mother. In voice-over, Nadeem says she imbued them with respect for all creatures and the belief that “one shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes.” The quest to save more and more of the predator kites falling from Delhi’s skies may seem quixotic when human life seems difficult enough, given contaminated air and lethal politics. And yet why not choose to devote oneself to something that makes sense only as a form of entangled inter-species care? In cinematically embodying this dedication to other creatures that share our atmosphere, our air, Sen brings attention to our mutual interrelatedness, and to this increasingly toxic air that must sustain us all. In that way the film embodies what Eva Horn has called an “aesthesis of air” — an exploration (and perhaps a transformation) of our sensory perception and attention to the atmosphere. For Horn, in this era of crisis, we must bring air “from a state of latency into manifestation” making it available for us to consider in new ways (21). Like Horn, Sen and his protagonists would like to “enable us to become sensible to our being as being in the air” (24). Can we hear them? Are we listening?